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Real Fiction

Updated: Jun 15, 2020

Okay Folks. You've seen a lot of stuff about writing fiction. But where's the fiction? Writing programs like to focus on short stories not novels, Novels, while they're put together, are long and messy. Writing a novel is like running a marathon, It's not for writers starting out, Short stories are not lacking in sophistication, but represent a good way for all of us to work on our craftmanship. Also they introduce us to the world of publication, and if we're diligent and lucky, we can brag about our short stories that have been published, Part of our vaunted "platform," (more about that later).

It's published in the fall 2019 issue of Goldman Review. This journal is an annual publication (hard copy and e-copy) for west coast authors, Free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers. Email me if you want more info on any of the above.

Aidan and His Therapist h. william taeusch

Much appreciated for her no-nonsense directive counseling, Sylvia Cohen, a sought-after psychotherapist in Santa Barbara, suffered from her recent breakup with Joshua, her boyfriend of two years. He wanted kids. She didn’t. She already had one, who didn’t like Joshua. Her Sam was a mood-swinging twelve-year-old, interested in fishing.

Joshua, no dummy, before—or was it because—he became her ex-boyfriend, had taken Sylvia and Sam out on a boat-for-hire, trolling off the Channel Islands. That was Joshua. He did things for Sylvia, it seemed, only in order to get something from her. This time, Joshua remained in the back of the boat inhaling diesel fumes and vomiting over the side while Sylvia helped Sam pull in a respectable salmon. So she changed her status on Facebook to irrevocably unattached. Two weeks later, she couldn’t get the lyrics of the oldie out of her head, “Every night I hope and pray a dream lover will come my way.”

So when Aidan, with his black curls, a patient who looked like a young Daniel Day-Lewis, it was no wonder Sylvia felt a tickle in her third chakra. He worked at Kinkos in the back office, had some friends mainly at work, no girlfriend, no boyfriend, lived alone in a condo overlooking the Channel Islands. Didn’t use drugs, drank a little alcohol, smoked some pot. And he cut his forearms, watched the blood well up in a series of crimson beads, and contemplated cutting again, deeper. It was a habit, he said, that had started in the past year after he flunked out of graduate school.

Later that week, among the junk mail that fell through the slot in her front door, she found a handwritten letter from Aidan: Dear Sylvia Cohen, LCSW Licensed Clinical

Social Worker, who I think of frequently.

I thought about you after our visit when I wanted to cut myself again. And then I didn’t. Why? I don’t know though we talked about it. Sometimes my mind wandered when we talked. But my heart fills with warmth and positive feelings. For life. And for you. Your office is such a safe place. And you emanate such warmth and understanding. It’s like nothing I’ve ever felt before. It reminds me of that poem by Auden about truth or love or something...

When it comes, will it come without warning Just as I’m picking my nose? Will it knock on my door in the morning, Or tread in the bus on my toes?

Don’t be alarmed. I’m not a stalker. Not a nut. Well...not a nut who would hurt others. It’s me who’s out of whack, but when I run on the beach, I think of you. That helps immensely (both the running and the thinking). Okay, I looked it up in the ethical guidelines for sex of course, but they allow appropriate touching! Though they don’t define what that may be. I look forward to next Tuesday. Fondly, Aidan

She felt no real threat. The letter amused her—a young guy infatuated with her. What was not to like? His letter had humor, self-deprecation, and even Auden. This had happened before with a male client or two. Aidan had to be no more than thirty; she was thirty-six. Aware of her feelings—what she was trained for—she knew how to handle it.

During the next week, Sylvia saw her other patients, mostly errant teenagers, their hormones out of control, craving the attention offered by an adult—an adult who listened to what they said. Joshua emailed and wanted to be friends, maybe more. Wasn’t going to happen. With some effort, she didn’t think about Aidan’s letter, which was over the line by discussing the line. Aidan had Joshua’s big expressive eyes. She buried that thought. Life moved too fast these days for her to take the time to shrink herself down.

The following Tuesday, after some consideration, she chose the beige silk shirt to wear under a cashmere cardigan, no earrings. She wiggled into a black skirt that stopped above the knees but, after a quick glance in the mirror, took it off and pulled out a longer pleated skirt that complement- ed her figure. Modest, less alluring, acceptable. Nothing wrong with liking attention. Heels only moderately high. And the jade ring that Sam’s father had given her. For a necklace, on a simple gold chain, a golden apple with a small bite out, a reminder of Eve’s sin and a gift from the retailer who sold her a new computer.

Aidan was her first patient of the day. Traffic was heavy on 101 North. She’d left plenty of time, but the steering of her Toyota hatchback slowly became mushy, and she pulled over to the right lane. Something was wrong. Maybe a wheel was coming off. She exited the freeway and popped open her door, causing a motorcycle to swerve. The leathered rider gave her the finger. Rattled, Sylvia went around on the gravel berm where she saw the rear tire was flat. She pulled her cell phone from her purse and fished out her Triple-A card. Though she reached a dispatcher immediately, it would be at least fifteen minutes before help came. She slammed the phone down on the car seat in frustration, but then thought to call her office to apologize to Aidan and reschedule the next two in case she was an hour late. She dialed her office number, and nothing happened. She tried again and the phone emitted a plaintive bleep, signifying the juice was gone; the battery had died.

She had no charger in the car.

Over an hour later, she rushed into her office waiting room, hot and dust blown. Aidan was there of course, reading an old Men’s Health magazine promising spectacular abs. There was a cardboard Starbucks container next to him with two tall cups.

“Aidan,” she said, the last person she wished to see before she could get into the bathroom and fix her face and brush her hair. “I’m so sorry. It was an emergency. Give me a minute.” He nodded and smiled his smile, both knowing and childlike.

Minutes later, Sylvia settled down across from Aidan in her office. She refused his offer of the coffee he’d brought for her, now cold. He, too, may have dressed with care: a blue dress shirt, tight black jeans, and boat shoes without socks. No watch, no rings, no piercings. In their two prior sessions, she’d learned that he had a college degree in mathematics from USC.

“Maybe we should start where we left off after our last session,” she said.

“Not about my letter to you?” “We’ll get to that. But for now, there’s more to talk about why the cutting.” “That’s why I’m here.” “Not to stop it?” “It seems harmless enough. So far.” He rolled up his sleeves. On each arm light welts ran up his forearms like a tattoo of flowerless stems. They emerged from what appeared like a small pot—deeper slashes crisscrossing both wrists. “Doesn’t look so harmless to me. You see a doctor for that?” No obvious cuts had been added since his last visit. “Use Polysporin. My dad’s a doctor. Not serious if it doesn’t get infect- ed.” His father was a new subject. “You discussed cutting with your father?”

“God, no.” “Why not?” “He’s a neurosurgeon. Cuts people’s brains open.” There were many directions Sylvia could take from here. “Interesting.” “Evan from work noticed it,” Aidan said. “He’s done it too, as a teenager. Said he did it to hurt himself. But I don’t want to hurt myself. Just need to do it sometimes.” “When are the sometimes?” she asked. “When I’m alone with too much time on my hands,” he answered. As if he’d rehearsed for her. “I thought that’s when boys, excuse me, men masturbated,” she said, surprising herself. Talk about compulsion. Why did she let the direction of her thoughts drive his session? Someone’s insurance company was paying good money for her professionalism. Aidan blushed. “That too.”

They spent the next half hour exploring Aidan’s self-image, his feelings about his job, and his relationship with his father. There was time enough remaining. Sylvia penciled an arrow heading for a question mark in her notebook. She heard the susurrus of late morning traffic.

“Maybe now we should talk about your letter.” She reached for the cold coffee on the end table next to Aidan and took a sip. “If you like.” Sylvia hesitated. It shouldn’t be about what she liked. It should be about what he needed. But what if she was what he needed, and... She brushed away the sense of a cobweb prickling her. Aidan rose from his chair and wiped the back of her neck, his hand like a caress. She startled. “What...” “A bug. Crawled up your shoulder. Sorry,” he said. Was it? Was he? He didn’t look sorry. She took a breath. Where were they? “Your letter? It was...nice,” she said. “And it shows you thought about boundaries between patients and therapists.” Back on firm ground. “You know about transference, I assume?”

Aidan kept his eyes on her with unwavering male attention. He recited from memory: “In a therapy context, transference refers to redirection of a patient’s feelings for a significant person to the therapist. It is often manifested as an erotic attraction towards a therapist.” She couldn’t resist being charmed. “That’s very impressive.” “Just Wikipedia, not the original sources.” “Aidan. Do you think your letter represents transference?” “Of course it does. As do many feelings when getting to know someone.” Sylvia picked up the pencil and made a smiley face in her notebook. But she needed to be serious. “So who do you think of when you think about me?” “Diana.” “Is she a friend, a family member?” “Neither. A goddess.” Aidan’s voice remained emotionless, but with his eyes, his dark eyes, he appeared as if he were systematically appreciating her face, hair, clothes, breasts, waist, thighs, calves, and ankles, and even her Ferragamos that she’d scuffed on the gravel by the side of the freeway. She perspired lightly. “Help me out here,” she said. “Is this Diana an old girlfriend? Tell me about her.” “No. A real goddess. Artemis in Greek. The pale moon goddess of chastity and the chase. She could tame wild animals. Patroness of Wiccans.” Chastity? Wiccans? He was wasting their time, playing with her. “I guess that will give us more than enough to talk about next time.” Aidan looked up at her with an expression of irritated hurt, as if she were mocking him. Perhaps she was. The confused little pisher. Why hadn’t he picked her as Hero to his Leander, Ariadne, or Venus, instead of the cold huntress, Diana?

“That’s our hour, Aidan. I think we’ve made some progress today.” A boilerplate closer. So what if she liked a young man who liked her.

He stood to leave, stretched his arms out to his side, and rolled his neck. She repressed the impulse to leap out of her chair and into his arms, press her cheek against his chest, smell his bare skin. Instead she said, “I have a suggestion. Why don’t you write me another letter, and we can talk about it at our next appointment?” “Another? I thought you were mad at me today. The talk about boundaries. I thought maybe I overstepped.” He looked hopeful. “Just write down whatever you’re feeling during the week. It may open up some opportunities.” The last was wrong. Just slipped out. Sylvia bit her lip. Aidan stumbled on the throw rug as he left her office.

The following week, Aidan didn’t show for his appointment. He didn’t call, even though she waited in the office for over half an hour, the last appointment of the day, his. At his previous visit, she should have run the screen for suicide risk.

“Sylvia!” Her Sunday walk to the beach had taken her by the kiosks selling art and handicrafts along Shoreline Drive. Aidan waved at her and came up hurriedly. “My fault. Major apology. Missing our last appointment.” Despite herself, Sylvia felt pleasure at his “our” rather than “my.” But he’d missed the appointment and not called. “Hi, Aidan,” she said. “I was kind of worried.” Then coolly, “I’m sorry but I’ll have to charge you.” He waved it away. One hundred and fifty dollars. A thing of no importance to him. On a salary from Kinkos. Hell, she was still living close to the bone. He made inconsequential excuses. She hardly listened. She wasn’t on the clock. It was a crisp fall day. She craved the sunshine that she missed in the cocoon of her office. Pleasant to stroll. Now and again his hand brushed hers. Aidan also painted. “A lot of schlock,” he said, referring to many of the paintings displayed by the hopeful artists along their way. Even she knew that. But Aidan had an eye. “Look at the light in her eyes,” he said as he pointed to an artfully draped nude. “A deft touch. Talented, but could use more imagination.” No problem for Sylvia. She imagined herself as the nude, Aidan’s eyes lighting up when he entered the room where she reclined.

They stopped at a tent while Sylvia picked up a brochure for an upcoming fundraiser for breast cancer. She chatted with the blonde cancer survivor staffing the tent, consciously keeping her eyes on the blonde’s appealing face. The fundraiser was in Montecito at the house of a former patient, Todd, who now was CFO of a major biotech firm. It would be fun but the 250-dollar ticket was too rich for her. As she turned away, she bumped into Todd himself, who greeted her warmly and offered her and Aidan two free tickets. Aidan fidgeted at her side like Sam at the checkout in Lucky’s. “Look,” he said. “It’s so nice.” He reached for her hand. The first time he’d held any part of her. “But I really have to run.” She still held Todd’s two tickets in her hand. No mention of rescheduling, he was gone.

Would she ever understand men? How could she counsel couples, when obviously most women were tied to losers who they dragged to therapy? She shrugged and took some deep breaths. One good thing about fantasies: no strings.

“Mom! It’s just algebra and a little trig. Try and pay attention.” At the kitchen table in their bungalow, Sylvia helped Sam with his homework. He’d caught her daydreaming. It had been a long day. She’d seen whiny couples in back-to-back sessions, and wanted to smack them upside the head, tell them to suck it up and not be such crybabies. The washing machine was leaping all over the garage, banging around on the spin cycle, probably needing an expensive repair. Earlier that day, about lunchtime, Sam had called her saying she’d sent him to school with a paper bag containing no lunch, just a high-heeled shoe left in a bag by the sink, one that she’d torn at Todd’s Montecito fundraiser. So for supper, Sam and Sylvia shared his tuna fish sandwich from the other paper bag while she suffered Sam’s labeling her Mother of the Year. Sam, who she hoped she hadn’t parentalized, knew enough not to give her crap at certain times of the month. The rich-rich guests at the fundraiser should try to raise an adolescent boy on their own and fight for some trickle-down support from an archetypical Deadbeat Dad. “So, if it’s that easy, maybe you can solve the next equation without using your iPad, the way we did it back in the day, kiddo.”

Sam scribbled away with his pencil while she looked at the Santa Barba- ra Times. Near the bottom of the front page was a small picture of a scowl- ing Aidan. “Life Saved Twice” was the headline. Aidan Tower stood beside an older woman, Jill Madson, who had her arm around him. She was one of the Dragon Boat ladies, cancer survivors who paddled a large Polynesian canoe to stay in shape. Sylvia read that Aidan, a rower in college, was their manager and trainer. Jill had tumbled overboard from shocked surprise when a curious porpoise had surfaced next to their boat. Aidan, the coxswain—Sylvia smiled at the term—had jumped in the ocean and pulled Jill back into the boat. Aidan. Smart, good-looking, and now a hero. He had called during the week, and she knew that he was on her calendar for the next day.

Squirreling away on his homework, Sam was the one good thing from a busted marriage. She tousled Sam’s blond hair. “Don’t forget to use your Retin-A tonight,” she said, noting a blooming pimple on his chin. After brushing her teeth she stuck her head back in the kitchen and said, “If you weren’t so adorable, I wouldn’t nag you so much,” and got the smile from him that made her life liveable. He was what love was, the kind associated with oxytocin, not estrogen.

In the morning, she told Sam she might be late-late. Supper was in the fridge ready to be microwaved. She dressed hurriedly, not thinking about what she pulled out of the closet. She had a hair appointment before her first patient. As an afterthought, she moved her face through a light mist of Arpège. Rushing out the door, she spotted the letter along with some junk mail that had been dropped through the mail slot and kicked aside from yesterday.

Hello Sylvia, Well, what to say? It’s been a day at work—the usual squabbles between Laura and Jane, with me in the middle. Laura’s a jerk, doesn’t know what’s going on in her own department. But today she really lost it, yelled at the only other guy in our department, and true, he is a little dim. He’d emailed copies of all the personnel files from the R&D folks to the head of marketing by mistake. R&D people hate Marketing. Laura went berserk. She made me get a note from him that he’d done it, and I had to countersign it. All of us in personnel looked like complete fuckups.

Sylvia scanned the rest of the three-page letter. Where was the admiration, or at least the interest of the first letter? The letter ended with:

I think the week started badly when nobody remembered my birthday except Ellie. She works in the advertising dept. It was really nice of her. She even took me out to lunch and ordered up a cupcake with a candle...

Sylvia could have looked on the entry form that Aidan had filled out. She could have remembered his birthday. Brought up useful emotions. She jammed the letter deep in her purse to add to Aidan’s file.

Later, surrounded by the comfort of her office, Sylvia felt more herself. While Aidan settled across from her, she arranged a framed picture on the side table. It was of a grinning Sam holding his birthday present, a new surfboard. He and Sylvia had arms around each other. “Let’s roam a little farther afield today, Aidan. We’ve talked about the cutting. About psychological mechanisms. Now, I wonder if you could tell me a little more about how you became Aidan.” “Sure,” the always willing Aidan said. “Father’s an asshole. No brothers. One sister in San Francisco with four kids. No other close family. Schools. Sports. College. Started grad school. Like everyone.” Her women patients would have filled a month’s worth of sessions with what he’d just told her. Silence filled the room. “And then?” she asked, finally. “Just kind of stopped.” “More about that?” “Mom died. Cancer.”

Sylvia waited. Aidan kept looking at her feet. “Do you feel like saying more?” “Mom was great. She kept me safe.”

Then it came out in bursts. He was almost crying. “Like you. Same red hair. Same smile.” Sylvia twiddled her pencil and noticed a pimple to the right of Aidan’s nose. She stifled a huge yawn. Sylvia was no longer Venus, not even Diana, she was his mom. She rubbed her eyes, her face. Aidan now seemed some- what scruffy, the same species as her son.

Aidan couldn’t keep his mom safe. Guilt. Pop mostly absent. Unresolved Oedipal feelings. Cutting. Sylvia pulled down her skirt, wrapped her sweater close. Made a note on her pad. She could help this kid.

“Tell me more. Sounds as if I would have liked her.” Sylvia now knew where she was going, to a shiva for a dead mother.

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