Copyright © 2014 Toby Bain
All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying and recording, without permission from the author.
The lies we tell ourselves can be the most convincing.
Take me for instance. I’d utterly convinced myself that this afternoon, an afternoon I’d looked forward to for eight weeks, was going to end Candice Pinkett’s troubles for good.
People who don’t know me might think such confidence, given the circumstances, bordered on delusion. Don’t be fooled. Esteemed professionals also harbor fragments of self-doubt.
During such moments my gaze usually sweeps across the office walls at the framed medical certificates running alongside photos of yours truly with Al Gore, Barack Obama, as well as Bill and Hillary Clinton.
The funny thing about the photos of Al, Barack, Bill and Hillary is that I’m a dyed-in-the-wool republican – grew up in Montgomery, Alabama. I left the state kicking and screaming to go to Harvard, where all the photos, aside from the snap of me and President Obama on the White House lawn, were taken.
In truth I wanted nothing more than to replace the liberals with Sarah Palin and George W. Bush. But in my line of work perception is reality. I loved my thriving business and knew enough to acknowledge that Sarah and Dubya pictures were probably as acceptable to my liberal-leaning clients as a tattoo of a swastika on my forehead.
I’d come a long way since medical school and it was cases like Candice Pinkett’s that separated me from the rest of the pack. Or so I tried to convince myself.
The phone beside my desk spurted out a shrill tone, making my heart sink lower than I thought possible.
‘Doctor Turnbull, your one o’clock has arrived.’
A few deep breaths later I said, ‘Thanks Tracey. Show her in.’
The walk from the secretaries’ desk to my office was just long enough for a rumble of nervousness to pass up my stomach and apply a generous layer of self-doubt over the positivity I’d nurtured.
Given her reputation, I was very annoyed that I’d taken on Candice Pinkett in the first place. She strolled in as she always did; arm in arm with her boyfriend. Candice was five feet ten, dark hair flowing halfway down her back. Her big brown eyes insatiably drank in the office and its décor as though seeing it for the first time. She especially loved the photo of me, Hillary and Bill, both smiling as though for a family photo.
‘Afternoon Doctor Turnbull,’ she said in a lavish voice of high society New York that exuded money and brought to mind pony riding, water polo and tennis lessons with Björn, the tall blond Swede on her arm right now. Disconcertingly, her Swede was grinning slyly at me as he helped her across the room.
‘Call me Laura,’ I said with a smile that did nothing to evaporate my nerves. From my armchair I motioned for her to sit on an adjacent sofa. I don’t shake hands with my clients because it’s too formal, gives the impression of a business transaction.
Candice wore a pair of jeans and a suit jacket that was buttoned up. The only element of the socialite’s wardrobe that remained constant was her watch – a diamond studded Rolex that bore all the hallmarks of an attempt to ward off anyone earning less than the gross domestic product of Saudi Arabia.
Candice loosened her grip from Björn and settled into the sofa. In his tight circa 1970s shorts he looked ready to jeopardize the décor with an impromptu game of tennis in my spacious office. Instead he laid his head on her shoulder, the mocking grin still in attendance.
I explained to Candice that this would be her last session with me. My repertoire of treatments only stretched so far. In the past I’d hypnotized that guy who does the late night talk show on national TV. He’s now under the impression he’s the funniest thing since Richard Pryor, no matter how many people state the contrary. I’d also used ground-breaking regressive techniques on actors and rock stars, to rewind their drug-crazed minds into believing they were drug-free. But what I was going to do with Candice was far out. Even for me.
My patient gently caressed Björn’s blonde mane. ‘He’s upset,’ she said, ‘but we knew it wouldn’t last forever. My relationships never do.’
I smiled. That was a good start.
My role as a psychiatrist requires that I put myself in the client’s shoes. So in many ways it was perfectly acceptable for me to buy into Candice’s imaginary boyfriend Björn, named after the tennis legend Björn Borg. In fact, it was me who quite stupidly peddled the concept of the imaginary boyfriend when Candice first came to see me eight weeks ago, not imagining she’d take to it so readily.
Candice, despite the perception she had it all, suffered from severe mental problems, masked with a promiscuous use of prescription drugs. Despite the runaway success of her multimillion dollar fashion chain and her vast wealth, she had issues money couldn’t solve. The 33 year-old couldn’t stand being alone, hadn’t spent a day of her adult life as a single woman. Her relationships were an endless chain of loveless disappointments.
She came to me after her last boyfriend, the son of an oil magnate, dumped her. They’d managed to last a colossal 12 months until he became bored with her high energy lifestyle, providing her with a unique parting gift: a few home truths only someone on the same socio-economic level would dare proclaim. You, my dear, need therapy, he had said.
As I watched Candice fidgeting on the sofa I wondered how prepared she was for her first day as a single woman. I told her the plan of action for the afternoon. If she was surprised that I had devoted the best part of an afternoon to her problem it didn’t show. When she got the bill she’d be shocked but freedom isn’t free.
If my words weren’t flowing as they usually did it was because I was still weighing up the merits of the treatment. Also, in the back of my head were the words her ex-boyfriend – the oil magnate’s son – coldly said to her before dumping her. In a rich Middle Eastern accent he sat her down in the VIP section of a bar and ran through a list of her shortcomings. Self-centered, needy, bossy, condescending, and insecure were top of the hit parade.
I’d never told her this, but with a little training on subtlety her ex would have made a great psychiatrist. Everything he’d told her was accurate. And now, as she fidgeted, trying to pretend that everything was fine, I knew she was every bit as insecure as she’d been when I first met her. Losing Bjorn could be rough on her.
She came to me a week after the oil magnate’s son dumped her -a week and three boyfriends later. She didn’t want another boyfriend but was scared her insecurity would take over. I’d explained to her that everyone was insecure to an extent. The first step was to acknowledge the behavior that had held her back. As part of the treatment I’d asked her to imagine her ideal boyfriend; his personality, his character, his occupation, his physique.
She’d seen old footage of the tennis legend and that’s how he came to be sitting next to her on the sofa. At first I tried to make her understand that Björn was nothing more than a projection, no more real than a dream.
Then a bizarre thing happened. Over the weeks I saw a change in Candice Pinkett. The edginess, which she tried to mask by an overuse of laughter, dissipated. She laid off prescription drugs.
Björn accompanied her everywhere. Over the weeks I found myself buying into the results but not the technique. All humans have a need for companionship, and in my view her feelings of security were as big an illusion as her boyfriend. Yet by this time I just wanted to be rid of them both.
The trouble with Candice was that now she had Björn, she wasn’t interested in a relationship with a real man. She’d come full circle. And I let it happen. Fantasy had become reality.
The only person she trusted as much as Björn was me. I had the ability to picture him in his tight shorts, the blond hairs smothering his shiny tanned skin.
‘Come with me,’ I said.
I took her by the hand, Björn followed and our little chain filtered toward the lift. My office is on 103rd street in Manhattan. As part of the exercise I was hoping a trip to Central Park would stimulate that urge within her to be part of the real world.
Central Park in the summer was full of tourists and office workers. Skaters whistled by, slicing through her non-existent boyfriend. At that moment, as he disappeared in front of my eyes, I was sure the episode had done for the Swede. Unperturbed, Candice merely strode towards a bench. Bjorn reappeared, as though he’d teleported into place, and she cupped her hand into Björn’s as they sat down. To passers-by she was just another crazy, smiling insanely as she spoke to herself.
I deliberately sat in Björn’s spot.
‘See,’ I said, resting a hand her shoulder, ‘Björn doesn’t exist but I do.’
‘He’s over there.’
At the far end of the bench was the smiling tennis pro.
One of my great rivals, Ira Swinburne, said I wasn’t any better a psychiatrist than her, just a luckier one. We’d studied together and been best friends until we both chose to set-up in the Metropolitan New York area.
She wasn’t wrong. Psychiatry is about understanding the needs of the patient. It wasn’t that I was any better at this than anyone else. Ira is just as dedicated as me. I just marketed myself better. I was also a dedicated planner. That afternoon, as part of my armory, I had more than one plan. There were three, each employing varying degrees of desperation.
In New York City there are about a gazillion single people, not including myself. As someone who has been single for over a year I knew all about the difficulties of finding the right man. Shrinks aren’t perfect you know. We have issues too. It’s not like we’re all in great relationships looking down from our ivory towers at the sad little animals below trying to find a mate. I knew and understood the pain of being single, of thinking the vast road ahead was filled with nothing but barren land.
Like me, Candice had tried singles bars. After breaking up with the oil man’s son she’d gone to three in one very memorable week. The one the cab driver took us to was the Zeus Bar on Fifth Avenue.
The cab driver, evidently unfazed by flagrant displays of madness, showed no emotion at having to wait for Bjorn leave the cab last, some sort of gentlemanly ritual even Candice grew impatient with. With a conspiratorial wink he wished all three of us a good day.
The Zeus bar on Fifth Avenue is fronted by immaculate glass windows, which caught the sun and whoever happened to walk by. On a reflex I stopped in front of the window. Candice was looking at her reflection.
‘See,’ I said, ‘Björn doesn’t exist. It’s just the two of us. Let’s go into this bar. Maybe you’ll meet another man. Someone just as fun as Björn.’
She turned away from the windows and made for the chrome doors. I’d love to say that I had no intention of getting her hooked up in the bar. But I did. Professional duty was replaced by desperation. I wanted her back to her old ways so I could move on and stop seeing the smiling Swede with the perfect teeth. I’d even advise her to buy handcuffs if she wanted to keep a man that badly.
Two men propping up the bar swooped as soon as we stood next to them. They wore suits and though they said they were there to watch a soccer game on the big screen hanging high up over the bar, their eyes, pinned as they were to Candice’s breasts, spoke volumes about the quality of the game and the content of their minds.
The Zeus Bar sold $30 burgers and $20 non-alcoholic cocktails made with fresh fruit. Just for the hell of it I ordered alcoholic cocktails for the both of us. The men worked for an investment firm. We made small talk for a good hour, leaving at the same time. Outside, they supplied their business cards to Candice, who to my surprise readily accepted them. I may as well have been Bjorn.
They left in a Bentley. It crawled away, fading into the heavy traffic.
Gathering my bearings, I motioned for a taxi. Candice had other ideas. She strode along the side-walk to a waste bin, dispatching the business cards and joining me as though I hadn’t seen.
‘I enjoyed it in there Lauren. You see Björn doesn’t mind me talking to other men. He’s not the jealous type.’
As the taxi slid beside the curb she dragged her boyfriend by his invisible hand and made for the subway.
I’d failed. I was utterly convinced the cheeky, suggestive chatter of the men had seduced her into reality.
One last chance remained. The third stage of treatment. With the curses of the taxi driver in my ear, I raced to the top of the steps leading into the subway station, where a wave of oncoming travelers rushed towards me. Brushing them aside I made my way down the steps into the ticketing area. I frantically quizzed a member of staff, describing Candice’s clothing and watch. The Rolex, I remembered, was a magnet to thieves. Though some might think it was fake. Who’d be stupid enough to wear a $100,000 watch on the subway? Maybe she needed to have it stolen to prove that Björn was as capable of saving her as drinks were of paying for themselves.
The uniformed guard, a huge man with an Italian accent to accompany his potent Brooklyn twang, pointed beyond the barrier gates.
Good, I thought, she was making her way back to my office, where we’d settle her account and I’d tell her that I couldn’t do anything else for her. I knew from experience that imaginary friends often upped and left spontaneously. Eventually Björn would be gone, replaced by a real man.
From somewhere within the confines of the platform I heard the soft sounds of sobbing. As a doctor I am drawn to those in distress. Call it an occupational hazard.
There she was. Head in hands. I recognized the Rolex on her wrist, the diamonds on the gold strap vibrating in time with her sobs.
‘What’s wrong?’ I asked.
‘It’s Björn,’ she said, and before she continued I knew what she was going to say and I felt relief. I’d succeeded. ‘We had an argument. I wanted to start seeing other men. He said he’d rather die than share me. He jumped onto the track.’
I consoled her with a sense of joy I hadn’t felt since that photo with Bill after graduation. I visualized us going on a double date with the guys from the Zeus bar as a celebration. I readily admit I’d steadily felt myself going crazy by some form of osmosis. Now Björn was gone we could both get on with things.
Candice eventually peeled her hands from her face. I was shocked to see a broad smile. ‘He jumped onto the track,’ she said with a giggle.
Suspicion pierced my initial relief, as if a punch line was about to hit me. Candice gestured to the space next to her on the wooden bench.
‘Johnny Mac came along and Björn just couldn’t take it. Johnny here wants to take care of me don’t you John?’
My head collapsed into to my hands.
‘Aren’t you the lucky one,’ I muttered, though I didn’t know what was worse: her delusion or the fact I could see John McEnroe circa 1980 quite clearly. The trademark sweatband, the unruly curls lounging above it, and worst of all the broad smile as though he’d just beaten Björn at Wimbledon. ‘I hope you’ll both be happy together,’ I said, passing her Ira Swinburne’s details. If anyone deserved to be driven crazy it was her.