Fiction
ROOM:10.19

TOOTHACHE

by Joshua Maserow

The Analyst stares into the steam of his green tea. Some of the more proactive flakes escape a tear in the frail nylon sachet, wending to the surface, a morning Rorschach for no one to interpret.

The first of his five patients for the day is out in the waiting room, flicking through one of the old copies of the LRB fanned out on the scuffed coffee table with splintered legs. After all, the Analyst wanted to make and maintain the right impression — urbane, intellectual, and playful were three adjectives he hoped crossed some folks’ minds some of the time.

The Analyst should be revisiting his process notes. Instead, he is brooding. Since his midcareer burst of publications on posthumanism and psychoanalysis, he had been wondering whether he was a better therapist than person. The idea skittles his viscera. Think of the sensation of ingesting a large pill on an empty stomach.

The notion was a parting gift from his second wife, a landscape architect with kind eyes. The day she uttered those freighted words, they separated. For several months, he had been urging her to seek psychodynamic treatment.

“Address the relational disturbance inherited from your deprecating parents.”

His formulation, not hers.

In the Analyst’s mind, every one of her attempts to connect became instances of neurotic transference, unjustly projected. Really they were meant for her absent father. For weeks, he’d wake up in the early morning with molten tension in his legs, arms, and abdomen. He’d shake her from her sleep.

“Quit with the unending projective identification.”

These feelings were hers. Not his, he thought.

“Own them, metabolize them. Take the rocks hoarded in your childhood back; stop handing them to me.”

It only got worse when she began psychoanalysis with someone trained at an institute in the right part of town.

She started using all of the in-house terms.

His language, he thought.

Enactment, repetition compulsion, basic fault, regression, “as if” personality, splitting, moral masochism — together with a trove of other terms — became part of her idiolect.

For the next few months, every few nights, he’d wake up with a jolt and ask her to stop being so ocnophilic.

He said that.

“Find your own identity.”

“Quit with the relentless introjective identification.”

“Stop raiding my stash. Build up your own.”

“We’re not one person, you know.”

She’d respond with sleep and red squalls of confusion in her widening eyes.

“What do you want from me?”

His response was always the same:

“You’ll work it out. You’ll figure it out. Free your mind of the past.”

But she never did figure it out. Neither did he.

She left him on a bright spring morning.

“You gave up your goodness running after unconscious conflicts and magic-bullet insights.”

The words struck him. A volley of glossy charcoal pebbles.

As the door closed behind her, he shuffled into the kitchen and found her copy of Buber’s I and Thou on the countertop. He opened it at random, settling on the word vergegnung: mismeeting, miscounter. Think of two wolves baring their teeth, circling each other before trotting off in opposite directions.

He wept heavily. No tears fell.

A windy pain bore into his middle.

He snapped the book shut and put it outside on the stoop for a stranger to pick up.

He found himself in a cold house that used to be their home. He went upstairs to finish writing a paper. “Healing beyond words: On the co-creation of silent mutuality.” He was the keynote speaker at a conference the next day.

“We’d all do well to remember the mutative potency of nonverbal recognition” — the final sentence of his address.

The Analyst’s work received high praise from his colleagues. They swiftly acknowledged him on their way to the makeshift food stand. Pastries and wine served by a phalanx of grad students hoping to be noticed by the right people.

He acknowledged his colleagues’ ersatz good wishes with a thin, curling grin. More like a grimace.

The Analyst broke from his reverie and the ceiling in his office heaved. The ovoid light above leered at him. He sighed, lips billowing. Think of the tattered sails of a boat blown off course. The remains of a wrung-out rag.

He pulled a greasy page out from the desk drawer.

It contained a poem written by an estranged friend for a class in grad school they both attended. He locked in his new Apple earbuds, a gift from his daughter, and turned on Beving’s “Kawakaari.” He began reading the poem, half hoping to discover something new in himself. A monthly ritual for who knows how long.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at Therapeutic Neutrality

I

Sat within the ochre expanse of Atacama,
The lone cactus slowly grows
Under the blanket of an aloof sky.

II

The elastic band
signs a covenant
with almost all the strangers and shapes
it meets.

III

The engine splutters,
A diapason of rust.
You can’t go far in neutral.

IV

Are we to watch
With our father’s binoculars
As Jakobshavn
Topples into the ocean?

V

How do we address
the attachment style
Of cats
Who turn their burning eyes
From the invitation they seek?

VI

The western meditator
Travels East
To learn the Dharma.
There he hears nothing
but
The torsions of his master’s
Bowels.

VII

As the windswirls
With rage and unforgiveness
The supple reed
Bends headlong over the bellicose river
but refuses to break.

VIII
Standing over the supine man
Casting an inherited shadow,
The surgeon inserts
The stent
void of memory and desire.

IX

The red in the twisting
Patterns of the analyst’s rug
Bubble-hot
With the larva of unthought knowns.

X

What are we to make of the mirror,
Brocaded in thumb-smudged gold,
Echoing the image of the onlooker,
Before the cloudbursts sing their acid dirge?

XI

Alone in the trattoria
The professor tamps
The crumbling focaccia
Down on the chipped porcelain plate
And wonders:
Does it really matter whether we mix –
in
The olive oil with the vinegar
Or
Vice versa?

XII

Will the winter-tired man,
Alone in his apartment writing Amazon reviews,
Be forever haunted
By the broken umbrella
He tossed on the piss-stained stairs
Of his subway stop?

XIII

Kant gave us the moral imperative
Levinas the cry of the Other
Stevens the estranging word.
Which path should we take
Without mocking the blackbird?

The Patient was new to analysis.

“You know, my mental troubles aren’t that pressing. They’re not as bad as a toothache.”

He said this the first time they met.

The Analyst, embodying a seasoned pose of reserved kindness, beckoned him into the room. The Patient sat down on the couch and turned his iPhone off, placed it on the dehydrated wooden footstool next to the antimacassar draped over the head of the couch. Then the watch and glasses came off. The Analyst had noticed this careful procedure with curiosity without explicitly inviting it into their thrice weekly explorations.

In their previous session, the Analyst, a psychiatrist from elsewhere, wrote the patient a prescription. The Patient hadn’t slept properly in weeks, waking up each night with gargoyles in his stomach and spiders in his bronchi.

“Have you taken a benzo before?”

“No.”

“That’s rare in this day and age. How have you avoided them?”

“Well, I don’t usually get into relationships with people. That’s the trick.”

Their sessions usually began in thick silence, the Patient slowly feeling his way into his internal world. Today was different. As soon as he uncrossed his arms,
laying them by his sides, he spoke.

“You have an accent. Where are you from?”

The Analyst froze in time. A blaze swept his hippocampus and amygdala, scorching through neglected neural circuits. Think of the cracked concrete floor of an abandoned courtyard, breen life reaching for the sun from below.

The Analyst is four years old. He sees a figure, a widening presence appearing in the doorway. Light shoots in, a lucent ring of orange singeing the featureless shape moving toward him from outside. The presence is tall and ominous. Think of a baobab tree blotting out the lowering sun.

A Jack Russell named Prince scampers between the baobab’s legs and knocks the Analyst over. He falls and cracks his chin on the edge of the staircase opposite the door.

Outside: masked gunmen kill thirteen mourners attending the funeral of an activist.

The Analyst cries. A puddle of blood unspools from the bottom of his face onto the first step. Prince sniffs at it, tongue lolling covetously. Think of fealty paid to a royal. The baobab steps in, chasing Prince away. The Analyst is deaf to consolation.

Outside: hateful men with rags, vinegar, and rifles lay barbwire on the door to freedom.

The Analyst senses nothing but the spreading heat in his forearms and abdomen. Terror, anger, and loss tone his world. The baobab sings soothing words that don’t land. They float away through the gaps in its tangled branches. Think of a torn umbrella in the rain.

Outside: the superstructure creaks, seeds of change blowing in from the future.

Now the Analyst is in the alcove under the staircase. He is a year older. He is absorbed in play, building castles in the air. His figurines are knights on a quest to rescue a princess held captive by an evil sorcerer. Think of Grendel, think of Sauron. They run into myriad obstacles on the way.
Most perish: lives snuffed out, valor intact. As the last two reach the sorcerer’s fortress, readying themselves for the final standoff, a voice dials in from another universe.

“Come meet your sister.”

The analyst puts down his toys and exits the alcove. Think of the feeling of waking up from a pleasurable dream before it ends. An aborted promise.

The Analyst slowly ascends the staircase to the bedroom above.

The baobab is leading the Analyst by the hand.

They pass the queen-size bed, stripped of its sheets. Think of a polystyrene slab harried by pigeons with deformed feet. People glide by, scuttling off into the night.

The Analyst squeezes through the crack in the sliding door. He enters the bathroom, hovering on the outskirts. Think of an evening sky before a thunderstorm. Dark and crimson.

Outside: 46 people are massacred, peace talks stall.

At the center of the rectangular bathroom, lined floor to ceiling with cold charcoal tiles, is an oblong tub. Water on the brink, almost overflowing.

The Mother washes life into the Newborn. Two entangled souls.

The water darkens with blood. Think of beet soup, maybe borscht, with two dollops of sour cream, one subtending the other.

Outside: a leader of the new dawn is shot dead in his driveway.

The Analyst stares at this scene, something inside him heaves. He doesn’t know what. Intersubjective space curves in inarticulable vectors.

The Mother speaks.

“This is your little sister. Come meet her.”

The analyst speaks.

“oh.”

He turns away, banging his left shoulder on the frame of the sliding door.

It stings.

He walks past the bare bed and down the staircase, back to his universe in the alcove under the staircase.

Outside: rain pours down on the scorched ground of the interregnum; there is new hope.

The Analyst tries to resume his quest but can’t. He breaks the plastic heads off his figurines.
He bangs them against the sharp cast-iron balustrade of the staircase. Once the demolition is over, he lies down.

The Analyst looks up into the dusty crevices canalizing the cream surface of the ceiling above. There is usually a story to find up there. Think of clouds that congeal in the shape
of a fox or the face of someone you know in profile.

But the Analyst sees nothing. A box of unnameable feelings.

The Analyst is much older. The baobab is now his Father. They are sitting at a small marble table. His grandmother sits across from them, clutching his Father’s hand.

Outside: 44 strikers are massacred by the police on a hill.

The Grandmother’s knuckles are coiled, her fingers bent. A topography of defamiliarizing angles. She stares vacantly out at the ocean, as the waves stampede the shore. Think of a pack of wild horses. Their hooves beating the hard earth.

Outside: the blade runner fires his 9mm into a closed bathroom door.

The Grandmother is trapped in the near present and the distant past. She eats a bagel, relishing each morsel. The Baobab looks on through pinched hazel eyes, with loving amusement and unmet needs.

Outside: the father of the new nation dies, a respiratory infection.

The Grandmother arrived there long ago. She stepped off a Baltic boat. It was named after a Spanish town haunted by the Inquisition. She never spoke about the crossing and its causes. The felt grammar of the past hoarded away, a living deadness. A bone in the mind. An interminable task to be spun out in different ways by her children. Think of a gap that cannot be filled in a game of Tetris.

Outside: the president builds himself a fire pool with the public purse.

The Grandmother has forgotten the Analyst’s name. She tells him she loved poetry as a little girl.  She recites Dickinson’s “I dwell in Possibility – (466)” and Henley’s “Invictus.” Then a nursery rhyme in her parents’ tongue which not she nor the Father nor the Analyst can comprehend. Five minutes later, she recites them again. And again. And again.

A dream, recurring for the Analyst in his forties. He is driving a matte-black helmet-shaped car down the national highway into the pith of the city. To the left, a mountain climbs into the sky, draped in a cotton-wool pall of stringy clouds. To the right, a bay spangled with the burst of early morning sunshine extends into infinity. Inert cargo ships draw his gaze to the horizon. Beyond lies an Island circled by sea gulls with the smoke of past atrocity in their beating wings.

The highway is empty, not another vehicle insight. The Analyst is not alone. Two figures sit in the back of the car, bodies with heads but no faces. Think of the strain too see in a dark room. That is what it is like trying to picture who they are.

There are no cars, only pedestrians in single file. They walk in the emergency lane, in the opposite direction.

The Analyst is feverish, his breathing shallow. He feels his heart thudding in his fingers wrapped around the steering wheel. Wasps whirr through the subclavian artery in his left shoulder.

The car is perilously close to the slow-walking caravan. Think of the rush of stale air as the train hurtles by.

The Analyst takes the nearest off-ramp and stops at a bronze traffic light. The sky is a reddish brown, a convexity of dried blood. He turns his gaze to the left, catching his faceless companions
in his peripheral vision. An old fort, wound tight in barricade tape, abuts the road.

He exits the car and squints into the glinting sun. He joins the silent chain of travelers lilting onward. No questions asked, not a single word exchanged. The two faceless figures on the back seat sit still as statues. Then each extends a gloved hand into the chasm of the other’s blank face.

The Analyst, momentarily immobilized, returns to his office. To his Patient, lying there. Looking upward. Wanting answers, craving respite.

A stranger, promising to revitalize the Analyst’s tiring curiosity.

The Analyst loops back to the irruptive question.

Think of the feeling stirred in your body by the atonal bark of a PA system in a government office of one kind or another.

“Well, I would like to give you an answer. I wonder, though, if we could explore where that question comes from first?”

Bibliographical and External Links
  • Joshua Maserow is completing his doctorate in Clinical Psychology at the New School for Social Research. His intellectual interests include relational psychoanalysis, mentalization, facilitative interpersonal skills, and the intersection of literary thinking and psychotherapy practice. He is an editor for PublicSeminar.org and he co-edited a volume of short fiction entitled Amagama Enkululeko! Words for Freedom: Writing Life Under Apartheid. A fragment of Toothache appeared in Gaztambide, D. J. & Maserow, J. (2019). Becoming trainees, becoming therapists: A poetic call and response between supervisor and supervisee. Psychotherapy Bulletin, 54(1), 30-37.

  • Email: maserow.josh@gmail.com

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