Thomas Barnard, writer
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The Jewish Woman and Her Therapist
I met her through a phone call. I was soliciting Individual Retirement Accounts accounts, and how she, or rather, how her husband got on the prospect list isn't clear. They weren't rich. I called during the day and her husband wasn't there, so I got her, Bernice Goldberg.
"Goldberg? Sounds like a good Irish name." I always tried to inject a little levity, and she laughed, but then she threw me for a loop:
"My husband is Irish. Irish Jew, of course. His father's last name was Keth, but on the advice of an uncle he changed it to Goldberg when he got to Ellis Island."
"Oh really, that's interesting."
"Sure, has a full head of red hair, too."
"Must be some Celtic blood there somewhere."
"Do Celts have the red hair or was that from some Nordic invasion?" I said, already correcting myself.
"Let me know when you've decided."
We were going to get on fine. It was exactly the right thing to say to me. I liked this part of the business, but it didn't make any money, so I brought the conversation around to IRA's. They had been doing one through their Savings & Loan. I explained that with whatever mutual fund I was hawking at the time, she could get a better return on her money. She sounded interested in my pitch; said she would talk to her husband, and could I call back in a day or two?
So, I called her back in a couple of days, and she told me her husband was interested, too. Well, this put us both at ease. I didn't feel I had to push for a sale anymore, the sale seemed assured, and she didn't have to resist my pushing. We could have our human moment now, and this was the opening Bernice was waiting for. Was I single? Yes. Did I want to get married? Sure, if it was the right person. Some would say Bernice was a meddler, but I didn't take it that way.
In fact, I bent her ear for over an hour and a half. I couldn't believe that I was spending so much time with her. But she knew how to handle me. "Isn't it difficult to meet people these days?" she asked me.
Difficult was putting it mildly. I told her you could spend hours in a single's bar and never meet anyone. Most went with friends of the same sex and would sit for a while, the women drinking glasses of chardonnay, the men steins of beer. The jukebox was usually too loud. People would talk, then stare, trying not to stare too obviously, then talk some more. If there was entertainment, a man with a guitar and microphone, people felt less silly when the inevitable silences engulfed them. Depending on the staying power of the individual, some would leave early - ten, ten-thirty, and some stayed on to closing.
Bernice asked me about computer dating, church groups, people at work. All, I had tried them all. There was the dating service - all nice people, but no magic. Of course, we're coached against "magic." Relationships are hard work, we're told. But there's some element of luck in it, I know. How was it one of my friends married his first computer date? They talked all night long on the phone, and several months later tied the knot. Tell me there's no magic, no chemistry, no timing, and I won't believe it.
What did Bernice think about all this? Bernice thought I should meet her therapist; the girl was a doll, and about my age. I could sense that she was very enthusiastic about the prospect of being a marriage broker for me. My go-between. I decided I would allow her this pleasure; it wouldn't hurt me to meet her therapist.
But first, of course, she must meet me. Instead of transacting our business through the mail, why not come over for dinner? She lived near the end of the Ravenswood line on Chicago's north side. Clearly, I was going for whatever connection she might make for me. IRA accounts involved no great money, though there was always the possibility that she might turn out to be a repeater (next year's IRA, and so on), she might refer me to her friends, and that's where the real money is: a Saturn rocket expends more energy to get that first inch off the ground than it does two minutes later to go a yard. So, in the end, I figured I could be a winner either way.
They lived in a brick bungalow in a block of brick bungalows. Bernice met me at the door, which was much better than having to deal with some other family member who didn't know who I was. I entered to find a number of people in the livingroom. No introductions were made at this point, she quickly ushered me back to the kitchen.
Even though Bernice was hardly my date for the evening, there is some of that blind date quality whenever you meet anyone new. Bernice was much stouter than I imagined. And taller. From talking to her over the phone I had seen in my mind's eye a small dark-haired person. That wasn't Bernice. Her hair was the same color as mine, a non-descript brown, which I call yuck brown. She had problems with her legs. She was borderline diabetic and borderline hypertensive. She wore an apron, I remember, which struck me because you don't see them so much anymore.
It was the beginning of Passover. My knowledge was weak in this area. I was raised in a bland Protestant sect where Sunday school teachers conveyed no enthusiasm for the Bible, and I reflected their lack of interest.
"Do you know what Passover is?"
"Well, isn't that when Charlton Heston says, 'Always remember he passed over you' to the kid when the pestilence like dry ice comes down the street, and green special effects cover the moon."
"You are a true American. You get all your religion from the movies."
"Isn't that where everyone gets it?"
"Special effects. Honestly."
"It was a great movie for special effects. Everyone remembers the parting of the Red Sea."
She laughed. But there was no mistaking that Bernice was a little disappointed that I didn't show any interest in my religion.
"What is the name of the church you went to?"
"Well, we went to a Presbyterian church for a while, something with Covenant in the name, when I was very young. The last one we called Union Church, but I don't think that was the exact name." I raised my eyebrows in a quandary - was I done yet?
She raised her eyebrows in kind, so I continued, "My parents met at a Baptist church." And I finished by saying, "I guess we always looked around for a good minister. Someone who could deliver an interesting sermon."
She seemed satisfied with that insight. She told me about her religion. First off, she told me they were Orthodox. This sounded a bit like a punishment, though she didn't seem under any burden. She had come to the front door to greet me, but now informed me that according to custom she, a female, wasn't supposed to enter the diningroom yet.
Her husband came back to the kitchen when he got home. Abe was a rabbi. Not active, he worked as a computer programmer. I could understand this, my father was a member of the bar, but never practiced the law. Abe was shorter than Bernice by a few inches. He looked younger, though he was bald on the top of his head where it looked like a skull cap had kept out the nurturing effects of the sun. He beamed good will. I didn't detect the false hypocritical smirk of the ministers from our church, the look that read, "Can you believe this smile? Neither do I."
This being a holy day, and Abe being a rabbi, I wasn't sure how I should handle the IRA business. Quickly, I figured. I took the stuff out of the envelope. I gave her the prospectus, showed her the application on the last page, where to sign, and gave her a business reply envelope with my name stamped on the side.
"Look it over when you have time, and if you have any questions, give me a call."
She put it on top of a pile of magazines and then announced dinner. We filed into the diningroom; she sat me next to her.
Her husband sang some kind of blessing in Hebrew. A blessing of some kind was in order. These were friendly people; I was getting a new account and a home-cooked meal (home-cooked meals were kind of a rare thing since I'd left home), and maybe a date with an attractive psychologist.
Everything was kosher, she explained to me, prepared according to rabbinic law and blessed. Did I want some wine? I wasn't refusing anything tonight. I had come to sell but it looked like this was going to turn into a learning experience.
The wine was Mannischevitz. Kosher wine, of course. I knew the name. My father always exclaimed their slogan in moments of joy: Man O Mannischevitz!
I looked across at their seventeen-year-old daughter, Rebecca. Bernice didn't like my look, which was more interest than lust. She said softly for my ears only, "She's too young for you. Elizabeth Sheffield, she's the one for you. I go to see her, I'm the patient, but we talk. I'll set it up."
I guess this meant I passed inspection.
Next came the matzo balls, which were harmless enough, followed by gefilte fish.
"It's just whitefish. You don't have to eat it if you don't want to."
"I want to."
"Have you ever dated a JAP?"
Jewish-something-something, I figured. "A JAP?"
"Jewish American Princess."
"A rich, spoiled Jewish girl. Ever dated one?"
"I've dated some Jewish girls."
"With or without money."
"How'd it go?"
I thought about going into the particulars of each case, but shortened it to: "Okay."
"You don't want to go out with JAP's. They're rich. They're spoiled. Their daddies dote on them. Every time you go to a restaurant they send their food back. You're left to wonder: should I eat or not? Finally, you decide to eat before the food gets cold. Meanwhile she makes you feel guilty. And then, when you're done, her food comes and you wait for her."
"With a JAP, it's complain, complain, complain. Nothing is ever right."
I couldn't contain myself, I let go a laugh.
She said, "You think I'm kidding?"
Still grinning, I said, "No, no. I'm just surprised by your candor."
"Well, don't say I didn't warn you."
I liked Bernice. She was earthy, direct, kind-hearted, helpful. In our family, nobody revealed anything. And help came expensively.
Of course, I had to listen to her complain about her physical ailments - her bad legs. I suggested she try vitamin E, but she said she was going to some special hospital in the east for treatment or surgery. I was a sympathetic listener.
We finished with a big plate of chicken. When that was gone, we moved into the livingroom. I sat next to Bernice on the couch.
This was in the early 1980's, and we listened to her three male offspring talk about making a business out of latest airline gimmick, American Airlines' half-off vouchers.
"We could go out to O'Hare and buy them as they get off the planes." And on and on. I was fascinated. These kids were resourceful and energetic. In our family it seemed we passed down tapeworms from generation to generation. No energy. Everybody drifted off to sleep at nine o'clock.
Bernice asked her children when they were going to the synagogue, and they all accounted for themselves. Apparently Abe and the children had commitments for the evening, because we were soon left to ourselves.
Bernice told me sex was the key thing. Also, her husband came first, not the kids. "Kids don't cement marriages; they break up marriages. I know, me a Jewish mother, it's sounds like sacrilege, but it's true. My husband comes first."
"Now, let me tell you about Elizabeth. She's a doll. She's about 5'6", brown hair. Doctorate from the University of Iowa. One smart cookie."
So then I met her. Elizabeth Sheffield was a bony, anorectic, breastless, thin-lipped thing. I could see right off that it was going to be an uphill struggle to generate any interest in her, but indebted as I was to Bernice, I would give it a try.
I took her to one of my old stand-bys, a pasta and hamburger hole-in-the-wall place on Clark Street. I couldn't imagine she was on a diet, but she found a chef's salad on the menu. I'd never seen it there before. It was out of the spirit of the place to get a chef's salad; I myself ordered pasta with a rich cheese sauce, the arterie clogger special, and made mental note to eat yogurt for lunch tomorrow to make up. But not tonight.
Though I didn't think she was for me, I tried to draw her out. A sense of humor could do a lot to mitigate my initial impression and speed the evening, but she had little. I drew her out about her Ph.D. topic and learned that she had done her dissertation on androgyny and personality strength. Personality strength was greatest in dominant males, weakest in submissive lesbian females, with dominant females and submissive males falling in between.
Elizabeth's own sex was indeterminate. She had hair only slightly longer than mine. She wore clothes that neither accentuated her femaleness nor were terribly masculine. Unisex clothes, slacks and sweater. Given her appearance and Ph.D. dissertation topic, everything indicated that Elizabeth was on the cutting edge of sexual ambiguity.
I tried to be interested in androgyny. And also hermaphrodites, the one following the other, and cited the Fellini movie where I'd seen one; and then back to androgyny with a favorable remark about a painting of a young person by Toulouse-Lautrec that I liked. I could never remember if the person in the Lautrec was a boy or a girl unless I was looking at it. A good painting. But the subject only had aesthetic interest for me. When it came down to cases, I wanted a female. Softness, mammaries, long hair, seductive perfume, the whole shot.
When we finally left our textbook discussion of sex, we came to money. Surely this would be our common ground. You could hear the cogs and wheels turning in Bernice's mind: Elizabeth's a doctor, she'll make it; he's a broker, he'll invest it. Together they'll be rich.
She talked about her investments. She was cautiously diversified - a couple of units in a Balcor real estate development, oil and gas participation through an Apache Oil program, a bunch of the Templeton Growth Fund, a few stocks - IBM, Apple. She told me she had an Audi but really wanted a Mercedes.
"Next time for sure," I said.
I led her on about her possessions. It was a bad habit of mine: I always encouraged people to go on about things which made me dislike them; that way I could dislike them even more.
Where did she shop for clothes? I. Magnin's? Field's? I said, "You know, the shopping in Chicago isn't that good, you should fly to New York for a weekend."
"You're kidding, of course, the shopping in Chicago is fine."
"Yes, I'm kidding." Sort of.
And it wasn't that I didn't admire her taste in stocks, clothes and machines. I did. And when we got to her apartment I admired her Sony Trinitron, Technics stereo and Empire period chest of drawers. I guess I just expected that someone in the people business, as she was, would have different values. That
perhaps she would want to discuss a character from Dickens, which would lead to a discussion of character flaws versus neurosis, or maybe she could explain the psychological makeup of Kafka, that tortured soul, or better yet, tell me what was wrong with me, or at the very least, at the end of the day, want to dine al fresco and watch the passing parade, but no, we were back to money and toys. Accoutrements. But come to think it, I suppose there was no reason she shouldn't have her stuff, her toys like everyone else. And remember, she educated you about sex and personality strength; give her full credit. And you don't want to forget about androgny.
But on second thought, it was I who asked her about her dissertation topic. I looked around at the art on her walls. Didn't much care for them.
"All originals," she informed me. The saving grace.
One painting of rows of faceless bureaucrats filing into an office building. Another of a bureaucrat at a desk - inside his forehead was another bureacrat at a desk, and inside his forehead yet another bureaucrat, ad infinitum. Okay, a legitimate view of our society no doubt, but nothing I cared for. Nothing I wanted to look at. I'd rather she had framed a cheap print of a Vermeer: the one of a young Dutch woman working on her lace. Or a Turner harbor. Ugly was too much in vogue. The twentieth century was rampant with examples of ugly. I didn't know exactly what it meant, but I doubted anything good. Artists were tipping us off to something, that was for sure.
Looking at these paintings, my thoughts wandered back to Bernice. I could see the logic of her thinking. Elizabeth and I were both generic Protestants. Both yuppies or pre-yuppies. Both driven to make money. It was a good piece of thinking on her part, only to fall apart in the test run.
The rest of the evening went slowly. We had after-dinner drinks. Elizabeth played the even-tempered, collected psychologist throughout. So was I, for that matter, even- tempered and collected. We stretched the date out to a respectable hour - eleven o'clock, at which point I yawned and said I had to work tomorrow. A school night.
* * *
The next day Bernice called me up to find out how it'd gone. I told her okay, but nothing spectacular.
"Maybe you should go out with her again."
"I don't think so." And then I made the knee-jerk remark, "She's so reserved. Why do you go to see her?"
Bernice got huffy, "She's very understanding. I don't know what you're talking about."
Oh no, I goofed. I thought we were friends and I was taking her into my confidence, but as it was, she was much closer to her counselor. I should have known.
Now I doubted that she'd send me the IRA forms and check. April 15th came and went, and then I knew for sure she wasn't sending them in.
So, Bernice was angry with me. At least that was a hotter reaction than anyone would ever get out of that automaton of a therapist. And I concluded that there must be something to what they say about the attraction of opposites. Because I'll never understand why that warm, gregarious Jewish woman ever went to that chilly, goyish psychologist.