False Memory Page 39


Twice a week for the past year without exception, Susan, too, had brightened noticeably upon reaching this office. The heavy hand of agoraphobia never lifted from her in other enclosed spaces beyond the walls of her own apartment, but past this threshold, she found surcease.


An instant after Jennifer, the secretary, looked up and saw them enter from the corridor, the door to Dr. Ahriman’s office opened, and the psychiatrist came out into the lounge to greet them.


He was tall and handsome. His posture, carriage, and impeccable attire reminded Martie of elegant leading men in movies of another era: William Powell, Cary Grant.


Martie didn’t know how the doctor was able to project such a reassuring air of quiet authority and competence, but she didn’t try to analyze it because the very sight of him, even more than stepping through the doorway into this room, put her at peace, and she was just grateful to feel a surge of hope.


47


Ominous, this darkness that came into the sea hours before twilight, as though some primal malevolence were rising from deep oceanic trenches and spreading to every shore.


The sky had completely shrouded itself in the gray clouds that it had been steadily knitting since morning, leaving no blue to give the water color by reflection, no sun to glitter off the teeth of the waves. Nevertheless, to Dusty, the lead-gray Pacific was far darker than it should have been at this hour, marbled with veins of black.


Somber, too, was the long coastline—the shadowed beaches, the slump of hills to the south, and the peopled plains to the west and north—seen from this fourteenth floor. Nature’s green appeared to be thinly painted over a mold-gray base coat, and all the works of man were rubble unrealized, waiting for the thousand-year quake or thermonuclear war.


When he looked away from the view beyond the huge wall of glass, Dusty’s peculiar uneasiness left him as completely and suddenly as if a switch had been thrown. The mahogany-paneled office, the bookshelves with neatly ordered tomes, the array of degrees from the nation’s most prestigious universities, the warm multicolored light from three Tiffany-style lamps—Genuine Tiffany?—and the tasteful furnishings exerted a calming influence. He had been surprised to feel relieved when he’d stepped with Martie into Ahriman’s waiting room; but here, his relief gave way to an almost Zen-like serenity.


His chair stood near the immense window, but Martie and Dr. Ahriman sat apart from him, in two armchairs that faced each other across a low table. With more self-possession than she’d shown since Dusty had encountered her in the garage the previous evening, Martie spoke of her panic attacks. The psychiatrist listened attentively and with an evident compassion that was comforting.


In fact, so comforted was Dusty that he found himself smiling.


This was a safe place. Dr. Ahriman was a great psychiatrist. Everything would be all right now that Martie was in Dr. Ahriman’s care. Dr. Ahriman was deeply committed to his patients. Dr. Ahriman would make this trouble go away.


Then Dusty turned his attention to the view again, and the ocean appeared to be a vast slough, as though its waters were so thick with clouds of mud and tangles of seaweed that only low viscous waves were able to form. And in this peculiar light, the serried whitecaps were not white, but mottled-gray and chrome yellow.


On winter days, under overcast skies, the sea had often looked like this, and never before had he found it so disquieting. Indeed, in the past, he had seen a rare, stark beauty in such scenes.


A small voice of reason told him that he was projecting feelings onto this view that were not actually a response to it, feelings that had another source. The sea was just the sea, as it had always been, and the true cause of this uneasiness lay elsewhere.


That thought was puzzling, because there was nothing in this room to account for his disquiet. This was a safe place. Dr. Ahriman was a great psychiatrist. Everything would be all right now that Martie was in Dr. Ahriman’s care. Dr. Ahriman was deeply committed— “We must have additional dialogue,” Dr. Ahriman said, “further discovery, before I can make a diagnosis with full confidence. But I’ll risk putting a name to what you’ve been experiencing, Martie.”


Martie leaned forward slightly in her chair, and Dusty saw that she was anticipating the psychiatrist’s preliminary diagnosis with a half smile, no apparent trepidation visible in her face.


“It’s an intriguing and rare condition,” said the psychiatrist. “Autophobia, fear of oneself. I’ve never encountered a case of it, but I’m familiar with the literature on the disorder. It manifests in astonishing ways—as you are now unfortunately well aware.”


“Autophobia,” Martie marveled, with more fascination and less angst than seemed appropriate, as though the psychiatrist had cured her simply by putting a name to the affliction.


Maybe the Valium accounted for it.


Even as Dusty wondered at Martie’s response, he realized that he, too, was smiling and nodding.


Dr. Ahriman would make this trouble go away.


“Statistically speaking,” Ahriman said, “it’s incredible that your best friend and you would acquire profound phobic conditions. Phobias as powerfully affecting as yours and Susan’s are not common, so I suspect there’s a connection.”


“Connection? How so, Doctor?” Dusty asked, and that small inner voice of reason couldn’t resist remarking on his tone of voice, which was not unlike that of a twelve-year-old boy posing a question to Mr. Wizard, on the now-canceled children’s television program that had once endeavored to find the fun in science.


Ahriman steepled his fingers under his chin, looked thoughtful, and said, “Martie, you’ve been bringing Susan here for a year now—”


“Since she and Eric separated.”


“Yes. And you’ve been Susan’s lifeline, doing her shopping, other errands. Because she’s shown such little apparent progress, you’ve become ever more worried. As your worry grows, you begin to blame yourself for her failure to respond quickly to therapy.”


Surprised, Martie said, “I do? Blame myself?”


“As much as I know about you, it appears to be in your nature to have a strong sense of responsibility for others. Perhaps even an excessive sense of responsibility.”


Dusty said, “The Smilin’ Bob gene.”


“My father,” Martie explained to Ahriman. “Robert Wood-house.”


“Ah. Well, what I think’s happened is that you’ve been feeling as though you’ve somehow failed Susan, and this sense of failure has metastasized into guilt. From the guilt comes this autophobia. If you have failed your friend, whom you love so much, then. . . well, you begin telling yourself that you evidently aren’t the good person you thought you were, possibly even a bad person, but certainly a bad friend, certainly that at least, and not to be trusted.”


Dusty thought the explanation seemed too simple to be true— and yet it rang with a convincing note.


When Martie met his eyes, he saw that her reaction was much the same as his.


Could such a weird, complex affliction befall someone overnight, someone previously as stable as the Rocky Mountains?


“Only yesterday,” Ahriman reminded Martie, “when you brought Susan for her appointment, you took me aside to tell me how worried you were about her.”


“VS/ell, yes.”


“And do you recall what else you said?” When Martie hesitated, Ahriman reminded her: “You told me that you felt you had failed her.”


“But I didn’t mean—”


“You said it with conviction. With anguish. That you failed her.”


Thinking back, she said, “I did, didn’t I?”


Unsteepling his fingers, turning his hands palms up as though to say There you have it, Dr. Ahriman smiled. “If further dialogue tends to confirm this diagnosis, then there’s good news.”


“I need some good news,” Martie said, though she’d not appeared distraught at any moment since entering the office.


“Finding the root of the phobia, the hidden cause, is often the most difficult phase of therapy. If your autophobia arises from this guilt about Susan, then we’ve leaped over a year of analysis. Better yet, what you have is less a genuine phobic condition than. . . well, call it sympathetic phobia.”


“Like some husbands get sympathetic cramps and morning sickness when their wives are pregnant?” Martie suggested.


“Exactly,” Ahriman affirmed. “And a sympathetic phobia, if that is what you have, is infinitely easier to cure than a deeper-rooted condition like Susan’s. I all but guarantee you won’t be coming to me for long before I’m done with you.”


“How long?”


“One month. Perhaps three. You must understand, there’s really no way to fix an exact date. So much depends on. . . you and me.”


Dusty leaned back in his chair, further relieved. One month, even three, was not such a long time. Especially if she experienced steady improvement. They could endure this.


Dr. Ahriman was a great psychiatrist. Dr. Ahriman would make this trouble go away.


“I’m ready to begin,” Martie announced. “Already this morning, I saw our internist—”


“And his opinion?” Ahriman wondered.


“He thinks we should take the necessary steps to rule out brain tumors, that sort of thing, but more likely than not it’s a matter for therapy, not medicine.”


“Sounds like a good, thorough physician.”


“I’ve had some tests done at the hospital, everything he wanted me to have. But now. . . well, nothing’s for sure, but I think this is where I’m going to get help.”


“Then let’s proceed!” Dr. Ahriman said brightly, with an almost boyish enthusiasm that Dusty found heartening because it seemed to be an expression of dedication to his work and confidence in his skills.


Dr. Ahriman would make this trouble go away.


“Mr. Rhodes,” the psychiatrist said, “traditional therapy is, of course, a process requiring confidentiality for the patient if he—in this case, she—is to be forthcoming. So I’ll have to ask you to adjourn to our outgoing waiting room for the rest of this session.”


Dusty looked at Martie for guidance.


She smiled and nodded.


This was a safe place. She would be all right here.


“Of course, sure.” Dusty rose from his chair.


Martie handed her leather jacket to him, which she had removed upon entering the office, and he put it over his arm with his coat.


“Right this way, Mr. Rhodes,” Dr. Ahriman said, crossing the large office toward the door to the outgoing waiting room.


Scaled clouds, as greasy and sour-gray as rotting fish, seemed to be foul ejecta spewed out by the rolling Pacific, clotted on the heavens. The coaly veins in the water were varicose and more numerous than previously, and large sections of the sea were fearfully black to Dusty’s eyes if to no other’s.


His brief ripple of disquiet at once smoothed away as he turned from the enormous window and followed Dr. Ahriman.


The door between the mahogany-paneled office and the outgoing waiting room was surprisingly thick. As tightly fitted as a Mason jar lid, it produced a soft pop and a sigh when opened, as though a vacuum seal were being broken.


Dusty supposed that a serious door was required to protect the doctor’s patients from eavesdroppers. No doubt the core of it was composed of layers of soundproofing.


The honey-toned walls, black-granite floor, and furnishings in this second waiting room were like those in the larger, incoming lounge at the main entrance of the suite.


“Would you like Jennifer to bring you coffee, cola, ice water?” Ahriman asked Dusty.


“No, thank you. I’ll be fine.”


“Those,” Ahriman said, indicating a fanned array of periodicals on a table, “are current.” He smiled. “This is one doctor’s office that isn’t a graveyard for the magazines of prior decades.”


“Very thoughtful.”


Ahriman placed one hand reassuringly on Dusty’s shoulder. “She is going to be fine, Mr. Rhodes.”


“She’s a fighter.”


“Have faith.”


“I do.”


The psychiatrist returned to Martie.


The door fell shut with a muffled but impressive thud, and the latch automatically engaged. There was no handle on this side. The door could only be opened from the inner office.


48


Black hair, black attire. Blue eyes shine like Tiffany. Her light, too, a lamp.


The doctor polished that haiku in his mind, rather pleased with it, as he returned to his armchair and sat across the low table from Martie Rhodes.


Without a word, he studied her face, feature by feature and then as a whole, taking his time, curious to see if his protracted silence would make her uneasy.


Unperturbed, she waited, evidently confident that the doctor’s mute inspection had a clinical purpose that would be explained to her when the time was right.


As with Susan Jagger, Dr. Ahriman had previously implanted in Martie and Dustin Rhodes the suggestion that they would feel deeply at ease in his office. Likewise, they were always to be reassured at the sight of him.


In their unconscious minds, he had embedded six thoughts, like little prayers, to which they were able to resort one sentence at a time or in a single long calming mantra, if any doubt or nervousness overcame them in his presence. This is a safe place. Dr. Ahriman is a great psychiatrist. Everything will be all right now that I am—or in Dustin’s case, Martie is—in Dr Ahriman's care. Dr. Abriman is deeply committed to his patients. Dr. Ahriman will make this trouble go away. Even when they were fully conscious, these mini-meditations would reinforce their perception that Dr. Mark Ahriman was their sole salvation.


The doctor had found it richly amusing to watch them smiling and nodding, even as they must have wondered at their sudden shedding of anxiety. And what fun it was to have a man so gratefully entrust his wife to you when your intention was to debase, demean, humiliate, and ultimately destroy her.


After the unanticipated halftime occasioned by Susan’s suicide, the game would now resume.


“Martie?” he said.


“Yes, Doctor?”


“Raymond Shaw.”


Her demeanor changed at once. She stiffened and sat straighter in her chair. Her lovely half smile froze, faded, and she said, “I’m listening.”


Having switched her on with that name, the doctor now loaded the elaborate program that was so succinctly coded in her personal haiku. “Blown from the west—”


“You are the west and the western wind,” she said dutifully.

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