Dr. Stein

On Sundays we sometimes visited Dr. Stein. He lived with his wife in a frigid bungalow on the edge of the city. There was a door with a small chime; there was a hallway smelling of disinfectant. We were shown into a hushed lounge like a funeral parlour. Mrs. Stein would bring us cold tea in dusty china cups embellished with the months of the year. She always took February. She perched on the edge of her chair, a dark dried woman with hair as short as a man's, and complained about the weather or the water supply or the lack of buses. We never left early; we always stayed late. We sat over endless drinks as night fell and the single bar of the electric heater burned uselessly against the glacial air, and Mrs. Stein drew the curtains over the barren outlook one could hardly call a view. So I abandoned myself to those void Sunday afternoons of childhood which give us our first taste of futility and make us long for death.

Dr. Stein was a psychiatrist, an opinionated man; but, having retired, he was no longer paid for his opinions. For hours he held forth on strikes, the state of education, the meaninglessness of Henry Moore. He resembled a petty Freud without genius, a man chiselled in the granite of his disappointments. He was strangely generous. He gave us his Rubinstein records because he hated them, and disposed of his tickets to Pinter like so many football cards. Occasionally he forgot himself and let slip an observation of such humanity that the room in which we sat seemed blessed.

During his harangues I would seek distraction in the text-books which filled, lugubriously, the shelves beneath hideous pictures and steel ornaments resembling instruments of torture: On Dreams and Dreaming and Models of Madness; Genes and Destiny, The Lost Childhood and Aberrant Sexual Behaviour. I imagined Dr. Stein creeping down in his pyjamas to consult the books at midnight, poring over them in the small hours with a glass of milk. They seemed totems of the strange mental world he must inhabit; though my ideas were shattered when I slipped one volume from its place and found it, in this immaculate household, furred with dust. Nevertheless, I thought, their mystical contents must long since have been absorbed into the involuted mind of Dr. Stein, which I imagined as a kind of labyrinth hung with cobwebbed tapestries, strewn with the lumber of dead and elaborate theories: the faded wisdom of a lifetime's reading I could not hope to emulate.

I asked to borrow books and he acquiesced, in the careless shrugging way of one who has finished with them. All books, it seemed, were now beneath his notice. He knew everything; they could tell him nothing.

"Religion is an invention of the devil," said Dr. Stein. "Sex is the opium of the people."

My mother protested with a nervous, smiling irony. Afterwards, in the car, she would make statements. "He's a bitter man," she would say, "but he has his reasons." Or: "He sees too clearly. He's the victim of his own brilliance."

Somehow I was always tricked into visiting Dr. Stein. We would drop in after walking in the park; we would buy bagels and make a detour past his house. Not that, so far as Dr. Stein was concerned, I existed much. Apart from the exchange of books (which, despite his contempt, he insisted be returned in good condition) we never spoke. He never knew that I had failed to make it past the second chapter of Models of Madness, or that Genes and Destiny had defeated me. He never guessed, perhaps, the mixture of awe and hatred with which I regarded him.

Nor am I certain why my mother took me there, unless it was to witness the impact of a suffering too deep to mention, which we had guiltily escaped, and the poison of which she felt it necessary to drink by proxy over and over again. There were no fresh flowers in the house, but a bouquet of grey teazles stood on the mantel near where his wife picked at her meagre tapestry, as though they alone could survive the toxic air.

I am convinced she went there for this reason also: in order to conduct a particular argument she had no hope of winning. Each visit was another round in the relentless boxing match between herself and Dr. Stein. Tempers grew heated; voices were raised. Dr. Stein used language my mother should not have wanted me to hear. And while his wife sat wordlessly unstitching a mistake in her needlepoint, the smallest of grimaces distorted her bloodless mouth.

"Everybody is to blame!" Dr. Stein insisted; and repeated: "Every - body - is - to - blame."

But how long, in fact, did we go on visiting Dr. Stein? And how many times was I made to sit, unconsciously absorbing fallout from his vast hatred? It cannot have been so often, it cannot have been so long. Indeed I sometimes wonder whether there was really only one visit, so interminable in its yawning boredom that memory cannot keep it whole.

And if this is so, if there really was only one visit, it must have lasted hours, hours in which we never ate, in which we barely moved, except perhaps to pass a photograph, inspect a painting hung above the fire: a painting, now that I recall it, of many archways one inside another. And now it comes back to me that Mrs. Stein did once get up and open a pair of double doors, which led into a music room, a room with a step, on which there stood a Bechstein grand piano. And I remember how she ran a loving hand across it, though there was no question of her playing: in fact I am certain that she could not play.

They must have been fierce music lovers, but which music precisely did they love? Was it Beethoven, Bartok, Brahms? I cannot match any suitable composer to those distant afternoons, though I do believe that once, when my mother was choosing a record, the doctor moved aggressively in his chair and growled: "No bloody Shostakovitch!"

Really I knew so very little about them. One didn't listen in those days and one did not ask. I can describe them merely: his square black glasses and the permanent pipe depending from a silver beard; the large cheap wristwatch and the sculptor's hands. She had perhaps been a dancer in her younger days, her brittle body still producing its trained formal movements; and I could see him, in our absence, tucking into meat and two veg. while she nibbled at a piece of toast, as though absorbing by natural right all nourishment their marriage had to offer.

But if I had asked questions, if I had known the bare outlines of their history, would that explain the secret of their strange alliance, this marriage without apparent sentiment or affection, which had, one might have said, a stone at its heart? There was a total desolation in the gesture she ran over the piano, the same gesture with which I saw her - with which I still see her - close the curtains on the lifeless view.

But I knew nothing. I can hardly disentangle dreams and memory, for I did quite often dream of Dr. Stein. Like Freud's Wolf Boy I opened my window to find a dozen doctors hanging, great moons in the wintry night; nor can I be certain where the dreams ended and the afternoons began. Did he lecture me once with venomous contempt, reducing me to tears by his tirade? Did his great hands turn the pages of my secret diary, laughing as they went? The images are so vivid I wonder, sometimes, if a part of me is not still trapped in that eternal visit and whether, in dreams too deep to remember, I endure its airless tedium every night.

For I was nothing in the eyes of Dr. Stein. I was worse than nothing: I was just a child. And being a child I knew instinctively how much he hated children. Yet my presence there cannot have been an accident. They needed, after all, an audience for their argument. Looking back now, I cannot help the notion that I was the whole motive for their meetings, that I was, in fact, a kind of experiment on which he and my mother were secretly at work.

"Television is an invention of the devil," said Dr. Stein. "Democracy is the opium of the people."

My mother said: "You could learn a very great deal, you know, from Dr. Stein."

But I never had the courage to ask. I put back Dreams and Dreaming and my hand hovered over Aberrant Sexual Behaviour. But I picked up The Myth of Sisyphus instead. Pencilled inside the front cover were the words: "Unreadable and not worth reading."

"I'd like to borrow this," I said.

"Hum! You can keep that one," said Dr. Stein.

I watched Mrs. Stein rise to draw the curtains (how fragile she was! it was amazing she didn't crumple like an autumn leaf) and linger a moment, as though waiting for someone to appear.

(According to Dr. Stein, God did not exist. His atheism, my mother held, though justified, was the source of much of his unhappiness. But Dr. Stein denied the existence of happiness.)

Mrs. Stein drew the curtain with a gesture of despair.

Strangely, I always remember our farewell. We are standing in the bright hallway; the door is open on the frozen dark. My mother and Dr. Stein have had their quarrel again: she wants to leave in dudgeon, but he won't let her. The quarrel continues. The hall is filling with icy air, and Mrs. Stein cringes like a bit of blackened twisted root. I shiver, clutching my book. Will we never leave? My mother is pulling away. And then Dr. Stein takes hold of my mother's hand.

"You must never part quarrelling from anyone you care about," he says. "You don't know if you'll get the opportunity to make it up."

Suddenly the room in which we stand seems blessed. And I know that in that moment my mother forgave him, hugged him, left the house with tears running down her face; and that she drove home purged, satisfied, having got what she came for, having got what she always came for.

"He's a bitter man," she stated, wiping her eyes, "but he has his reasons." And a little after: "He sees too clearly. He's the victim of his own brilliance."

Then I would sit in silence, mystified; and I would uncoil the great rope of boredom and resentment slowly from my head, and vow never to be tricked into visiting him again.

But we never did visit again; although I do recall the time my mother asked me to wait outside while she went in to see him where he sat, sceptically awaiting death. It was a bright summer's afternoon, and when she emerged in half an hour or so her eyes were red-rimmed; I believe I saw him standing for a moment at the picture window.

But that is a very long time ago, and if I were to go back now I doubt if I could even find the right bungalow. The trees will be taller, the bushes more mature; the lookout will not be quite so bleak, and I would not in any case discover Dr. and Mrs. Stein, who must both be dead, who must both assuredly be dead; in fact I would not be surprised if most of the people who knew them are now dead. They survive, perhaps, in a few snapshots with nothing written on the back, apart from which even their appearance must have been forgotten. Even my own memories are hazy, partial, more emblematic than actual; they are not flattering to Dr. Stein. But they are more resonant perhaps than those of most people, who did not encounter him when they were children, who escaped his company unscathed, and who do not bear forever the marks of a malign influence.

This story first appeared in 'Metropolitan.' © Tamar Yellin, 2004


 
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