Prose Header

Less Than The Sum
of the Movable Parts

by Richard Thieme


It was right around that time, if I remember correctly, that I met Susan for lunch in Chicago. I have known Susan for years. Susan is a social worker, which can mean lots of things. She worked for community services for a while, had a stint at County Hospital, and I think she worked for a time at New Life Counseling Center.

Now she works mostly with addicted women who get beaten up a lot. She has done it for some time, so she must have learned how to use herself as a tool and still go home, kick off her shoes, and watch TV the rest of the night.

We had lunch at a trendy restaurant on the near north side. We laughed when we read the names of the fancy vegetables. “California stuff,” I said, looking at a waiter setting down a plate of white and pale green stalks and leaves.

Susan had a sandwich with three kinds of cheese and asparagus and a red paste on yellow bread with lots of seeds. The little bit of salad on the side was full of curled greens and coiled carrots. I went for something hot. I had my leather coat zipped up the whole time. I was still cold from walking from my car in that wind.

Susan looked good. She sounded solid. She was into a new relationship so she was hopeful, again. She usually picked horses that came out of the gate strong but faded in the stretch.

I listened a lot and seldom spoke, nodding to indicate what she called “empathetic listening.” Through the plate glass window the gray sky had lost all definition. The discoloration became rain and then the rain turned into snow. There was sleet, too, and slush ankle-deep and cold along the sidewalks by the time we finished eating. Susan had parked in front of the bistro and drove me to my car parked a couple of blocks away.

My cold feet flexed in my wet shoes as she turned on the heater. The sleet squeaked on her worn wipers. She turned all the way around to pull out and went slowly down the narrow street.

“There it is,” I said.

“That one?”

I was looking for the Ford. The Ford was long gone. There was even a Mazda between.

She pulled in behind the old Toyota and turned off the wipers. The end of the scraping sounded good. Sleet ran in thick rivulets down the clean windshield.

Susan continued to talk about what she wanted to do next, wondering was it too late, and should she give this guy a chance? Elmo was his name, of all things. Maybe it was made up.

She lowered her window an inch or two, letting the car idle and keeping the heater on. Warm air flowed from the vents while a thin stream of cold air from the open window felt like white icing on a cake.

It was one of those conversations. You can’t make it happen, but when it does, you don’t ever want it to stop. First, there was the meal: hot chowder and crab cakes for me, fresh hot bread with drizzle to dip, a delicious sauvignon blanc from Cloudy Bay, the chatter and glasses and silver around us at precisely the right level.

We hadn’t seen each other for a long time, and it felt so good just to be with her, eating quietly, taking our time, letting the ambient noise be a cushion for the pauses. It was like a real community filling in the blanks so we didn’t have to do everything ourselves.

Beyond Susan at the next table, a young couple were playing footsie, the movements of the draped cloth betraying their game, looking at each other with little smiles. It made me nostalgic.

Outside, the snow and sleet were really coming down, the snow blowing slantwise across the window and people hurrying through the mess, holding their coats closed at the collar, dipping their heads in the bitter wind when they had to wait for a light. But we were inside, warm and dry. Susan talked on, as she often did about her life. I had heard a lot of it before. It wasn’t what we talked about so much as knowing one another for all those years.

Sitting in the car afterward, I thought I was doing OK, nodding a lot like I said, paying attention most of the time, when she turned off the heater and gave me a look.

“You haven’t said much about your work.”

“Oh?” I shrugged. “I told you some things, what I could, what I thought you might find interesting.”

“Paul,” she said, her eyes not letting me off the hook, “Paul, you told me you were talking to people who were tortured. You were working with people doing it, too. You told me about it last time. How it affected them. Then you were off about where the planet might be headed, other kinds of life forms and God only knows what. But I keep going back to what you said about the Turks. And the Uzbeks. It was chilling.”

I shrugged and shivered. I leaned over and turned on the heater. “The techniques aren’t the thing. It’s pretty cut and dried.”

She looked at me for a long time. “Paul,” she said, reaching and taking my hand, “do you remember what you said once? About people going over the line?”

I did, but I had forgotten I said it. “I guess.”

“Paul, you’re over the line.”

I had a sinking feeling and looked down at her hands. Her hands are where the aging showed most.

“You told me yourself, you don’t know how to talk to normal people anymore. You don’t share their points of reference.”

I turned to look outside. “I said that?”

“Yes,” she smiled, getting inside. “You said you live in a world that people don’t want to know. You didn’t want to talk about it, either, but you did, some. Do you think I would forget something like that? Do you think I can’t see what’s going on?”

“Why? What am I doing?”

“Oh, Paul,” she sighed. “For someone so smart, you sure can be dumb. Do you remember the books I gave you on trauma? How it affects people?”

“Sure.” I nodded. “I read some of it. It was interesting.”

“Why do you think I asked you to do that?”

I shrugged again. “Because the people I talk to, whether they’re ones doing interrogations or ones who have been worked on, or ones who have had encounters, or the ones who keep the interface, who manage the deception, whoever it is, they all show signs of trauma, right? You wanted me to understand what symptoms they would have.”

“Yes, but why else?”

I shrugged a final time. “I don’t know.” I was truly blank.

“Because,” she said, squeezing my hand, “you’re showing symptoms too. From listening. It’s almost the same as being there.”

I guess it was obvious to her, doing the work she does. But have you ever not known something so completely that when someone says it the recognition of it is like all of the air rushing out of the room? You can’t breathe, you can’t even think of breathing. Then, when you do speak, your emotions are so raw, like someone sank a shaft and hit oil, because they have been buried for so long, you can feel the sobbing rising inside but refuse to let it out.

Susan could feel it, too. She took my other hand and I saw she had lost weight. I noticed for the first time that her navy skirt didn’t pucker as much on her belly.

“Paul, you can’t not know what you know. You can’t unlearn it. It’s who you are. But part of you must know what it does to you.”

I nodded. She was wearing a ring, not an engagement. Then I looked up into the deep well of her eyes.

Everything let go. “Do you have any idea what we do? Or what they do? Or how long it’s been going on? Do you have any idea who we are? How much we are not what you think? Or who you think?”

She had unleashed a beast and realized it now. The fear in her eyes was evident.

She shook her head. “Do I want to know?” She had lost the offensive and knew it. She was looking for a place to hide. I watched her cover and duck.

“I’m concerned with what it’s doing to you. You say you kind of retired but you still talk to all these people, and—”

“No,” I shook my head. “You think you’re concerned but you don’t know. You don’t know. You’re concerned about the wrong things. That’s how it’s designed, Susan.”

The floor on the deep well of the night gave way. Her eyes darted back and forth looking for something to hold. During that transient glimpse into my life, into all life, she understood, felt it like a sudden chill and almost went into panic mode. She almost headed for the barbed wire.

Then her eyes shifted from my face to the window where snow was dropping from the trees, and she found a reprieve. Everyday people passed on the walk in overcoats and parkas, a woman tottered by in sheer hose and four-inch heels; comic relief, watching her step through the melting slush.

Behind her, the old stone of a brownstone mansion was whitened by snow blowing off the roof. Susan saw as she tilted her head and looked up at an elegant doorway with its black wrought-iron gate and above it a second-story window blazing with electric light.

“Paul...” she said.

I shook my head. “Susan, my name isn’t Paul. It never was.”

She looked for a connection. That’s what people do. Try to plug in. “I remember a few years ago” — she almost laughed although nothing was funny — “someone called you Herb. You made a joke of it, saying they were getting old.”

I shook my head again. “It isn’t Paul and it isn’t Herb. And I am not a professor. I never was.”

After thirty-seven years. Thirty-seven years.

”I’ve had so many names, Susan, I can’t remember them all.”

She let my hands loose and they came back to my side of the car. I believed she accepted my confession and all of the things that it shattered with professional equanimity. So I leaned closer, hoping to hold her in my arms. I wanted to feel her and inhale her scent. I wanted her warmth. That was all. I just wanted to be close.

But the fracture was too abrupt. In the moment, I thought I confessed to be real, but as she drew back, her eyes receding into the distance, I realized that she saw more clearly than I ever would I had simply as always needed to prevail.

Copyright © 2010 by Richard Thieme

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