From the very beginning, his attunement to women had been—and there was no other word for it—prodigious. Just as some children are set up for freakish success in a sport or musical instrument by their parents’ genes and authoritarian extracurricular programming, his particular gift emerged early and was honed to perfection by the rigorous training environment that only a volatile mother and timid father can provide. A favorite story in the family told of how, at just two years old, he had heard his mother shout to his father she was leaving to go for a walk, and he had promptly toddled off to return a moment later bearing his mother’s sandals, one in each small, fat hand. He had no memory of doing this, but he did remember the sandals—brown leather, the underside of the straps paler and pilling heavily, threatening disintegration, the footbed darkly burnished in the places where her toes and the balls of her feet rubbed with each step, like the parts of a statue touched ritualistically by visitors hoping for love or luck in life.
It may have started with his mother, but soon enough there were younger sisters, cousins, aunts, babysitters, schoolteachers, the doctor and the dentist, girlfriends, cashiers, lecturers, flatmates, managers and, at one point, a fiancée, a whole string of girls and women who profited or were even saved by his empathic athleticism, which operated very effectively both up close and at distance. The tiniest shift or break in intonation, tension gathering anywhere on the body, micro-expressive changes around the eyes and the coming and going of the soul behind them that these indicated; such signals were just as meaningful to him as the quality of footfalls heard meters away through walls and floors, the pattern of breath over the telephone, email syntax, handwriting in a birthday card. But being unusually perceptive isn’t an unusual gift, many children are this way in fact. What made him special was his ability to constantly and fluidly act in response to these signals which he processed hungrily and without relent, always finding what was most needed and delivering it at the right time in whatever forms were available and appropriate and always carefully hiding his intense exertions to do so too. After all, a good dancer shouldn’t look as if they are trying very hard to be beautiful, they must simply look beautiful, and that was his approach.
No longer a child, but now 42 years old, living alone with two cats and about eighteen months since his engagement had been broken off, his work as a counselor, which was a natural choice for him, had been taking an increasingly important role in his life. He worked with men as well as women as his clients, but was the first to admit that the men made him downright miserable even as he tried his best to care about them to a degree reasonable and sufficient for an effective therapeutic relationship. He had sought out ongoing assistance from a supervisor to help him keep a lid on his feelings of disdain and horror towards them as he struggled to revive them from their states of emotional zombification each week. The women who came to his practice, on the other hand, were the center of his universe, each one of them a miracle and a beautiful shard in the mosaic of the suffering, triumph and joy of the feminine itself. They were in his thoughts always, and as a result he had consciously absented himself from the dating market, knowing that he wouldn’t be able to share his gifts with any potential girlfriends unless he dropped at least three clients this year. He had felt for a while that there might not be any one person who was right for him in general. All the women he met outside of work seemed to be deeply struggling to the point where he knew they’d be better off as one of his clients. He’d be compelled to help them either way, but he thought he should at least be adequately compensated for his work. Or, worse, he’d meet women who were suspiciously well-adjusted in a way that put him off entirely, with the way they would modulate easily between independence and interdependence, neither asking for too much nor too little, communicating gently and frankly all at once so that he’d be disconcerted, frightened, and then eventually, bored.
A few months ago, he had been surprised to have exactly this type of woman show up to his practice for the first time. 33 years old, the eldest daughter of exacting and occasionally physically abusive parents, a self-described workaholic, suffering various emotional and somatic complaints but remaining enthusiastic about her self-improvement through it all. It wasn’t that she didn’t have relational difficulties, in fact she often regaled him with stories of painfully falling for women that reminded her of her father, and for men that reminded her of her mother. It was the way she acted towards him that unnerved him. She never late, never early, she was watchful of the clock in the final five minutes of the session so as to never go over their allotted time together (55 minutes every Thursday), she never contacted him in between sessions even though he, somewhat pathetically he felt, reminded her often that she could always send him an email to share her thoughts during the week if she needed it, an offer which she always declined with a smile. In their first sessions together, she had looked him directly in the eye while speaking, but then soon instead chose to look down and to the left, as if watching a small play of the childhood memories she described being put on by invisible puppets on the dull carpet of his office. This was by far the most frustrating and confusing part for her counselor, who had been, in his usual way, furiously arranging and rearranging his face and body during their sessions to demonstrate his deep understanding, his knowledge of her suffering that was richer than even her own, doing whatever he could do to initiate that moment of penetrating soul contact that had, thus far, broken every woman in his office down to their child self and unleashing an ancient, screaming pain that rose up out of the dark red fog of infant experience, that moment whose promise got him out of bed in the morning and to which he was, in a way, addicted, and she just wouldn’t look at him. It even wasn’t that she was afraid of the process, which she submitted to with total surrender, in a way that he suspected she would have done had it been anyone else sitting opposite her, and something about that made him afraid.
After these initial upsetting discoveries, he settled begrudgingly into the routine of their neatly contained sessions, and the less-than-optimal, from his point of view, but still workable relationship they shared, and he listened. At first, he continued with his performance, almost as a kind of fidgeting that he couldn’t shake, but this dropped off soon too, and he simply focused on remaining alert and not glazing over or drifting away into more stimulating thoughts. This seemed to work well for her, and though he felt worse after each session, she seemed to be doing better. She always made a point of sharing how grateful she was “for his time” or “for his help”, neither of which he could honestly claim to be giving her.
Inevitably, there would be one Thursday session that would catapult him into a different kind of consciousness entirely, and he felt stupid for not anticipating its arrival sooner. But on that day, there was nothing really to indicate that anything out of the ordinary would transpire. Lately, she had been talking a lot about the fear and anxiety she had experienced as a younger child in her family home, under the tyrannical reign of a mother with a proclivity for taking her anger out both on her and household objects, sometimes simultaneously in a creative manner. This time, she was recounting how, on one occasion, her mother had thrown a large ceramic bowl filled with vegetable scraps at her head. Since she wasn’t looking at him, he was looking out the window as he listened. It was overcast, with no individual clouds to be distinguished, giving the sky that look that, as a child, he had only been able to explain to himself as the result of God sliding down a sheet of white printer paper onto the horizon to cover everything up. And then, she stopped talking. He looked swiftly back at her. Her eyes, they had tears in them. And now she was crying. In his office, she was weeping.
I’m sorry, she said, after several minutes of them sitting there like that. She was clasping the box of tissues he’d handed her on her lap with both hands, with a sort of firmness and weighty significance, like it might be Pandora’s box. It’s just that, I saw your face when you were looking out the window and I saw how sad you looked. And it made me feel sad too, about my life. Sometimes it seems like you’re trying to really just make me feel like you care a lot, and I’m sure you do, but today I just thought, No, right now he looks just really sad.
And with that, she kicked him off a cliff that he’d been staring down at probably for his whole adult life at least, and plunged him into the abyss, where he still was when he met some friends for a drink at the end of the day.
There were five of them, all in more or less the same line of work (counselling, psychotherapy, practitioners of alternative healing techniques, caseworkers and support workers of various kinds). They were all creative types too, with the traces of their original callings still detectable in mildly interesting haircuts, a carefully chosen bag or shirt, sleeves turned up just slightly to expose a tattoo that wasn’t that funny in hindsight, or a carabiner hanging off a belt loop. It had been an easy choice, going for the better paid option of working with the interiority of others, rather than remaining trapped within your own. Actually, it hadn’t been much of a choice when it came down to it, but it was at least palatable, they had felt privately that things could definitely be worse. They were already onto their favorite topic, the perils of therapists posting on the internet. He was staring down through the table into nothing, gripping his empty glass, willing it to somehow steady him. These therapists online, they were saying, what they’re doing is actually potentially harmful. People are really likely to just get the wrong idea. These things are not as simple as they make it out to be. People who watch this stuff will actually be worse off than they were before, it could be pretty dangerous for them if you think about it. And yet here he was, feeling as though he were the one in danger, a client brutally revealing something about himself that he knew and was trying very hard not to know, and all as an accidental byproduct of her own guileless pursuit of her truth. She was recovering her soul and dragging him along for the ride—and what if it changed him permanently? It was certainly the last nail in the coffin for his own first career, if you could call it that, as an actor, which was what the people at this table knew him as first and foremost. And what about his other clients? All those women? What about all the women he’d sought to help over the course of his entire life? If he had made a connection, a real one, to someone’s pain without acting, without trying to do or be anything at all, by just feeling something he didn’t even realize he was feeling and forgetting to hide it, what did it mean for the rest of them? What had he been giving them? And had it been making them worse?
Whatever it meant, he knew he’d have to say something to her when they saw each other again. He wasn’t sure if he would thank her (he wasn’t really thankful) but he needed to at least say, to her, that their shared experience had changed him. When she arrived, punctual as usual, in his office on the following Thursday, he opened his mouth, gulping for oxygen, readying to speak, or to cry out, to her, to something, but she interrupted him. Sorry, she said. Just before we start, I was wondering, I’ve actually been wanting to ask this the whole time, but, would it be alright if I took off my shoes while I’m here? I think I’ll just feel a lot more comfortable. And he obliged, and so she slipped off her shoes, right foot after left, revealing thin socks, worn down in parts so that skin shone through the sheerest remaining layers of fiber. He saw a few dark, stray unshaven hairs around her ankles as she settled into her chair, feet coming down to rest on the shedding carpet as his feet were. And so they were grounded there together, two small parasites on the back of a huge, sleeping animal, both desperate to feed and to live.