But the psychologists. One you visit every other week with your wife, at her insistence, or maybe his. His office is in a squat twentieth-century-modern building he shares with a tax accountant, but the décor he’s chosen is of an earlier period, trying for Ivy League professorial, wood and leather and a faint whiff of pipe tobacco, though you’ve seen no evidence of smoking paraphernalia.
You go because you tell yourself you don’t want Petra to feel bad, or at least any worse than she does currently, given your infidelity, a term that always makes you think of a faulty sound system. Dr. Mason is compactly built, with neatly-trimmed dark hair, neatly-trimmed dark beard, neatly-trimmed dark suit. An illuminated globe on his desk, mostly ocean blue, the rest a multicolored pattern of countries where you imagine you’d rather be. For balance, on the other side of the blotter, some sort of dark green succulent in a muted yellow ceramic pot. But the good doctor, if that’s what he is, doesn’t sit defensively behind his mahogany desk, instead promoting rapport by sitting in a brown leather armchair, as if you were in a living room, while you and Petra perch uneasily together on a matching sofa with a box of tissues waiting conveniently on a nearby table.
You note that Petra’s emotional state hasn’t improved her appearance. Her eyes look hollowed out, the asymmetrical wings of her nostrils pink. You realize you were never swept away by her—what?—cuteness, you suppose, that you always found yourself wishing she were somehow different. And that brings a fresh surge of guilt. Not for the first time you wonder about the ethical implications of your subjecting yourself to this weekly bout of therapy-cum-inquisition. After all, Petra meets weekly with Mason on her own, and you wonder how much of what takes place in your presence is the result of strategies evolved in your absence. Then you acknowledge that your role in the proceedings is penitential.
Speaking of which. “How do you feel about your writing career?” Dr. Mason fixes you with a steady, apparently sincere, brown-eyed look, eliciting a sniff from Petra, though the sniff doesn’t yet seem tissue-worthy.
You try to match the psychologist’s unwavering gaze. “I’m working on it,” you say.
“Would you say it’s going well?” Mason smiles, signaling the sympathetic nature of his inquiry.
You realize that your emotional state is less robust than you’d hoped, if not quite fragile enough to have you reaching for a tissue. “It could be better,” you manage. “I’m not Shakespeare. Or Philip Roth. Or even Dan Brown, though I think my prose is better than his.” You barely resist the puerile urge to try convincing this relative stranger that your publications are worthy of his admiration, or at least his qualified respect. Fleetingly, it occurs to you that Shakespeare and Philip Roth would have been happy with Dan Brown’s sales. Then puerility takes over. “I have published two novels and a collection of short stories. This novel could make a difference.”
“And your novel is about a recreation-league softball team?” The psychologist manages to get this out without sneering, but he’s had practice in masking his feelings.
“That’s right,” you say, trying to conceal your own indignation. “Relationships in any organization involve the same emotional dynamics.”
“Do you think,” Mason says after an eloquent pause, “you may be at a point in life where your, shall we say, unrealized aspirations may be causing you to search elsewhere for fulfillment?”
“Fulfillment.” Petra allows herself another dry sniff. “That’s one way to put it.”
Mason gives her a smile and a nod, acknowledging her right to bitterness, then turns back to you. “You’re familiar with the myth of the hero’s journey.” He does you the courtesy of not putting this as a question. You nod, and he goes on. “Do you think you might see your current actions in that light?”
You shrug. “I suppose. It’s a theory. I don’t feel like much of a hero.”
Petra reaches for a tissue, dabs at her eyes, and blows her nose. You suppress a reflexive urge to touch her, to offer comfort, realizing how many times you’ve done that over the years.
Mason presses on. “At your age, men often feel the need to prove themselves still strong and vital, so they embark on journeys of various kinds, sometimes ill-advised.” Petra blows her nose again, producing a squelching sound in the tissue, a fragment of which floats upward for a moment. The three of you watch it descend like a feather to the Oriental rug, reminding you of the late pigeon on your balcony; then Mason speaks again. “And the natural progression of the journey often leads to the return.”
While Penelope waits and weaves, you think. You can feel Petra looking at you from the opposite end of the sofa, but you keep your eyes on Mason, who smiles encouragingly. You watch the Brownian movement of silvery dust-motes in the muted light from the office window’s half-closed Venetian blinds. Mason and Petra both wait for you to say something.
Arnold Johnston's poetry, fiction, non-fiction, and translations have appeared widely in literary journals and anthologies. His plays, and others written in collaboration with his wife, Deborah Ann Percy, have won over 300 productions and readings, and they’ve written, co-written, edited, or translated over twenty books. Arnie’s latest projects are The Infernal Now (poetry, Kelsay Books, 2022); Where We’re Going, Where We’ve Been, (poetry, FutureCycle Press, 2020); Swept Away (novel, Atmosphere Press, 2021), and Mr. Robert Monkey Returns to New York (a collaborative children's book with Debby, Brandylane Publishers, 2021). A performer-singer, Arnie has played many solo concerts and over 100 roles on stage, screen, and radio. He was chairman of the English Department (1997-2007) and taught for many years at Western Michigan University.