Fidgety Frank. Denise always came up with nicknames to help her remember new patients, and alliteration was one of her favorite methods. Of course, “fidgety” would be a fitting description for many of the assorted lot that made their way through her office, but Frank managed to carry it to a degree that put the rest to shame.
He had not yet told her that their meetings were a waste of time and he would be moving on, but the speech was coming soon, she was sure of it. Maybe he would actually leave, maybe he wouldn’t, she wasn’t about to lose any sleep over the matter either way. As she said to all of her patients that threatened to leave therapy early, there was no shortage of potential clients waiting to take their place. The quitters were the only ones that had anything to lose, not her.
And if Frank left it would be his loss. His need was desperate, that much was clear. She didn’t know what exactly unresolved baggage he was carrying inside, but she could see in his eyes how desperately a part of him wanted to share them. There was just that other part that kept getting in the way. The loud part. The part that would shortly be telling her there wasn’t any purpose in continuing their work. For Frank’s sake she truly hoped that the wounded part of him would win out and get the help that it so desperately needed.
“So what are we talking about today?” Frank squirmed in his seat, seeking a position of comfort that ever eluded him.
“What would you like to talk about?” Denise countered.
He sighed deeply and shrugged. “I’d rather talk about something real this time, this chitchat that goes nowhere doesn’t do me any good.”
She smiled, but suppressed the eye-roll. “I appreciate your honesty. Why don’t we talk about your father? You mentioned in your bio that he—”
“No, there’s nothing to talk about there,” Frank quickly interjected. “Look, maybe this isn’t going to work out, maybe…”
Oh, here it is, she thought, but then he didn’t finish the sentence.
“May I be honest with you, Frank,” she leaned forward meaningfully.
“I suppose so.”
“Right now you’re blocking me. And the only reason you have to block me is because there is something to talk about there. That being said, I want you to know that I respect this role of you.”
His brow furrowed in confusion. “What do you mean this role of me?”
“The part of you whose job it is to protect yourself from being hurt. For better or worse, it’s just trying to keep you safe right now, and I think that is very admirable of it.”
A long pause, and then “Well…maybe he’s right to.”
“What is he afraid would happen if he let down his guard?”
Frank wasn’t fidgeting anymore, but he looked uncomfortable with the introspection. Clearly he wasn’t accustomed to much soul-searching.
“That I would not like what I learned of you?” she prodded.
He shook his head.
“That you would not like what you learned of you?”
One corner of his mouth pulled back in a pained expression.
“Maybe—maybe I’m better off not knowing myself too well,” he offered slowly.
Denise closed her eyes and nodded while breathing deeply, simulating the emotion that must be behind such a statement. “That sounds very hard,” she sympathized, then opened her eyes. “But in your heart do you believe that to be the truth?”
“I don’t know,” he shrugged.
She paused, deliberating how to move forward. She wouldn’t ask about his father again, not yet, anyway. It was in the forefront of his mind now and his subconscious would find a way to bring the subject back to light if it decided he ought to.
“I want to pause for a moment and get a sense of where your emotions are coming from in this moment, alright? You told me you had that conference to attend earlier this week, the one with that special speaker you were anxious to hear. How did that go for you?”
He shrugged and shook his head. “Maybe I assumed too much. He wasn’t very interesting, actually.”
“No? Did you try to have that conversation you wanted with him about your company’s new sector? The electrical contracts?”
“No, I wouldn’t have been able to stand it. I mean, now that I’ve seen the guy I can’t believe I never recognized how conceited he was before.”
“He talked a lot about himself?”
“No, not that,” he paused to think. “More to do with how he said it. You know what I mean? Like with everything he had this air of authority, like his opinions were the gospel truth.”
“Opinions that you don’t think are right? Opinions related to your branch of engineering?”
“More just opinions on life,” he clarified. “He seemed so confident about having all the right answers.”
“Opinions on life that you don’t agree with, then? Such as?”
Frank put on a face like he was trying to remember a specific example. She was quite sure he already had that example in mind, though.
“Yeah, there was one, I suppose,” he said casually. “Like he started the whole thing off with this humorous electrical story, something to break the ice with the audience, y’know? And he talks about how great his dad was, and how he could always depend on him. Said when he was a kid he blew out all the fuses in his house with a school project, and his dad had to call in sick and spend the whole morning to fix his mistake and make it all right.” Frank was rambling on at a pretty good rate, anxious to get his thoughts out. “And he kept flashing this grin, y’know, a long-suffering ‘how could my father have ever put up with me’ sort of look. He even said something at the end about ‘that’s just how it is for dads, right?’ Like their role is to always fix up after their kids problems.”
She squinted. “Remind me…you don’t have any children of your own?”
“No, but I know well enough that kids need to be able to handle their own issues. You can’t just solve it all for them.”
“Sure,” she nodded. “Sounds like something you’ve put quite some thought into.”
“Oh, I don’t know, I guess I just never want to treat my kids like how I was raised.”
There it was. He had brought it back up on his own. “How were you raised?” she asked offhandedly.
This time Frank spared the act of pretending to not have a story already in mind. “So I remember these times where my dad told me to wash our dog. Now I was real little, like maybe five or six, and we had a big dog and he hated getting those baths. He would growl at me and I was scared of him biting my hand off or something like that, so I’d just pull out the hose and spray him from a distance and let him shake himself off. I even poured out some of the soap from the bottle so it would look a little emptier. Course my dad could tell right away what I’d done. He just shook his head and took me back to show how it was ‘supposed’ to be done. He’d grab the dog tight and scrub him down, said I just had to show the mutt who was boss, like he did. Every time he knew I wasn’t going to wash the dog right, yet we kept on playing this charade where I’d get scared, and pretend to do it how he wanted, then he’d pretend to be surprised that I’d messed up and get frustrated about it.”
Denise grimaced sympathetically. “I see. Correction wasn’t really about empowering you to be better, just about making you feel worse already?”
“Yeah,” he said grimly.
“It was often that way?”
“What’s the earliest memory you have of him correcting you like that?”
“Oh…probably that same one. The times with the dog.”
“So around five or six you said?” she made a quick note on her clipboard. “When is one of the last times you can remember an example of that?”
Frank fidgeted again. “Oh—um, well I’m not sure exactly.”
“You don’t have to know exactly. Just what’s the latest example that comes readily to mind?”
Frank continued to fidget. She was sure that once again he already had a memory in mind, he just hadn’t decided if he was going to share it yet. She waited, giving him time to process, but gradually his eyes glazed over and became lost in the world of his own thoughts.
“Frank?” she prodded.
He shook himself back to the present. “I guess…” he said slowly. “I told you when we first met that my dad died in a boat accident. You remember? Well I was maybe thirteen or fourteen. We were on this big yacht that my father’s boss had rented out for his daughter’s wedding. Everyone was in their best clothes and I was playing in the back with my brother and the son of one of his work friends.”
He paused, so Denise nodded, encouraging him to continue.
“Well there was a little pool with a basketball hoop on the back, and we had taken one of the balls from that and were just goofing around with it. Just playing around like kids.”
He paused again, this time with a pained and divided expression, as though torn about continuing. Denise could also see the two halves of him as distinct beings, one trying desperately to reach through the passionless mask that the other tried just as desperately to hold on his face.
“So what happened?” she finally asked.
“The basketball we were playing with fell into the water… In our roughhousing it somehow went over the edge and bobbed on the surface farther and farther behind the boat. And then I heard someone running behind me and it was my dad, still dressed in his tuxdeo, complete with his jacket still on and everything. He just, looked at me…sadly…and then dove into the water to go and get that ball.”
“Your father—went into the water to retrieve a basketball?” Denise asked incredulously. She paused, drumming the end of her pen against the clipboard as she thought. “And he didn’t come back?”
Frank cast his eyes down bitterly. At first he was still as a statue, but slowly his whole body trembled and silent tears started to drip into his lap. “Those clothes just soaked in the water like a sponge. He hadn’t even taken his shoes off.” Frank gave a shuddering gasp and the tears came harder. “I—I feel so confused. I hate him so much for doing that, but I know I shouldn’t.”
“Because he left you to feel all the guilt of it?”
Frank considered this, head still bowed, then slowly nodded. “Why would he do that? I can still see his face as he ran by me. He looked so—determined. So condemned because it was like he had to dive in and he knew it was going to be dangerous. It’s not fair for him to put that shame on me, he shouldn’t have felt so obligated to fix my mistake that he would risk himself like that. I didn’t even mean to knock it in. It really was an accident.” He looked to her with a need, as if waning her to absolve him.
“I believe you,” she said, but she was still thoughtfully tapping her pen against the clipboard. “It wasn’t really a basketball that fell into the water, was it?”
As I said in my post on Monday, every story is combined of elements both authentic and fabricated. At the time I was referring to how the actual structuring of a story will need to ground itself in realism to be relatable to the reader, but also incorporate fantasy to fill in a meaningful narrative. However, as I wrote about that topic I was reminded that there is also a power to stories that allow their characters to stray between the lines of authenticity and fantasy as well.
In this story Frank has more than one part to him and more than one truth to express. By concealing the details of the event for which he feels most guilty, he is also revealing just how deeply his emotional trauma runs and signaling to the therapist that he needs her to dig there. A masterful writer will imbue characters with dialogue that accomplishes more than one purpose with every line. Dialogue can will always exist on the obvious surface layer, but it can also speak to deeper layers as well. It’s not an easy thing to pull off, though, and it would be well worth taking some time to examine this tool in greater detail next week. Come back on Monday when we’ll look closer at multilayered communication in a story.