What a time for this to happen! One look at me and the psychiatrist would decide I was just plain nuts.
When I was living in New York in the 1960s, almost everyone I knew was walking or running to the office of some psychiatrist. A hilarious drawing by the cartoonist Whitney Darrow, in The New Yorker, depicting two parents and their children lying side by side on an office floor in session with a psychiatrist, was said to have been drawn from his own life—or so Whitney claimed. I might have travelled the psychiatry route, which my doctor urged me to do after a painful divorce, except for a ludicrous mistake that saved me.
My doctor referred me to a psychiatrist whose office was right around the corner from me, two blocks uptown and two streets across. On the morning of my appointment, I woke up early in a nervous fit. I fiddled around, trying to decide what to wear; and then, what would I say when I got there? But time was running out, and a voice in my head said, Hey! You better hurry up, or you’ll be late.
Before I could dress, I had to have a bath. I was going to a doctor, wasn’t I? For as long as I can remember, I have never gone to a doctor or dentist or therapist appointment without performing three sacred rituals: a bath, then the toilet; and finally, brushing my teeth.
I rushed through my bath, put on my best suit, a red one imported from Switzerland with brass buttons and green trim, ran back into the bathroom to the toilet and then to the sink, grabbed my toothbrush and toothpaste and scrubbed my teeth. Then I reached for the mouthwash, a small bottle of red Lavoris, opened my mouth and sprayed inside.
A quick glance sideways in the mirror, a flash of red. Great heavens—my teeth were bright red! I shut my eyes and opened them again. I was not having a bad dream. My teeth actually were bright red. By mistake, I had picked up the small bottle beside the Lavoris, whose contents were also red, and sprayed my teeth with the red antiseptic Merthiolate.
I looked at my watch. Right now I should be on the street, halfway to my appointment. I shakily squeezed more toothpaste on my brush and scrubbed my teeth, hard. They were still bright red. The colour was not washing away.
What a time for this to happen! And with a psychiatrist, of all people. One look and he would decide I was just plain nuts. I opened my mouth and bared my teeth in front of the mirror, and tried to imagine that I was the psychiatrist seeing me, the patient, for the first time. I definitely looked crazy. I hoped that eventually the red would wear off. In the meantime, after this appointment—which it was too late to cancel—I would have to go into hiding.
I ran to the elevator, which crept slowly down eight floors, fled out the front door of my building and sprinted up the street. I stopped only once, to grin at myself in the glass of a store window. I could only pray: please, Doctor, whoever you are, have a sense of humour.
I arrived at the psychiatrist’s office, panting, with only one minute to spare. A small bald man in a white coat and gold-rimmed glasses opened the door. He introduced himself and led the way into his office, which was furnished with the usual desk and chair and another chair opposite, as well as a black leather couch off to one side. He sat down behind his desk and pointed to the chair facing him. I sank into it while he silently stared at me. I took a deep breath. Then I smiled my red smile. I thought, if he doesn’t smile back, I’m lost.
“You may wonder why I have red teeth,” I began hesitantly, continuing to smile.
He looked at me and waited. What could he possibly be thinking?
I stumbled through an explanation of how I had prepared for my appointment with him by taking a bath, putting on my clothes and brushing my teeth, then spraying them with Merthiolate. “A mistake,” I said with a nervous laugh. “I . . . I . . . thought I was spraying my mouth with Lavoris, which I always do before I go to a doctor. You know, brush my teeth, take a bath . . . and . . . so on . . . My mother always . . .” My voice trailed off. Oh, those cold eyes! That stony face! As we used to say, not a laugh in a carload.
After an awful silence, he said, “What do you do?”
“I’m a writer,” I said. I brightened up. “As a matter of fact, I have a piece in The New Yorker magazine this week.”
“What’s it about?” he said.
I smiled again, producing another impressive view of my scarlet teeth. “Eskimo food,” I said.
His eyebrows went up. Again he waited, silently. I stumbled through another explanation, this time of how I had just returned from a trip to Arctic Canada, where I had been observing attempts by Canadian government officials to introduce canned varieties of traditional Inuit foods, seal and whale meat and whale blubber, into Native communities. During weather so bad that the Inuit could not go out to hunt, or when their main food, caribou, mysteriously disappeared, they were threatened with and sometimes died from starvation.
The challenge, I went on, was to convince the Inuit that foods they had always consumed fresh could safely be eaten from a can during periods of food scarcity. We had brought with us canned samples of whale meat, seal flippers and especially the blubber they loved to chew, for them to try.
The psychiatrist was not at all interested in an experiment that I thought was fascinating. He fiddled with the pencils on his desk, made a few notes and abruptly changed the subject. He spent the rest of our allotted time in a thinly disguised attempt to find out whether I would be able to pay for future sessions. We made an appointment for the following week, and I departed. What an ordeal.
The day before I was to return for a further exploration of my psyche, I called up and cancelled.
There was a pause at his end of the phone. “I will of course expect you to pay for the cancelled session,” he said. “You can give the payment to me when you come again the following week.”
“Oh, Doctor, I won’t be coming back,” I said. “And since I am giving you plenty of notice, I will not be paying you for the cancelled session.”
It was a long time before I sought help again. Then it was with a Danish therapist who read to me from Hans Christian Andersen, and helped me plan the menu for the first dinner party I was going to give in my whole life all by myself. I was going to have a pot roast because it was so easy, and I was agonizing over whether to serve rice or potatoes with it.
“Potatoes,” he said.