KNOWING FREUD by Greg Lazarus
‘You may think you understand Freud.’ He pauses, looks around the packed cellar. ‘Perhaps you believe you know a lot about the man. But tonight we’re going in deep. I’ll be your guide. And I’ – a pat to the chest – ‘know a fuckload about Freud.’ We titter, looking up at Jeremy Jadalyan from our cross-legged positions. Beneath us, the cellar floor is hard and cold. JJ – the braver among us call him that to his face – makes tight laps of the cellar as he talks, stopping just before each wall, then turning, alternating tension and release.
It’s not easy to attend JJ’s seminar on psychoanalysis. None of the students know his criteria: one simply receives an invitation. Ours came via Melissa. A week ago she was standing to pack away her file after JJ’s lecture when she felt a tap on her shoulder and turned to find him there.
‘Speak to me when you’re finished,’ he said.
Directly in front of her a boy flicked a pen across the hall to someone, as if throwing a dart. Melissa packed her ruler and yellow highlighter into a small zippered pencil case while waiting for the class to empty. Only once everyone had left did she descend the stairs to JJ’s dais, where he was reading a journal article, waiting for her.
‘I’m sure you’ll benefit,’ JJ said, looking up. ‘Pure Freud, nothing diluted. Up at the farm. Come this weekend. You can bring that group you hang out with, the ones who always ask questions in lectures.’
‘Where is the farm?’ Of course she knew – everyone did – but that was all she could think to say. Up close, JJ was intense: black beard and a full head of curls, also a lustrous black. Did he dye it? The group had discussed this issue often over lunch, and we were divided into those for and against.
JJ tore a page roughly from a pad and leaned over the dais to write. Afterwards Melissa told us she hoped he would finish quickly; she felt uneasy there so close to him. She remained silent, though she confided that her heart was clapping inside her chest. Even when the directions were safe in her hand, scrunched in a closed fist as she walked out, she could hardly believe we’d been selected.
We take the trip up to the farm in Ben’s car that weekend. He drives fast with his arm out the window, elbow cocked. The sky is cloudless, and the weak light has turned the distant mountains to pale gold. Four of us are crammed in the back. Initially this causes much giggling – two leaning forward, two back, thighs pressed intimately together – but as the trip progresses, amusement gives way to cramped frustration.
Melissa voices hers first: ‘My foot’s gone to sleep. Actually both of them are asleep. Ben, please.’ She reaches forward to tickle the back of his neck with an index finger. ‘Stop the car, let us stretch.’
His neck contracts for a moment, a tortoise drawing into its shell. ‘Ticklish – stop it.’ But he sounds playful, not irritated. Ben pulls over and we tumble out the back. The boys walk about ten steps away, moving a distance apart from each other before turning their backs to pee. It spatters against the dry winter ground.
‘Not fair,’ shouts Melissa, facing the boys’ backs. ‘What are we meant to do?’
‘Squat,’ says Ben, turning his head over his shoulder to look at her. She does, feet spread, skirt hitched – no underwear around her ankles, the rest of us notice – and because the distance is shorter, the spattering sound is quieter, though still audible in the silence. Then she stands up again. Melissa’s legs have well-shaped calves, lean muscles with an elegant curve, and are tanned despite the season. They are made for display.
‘Come, we’re going to be late,’ says Ben.
We discuss JJ as the car picks up speed again. ‘Did you know, he recently spoke in France and they gave him a standing ovation after he presented his research?’
‘Apparently he’s found things in the brain.’
‘What kind of things?’
‘Neurological structures’ – two hands trace an oval shape in the air – ‘that prove Freudian theory beyond a doubt.’ We all agree that the French would never praise a foreigner unless they were sure of his worth. While we are talking, Melissa hums softly to herself and closes her eyes.
We turn from the highway onto a short gravel road. The car knocks along, the change of surface felt beneath our seats, a pleasant grinding sensation. It jolts us back to life, and a few of us shout out in pleasure that we’re finally there, thank God.
‘Melissa,’ says Ben. ‘Why did he specifically invite you?’
‘Because I’m the cleverest.’ We groan. ‘Joke. He would have asked any of us. I just happened to be around after the lecture.’
Another turn to the left, into an avenue flanked by oak trees – and up ahead, at the end of the road, is the farm house. JJ is standing on the stoep, his hand raised in greeting. Ben gets out the car and approaches first. He is lanky, his cheeks bearing the pitted scars of a prolonged battle with acne.
‘Long drive. Too many of us squashed into one car, I guess,’ he says, bending slightly so as not to loom over our lecturer. The rest of us form a haphazard greeting line behind him. JJ shakes each of our hands in turn, letting us feel that arriving at his place is an achievement in itself.
He nods in response to our exclamations of gratitude for the invitation; in personal interactions we have found him to be brief. When lecturing, he frequently goes over time, causing some of us to look surreptitiously at our watches – or, better still, at the watches on the wrists of others – though afterwards we all feel that the time flew.
We walk through the front door and turn immediately right into a low-ceilinged room smelling of thatch. In front of us is a bar taking up the entire width of the empty room, with several open bottles of wine and used glasses on the counter. Again, JJ welcomes us to his farm, and particularly to this tasting room, ‘the centre of the action around here’. We snicker. In a corner are steps leading downwards into the earth. ‘The seminar room,’ says JJ with a sweep of his hand in its direction. ‘We’ll go there tonight, after dinner.’
JJ leads us out of the tasting room and up a wooden staircase. Ben reaches for Melissa’s hand, and she threads her fingers through his: their first public display.
‘The bedrooms,’ says JJ at the top of the stairs. The passage is narrow; there are two bedrooms on one side and one on the other. ‘One small bedroom, two large ones.’ JJ stands back, arms now folded. ‘You decide where you want to sleep, of course.’
There is some confusion, because all the rooms need to be viewed before a decision can be made. Also, more importantly, we do not want to appear fussy or uptight in front of JJ. Melissa peels off first, into the smaller of the rooms on her left, pulling Ben in behind her, her fingers encircling his wrist. Her decision narrows the choice for the rest of us, and we divide into two groups: guys in one room, girls in the other. We are irritated, as if she has declared herself to be queen. While Melissa and Ben unpack, the rest of us gather in the girls’ dormitory.
‘God, that was embarrassing.’
‘Tell me about it.’
‘The way they –’
‘Ben and Melissa?’
‘Exactly. The way they rushed –’
‘She, you mean, not Ben.’
‘Yes, she – what will JJ think?’
‘I don’t think he liked it.’
‘Did you see the way he drew back his lips.’
‘It was a kind of snarl.’
‘That’s a very extreme way of putting it.’
‘How would you put it?’
‘I’d say he saw exactly what was going on. Melissa and Ben are turning inwards, to each other. They’re establishing a romantic attachment, and that’s okay, but it’s happening at the wrong time. This isn’t a moment for a couple to split off and just focus on each other.’
‘Exactly. We should be ready to work together, one group, grappling with the ideas.’
Dinner is held in the tasting room: cold meat, homemade bread and plenty of wine has been laid out. There are some familiar faces, older students, but most of them we’ve never seen before. The talk is hushed, despite the quantities of wine passed up and down the table. JJ is not there, but his wife is. She has short dark hair, cut page boy style, wears glasses, and dresses casually, in jeans and a buttoned flannel shirt. She seems friendly, though she lacks the powerful presence of her husband.
We wonder about their marriage. ‘What’s it like, living in JJ’s shadow?’
‘Can’t be easy. He’s probably very sensitive to that. Obviously he invites her to participate, be part of these events.’
According to Ben, Melissa is upstairs getting ready; she went for a long run through the vineyards upon arrival. We catch the pleasure in his eyes when he mentions her.
After dinner everyone goes down the staircase to the cellar. The room is lit with candles wedged into empty green wine bottles placed evenly along shelves set in the walls. We seem dramatic to one another, like figures by Caravaggio. A sharp scent of wine comes from the underground room; it is enough to make us lightheaded. Ben agrees with Melissa, who has rejoined us, her hair damp from her post-run shower, that it must have taken time to achieve this rather romantic effect. He says it’s hard to imagine JJ screwing a candle into each bottle, placing it in the appropriate spot.
‘Maybe the wife,’ whispers Melissa, looking at her across the room, where she’s leaning against the wall. She glances back. Melissa passes her finger through the flame of a candle a number of times, until it emerges with a black stripe. We have heard rumours that JJ’s wife is an artist, a ceramicist who sculpts creatures, half-human, half-animal. Ben claims the wife is an ex-patient of JJ’s.
The older guests take the chairs. Being the youngest, we sit cross-legged in the front, our knees skimming one another, except Melissa who extends her legs in front of her. Ben sits to her right; intermittently he rubs her back in a circular motion, as though soothing an infant. She offers no response. The room is warm and humid, verging on airless, from the close pack of bodies. Slowly the voices go quiet in anticipation.
JJ attacks the stairs, bounding down them two at a time. He is wearing a red shirt, as dark and rich as the wine at supper, and in the candlelight he is demonically handsome. ‘Welcome, welcome,’ he says, glancing around, drawing his arms apart when he gets to the front. ‘How wonderful.’ He takes a breath, gathering his forces. ‘You may think you understand Freud,’ he begins.
Afterwards, while JJ exchanges words with some of the older psychologists who have gone up to him, we stretch our legs. Melissa stands and bends to touch her toes, her straight black hair falling forward so that it covers her face.
‘Wasn’t it brilliant? I knew about Dora, of course, her repressed desire for her father, but the material came alive for me in a way it never has before. And the dream fragments –’
‘But what about JJ’s socks?’
‘What about them?’
‘His shoes were black, but his socks were white.’
‘Every time he moved, a glimpse of white. Why couldn’t he wear black socks? So much less distracting.’
‘You weren’t meant to look at his feet.’
‘But maybe you were. Maybe that was the point. JJ’s usually a stylish guy. Does he do anything by mistake?’
‘Okay. So the white socks were distracting, they didn’t go with the black shoes. What does that tell us?’
‘This is ridiculous – we’re over-interpreting.’
‘No wait, it fits. He’s trying to show us we need to open up. I mean, what’s wrong with black and white together? Who gets to legislate which colours match and which don’t? Basically, he’s expressing his freedom. And when we see what he’s doing, we liberate ourselves.’ This is right, we realise. Not just psychologically, but even aesthetically, JJ teaches by example.
It is past midnight – JJ has outdone himself in length – but no one feels tired, not after such a stimulating talk. ‘Let’s go for a walk.’
‘What, now? How about coffee upstairs?’
‘Come on, you only live once. But it’s up to you. No one can make up your mind for you.’
We all decide to go. First we’ll get some coats from our rooms, and a copy of Freud’s introductory lectures. We have the idea of reading the Wolf Man case by moonlight.
As we rummage in our backpacks, taking out something warm to wear over our shirts and dresses, Ben pops in from his room. ‘Melissa?’
‘That’s odd. I haven’t seen her since the talk.’
‘Maybe she’s taking a walk by herself. We could catch her up.’
‘I’m ready,’ Ben says, wriggling his feet into his flip flops. He has replaced his shorts with denims, but he’s still wearing his T-shirt, with nothing over it.
‘You’ll be cold. Take a jersey.’
Outside we make our way across a narrow strip of lawn towards the vineyards, bare of grapes because of the season. Ben snaps a twig from a branch, a sharp crack in the silence, throws it to the ground. He seems filled with pent-up energy. ‘Do you think JJ was as good as he usually is?’ he says.
We walk in silence for a while, under the moon. Some of us keep our arms folded in front of our chests: it is even chillier than we expected, the cold sneaking beneath the warmth of our coats. We rub our hands together, blow on them, our breath misty. Despite his thin shirt, Ben seems unaware of the cold. He is setting the pace with his long legs, his head turning, searching. Ahead of us, in a clearing, is a building, small and squat. There comes a glow from inside it. Ben moves towards it, pushing through small gaps in the vines to shorten the distance. Branches scrape against our cool cheeks and we feel irritated with Ben as the stinging intensifies.
‘What are you doing?’
‘I want to go there.’ He is pointing in the direction of the building.
‘Can’t we go round? These branches are sharp.’
‘Quicker this way.’ His speech is clipped. We are sore, out of breath, stirred by Ben’s agitation. We are half jogging to keep up with him. Up close, the dark structure becomes a pine cabin. The simplicity of the design – two windows, a door, a chimney, a short path of flagstones – is like a child’s drawing of a house. The front door is slightly ajar, a flickering light from within. Ben falters before entering, but then jerkily barges through – and we follow him.
The fireplace lights the room. On a rug spread before the orange flames, Melissa lies on her side, facing away from us, naked from the waist up, her long hair falling down her bare back. She rises on an elbow, half turns to us, and her expression is surprised, dismayed.
‘I’ll kill him,’ says Ben. His hands have balled into fists. He says it again, this time more firmly, as though to convince not only us but himself. But somehow we know it’s for show, that there will be no killing tonight.
‘Who? Who will you kill?’ It’s a woman’s voice. She enters the room from a door at the back, JJ’s wife, two glasses of red wine in her hand.
Ben is about to speak, but doesn’t. Maybe he doesn’t know what to say. Then he turns and leaves. The door closes – not quite a bang – behind him and us.
The next day JJ’s seminar lasts all day – on Freud, on psychoanalysis, on life. It is perhaps more sparkling than ever.
[The author retains copyright to this story. Please do not reproduce without permission]