When I was seeing Kilty (how, even today, the word ‘seeing’ mesmerizes me), the fact of my blindness was never mentioned, referred to, or alluded to. My recent friends cannot believe that could have been the case – indeed, from my present vantage point, I myself can scarcely believe it, especially since Kilty and I were so intimate in everything else. But in this respect my relationship with Kilty was not unusual; I was equally reticent about the subject with practically everyone else. The silence must have been a testament to the force of my will.
I now understand that, at the time, I was in the grip of the fantasy that I could see. The fantasy was unconscious and had such a hold on me, was so intense and had so many ramifications, that my girlfriend’s indulgence in it was the necessary condition of my loving her. Indeed, if I got interested in a woman and she interfered by hint or gesture with it, I would avoid her, feeling sad and frustrated. Yet there was hardly a day that I did not feel defeated, patronized and humiliated – when I did not wish to be spared the incessant indignities that assaulted me. To give a fairly innocuous example, I still come across a man I have known since my university days, several days a week, in a club to which we both belong, and every time I see him he tells me his name. I have gently told him many times that I recognize him by his voice, but to no effect. Although this man is a historian of international stature, he seems to lack the sensitivity to realize that a voice, in its way, is as distinctive as a face. Could it be that the fantasies that sighted people have about the blind are based less on reality than those that blind people have about the sighted?
I needed to be accepted on my own terms by Kilty and anyone else I was close to – it was easier for me to conduct myself as if I could see. So the fantasy was not wholly irrational. In order for me to live as if I could see, it had to remain largely unconscious. I had to function as if I were on automatic pilot. Talking about the fantasy, analyzing it, bringing it out into the open would have impeded my functioning. Or, at least, that was my unconscious fear. I went overboard. I allowed the fantasy to pervade every part of my life: the way I dressed myself, wrote books and articles, collected furniture and paintings. But even when I was most under the influence of my fantasy, I maintained the habit of checking external reality. I never walked off a cliff, for instance. Without such continual verification, I could not have survived in the sighted world.
Over the years, I have often asked myself, How was it that my girlfriends all played along without once slipping up? Was my fantasy contagious? Did I seek these women out because they were susceptible to my reality and, in their own way, could take leave of that reality and mold themselves to mine? Anyway, isn’t that the sort of thing that all people do when they are in love – uniting, as it were, to become, as Genesis has it, ‘one flesh’? Yet I wonder if, in my case, their accommodation prevented them from really getting to know me and me from really getting to know them, thereby condemning me to devastating isolation. But then, the fault was mine. I no doubt impressed them with my mastery of my surroundings. I did not feel limited in any way, and I think I must have felt that from the moment I became blind, two months short of my fourth birthday, as a result of an attack of cerebrospinal meningitis. When I was twenty-three, I published a youthful autobiography, which dealt with my illness and my blindness, but by the time I met Kilty eleven years later I had all but disowned the book as juvenilia, so I never mentioned it to her.
When I bounced back from my bout of meningitis, which lasted some two months, I probably forgot in my conscious mind what it had been like to see. Unconsciously, I assumed that I could do everything that anyone else could do – indeed, I was scarcely aware of any change, for I was incapable of distinguishing between sight and the absence of sight. Keats says that in ‘darkness there is light’, but the entire experience of darkness and light became, in a sense, meaningless to me. As a four-year-old child, I imagined that my world was everybody’s world. If I had been older, I might have experienced my blindness differently – hesitating, perhaps, to put one foot in front of the other, moving about with outstretched hands, or clinging to the end of my mother’s sari. Had that been the case, I would have experienced blindness as frightening, tragic, debilitating. As it was, I laughed and played, jumped around, ran about, hopped and skipped, climbed up and fell down – much as I had done when I could see.
This happened in Lahore, in then undivided India. At the time, my four sisters and one brother were all younger than twelve, and, like children anywhere, they made no concessions for me. My Westernized father, a born optimist, did not curtail his aspirations for me. Instead of equating me with the blind beggars outside the gate, he took inspiration from what Milton had attained and wished the best for me. Only my mother, a religious woman with very little schooling, was unable to extend herself to my new condition. Believing that blindness, like poverty, was a curse for misdeeds done in a previous incarnation, she would search my face for some sign of my bad deed and, finding it innocent, was sure that my blindness was merely a passing curse of the evil eye. No matter how much or how often my father, a medical doctor, explained to her that the long, raging fever had damaged my optic nerves and that I would be permanently blind, she insisted that my condition was temporary. She carted me around to healers and astrologers who prescribed Ayurvedic or Unani treatments, along with a variety of penances. She tried all of them. That was her form of denial, and it must have reinforced my own denial – my habit of living as if I could see. Within seconds of meeting a woman, I was able to surmise what they looked like – even the shade of their lipstick. But what they were not to know was that I had reached that level of mastery only after years upon years of using alchemy to transform my ears into my eyes – of developing, in Keats’s words, ‘blindness keen’.
At that time, in India, the blind were considered uneducable, and there were years at a time when I was not sent to school. Eventually I went to a school for the blind in Arkansas and then to college in southern California and then to Oxford and Harvard. I became a writer. Paradoxically, in order to live in the world, I had to live as if I could see, and yet that very way of living was a hurdle to acceptance by others, especially by any woman I loved, for, as long as I continued to hide from myself, how could I expect her to truly know and love me? Still, I met women and fell in love with them. One such case was Kilty.
It was November 1968 when, as if to soften the edge of a miserable wintry day, a shy young woman whom I had encountered at parties around town walked into my office at the New Yorker magazine. When I was first introduced to her I’d remarked on her unusual first name and she had told me that actually it was Katherine, but then when she was being brought home from the hospital her mother had proposed several nicknames, including Kathy, Katrina and Kat, but her father had said that the baby looked too uncommon for any of them, and had come up on the spot with ‘Kilty’. It had stuck.
‘I see you’re busy,’ she now said, backing out of my office and starting quickly down the hall.
I dashed after her and caught up with her near the elevator.
‘Don’t go away, Kilty.’
‘I don’t want to disturb you,’ she said.
‘You are not disturbing me – you’re brightening my day.’ I was surprised at my words, but her shyness encouraged me.
Kilty laughed in a girlish, high-pitched way, and her laughter rippled along the corridors. As we walked back to my office she would, now and again, fall behind or step ahead, to make way for curious colleagues, who had come out of their offices to look at the source of the laughter.
Sitting down and facing me across my desk, she said, ‘I think you know my father from the Century.’
Every now and then, I had indeed encountered her father, Timothy Chaste, at the Century, a men’s club for writers, artists and amateurs of the arts, situated on West 43rd Street.
‘I am a fan of yours, and I wonder if I could trouble you to read my poems,’ Kilty said, and pushed a folder across the desk. She had a little girl’s voice.
‘I’d love to read your poems,’ I said, and asked where I should return them to her. I seemed to remember she lived somewhere outside the city. She said she used to live in Pleasantville, but her parents had recently bought a co-op apartment, with a big mortgage, on Fifth Avenue. Last spring, when she graduated from college, she had moved in with them. She added quickly, ‘Maybe instead of your just sending your comments by mail we could have coffee somewhere near here and talk about my poems.’
We agreed to meet at Schrafft’s the next day, and I walked with her to the elevator.
Kilty’s poems turned out to be all about love and were rather elegiac. The voice was that of a confused college girl. The verses seemed formless and incomplete. Still, when we met for coffee, I had no trouble saying encouraging things about them.
‘Thank you – you can’t imagine how much your opinion means to me,’ she said. Her little girl’s voice, though shy, sounded to me like the jingling of bangles on a beckoning hand.
‘Gosh, I wouldn’t have thought my opinion would be so important to you,’ I said, and then, realizing that I seemed to be inviting compliments, I looked away.
‘I think of you more than you know,’ she replied.
Christmas was approaching. Kilty persuaded me to install a Christmas tree in my apartment – I had never had one before – and came round one evening to decorate it. She arrived with a sewing basket containing, among other things, pipe cleaners and colorful scraps of fabric and pieces of felt. While we sat and talked, she started stitching together some birds. Her sitting on my Italian-silk sofa and bending over the sewing in her lap – even as my mother, my sisters and my aunts had done, knitting, stitching and embroidering at home – gave the room a family touch.
When she had an assemblage of colorful birds, she showed me how to bend their little pipe-cleaner legs around the branches of the tree and we worked rapidly until much of the front of the tree was alive with the small, auspicious things. Now and again, by design as much as by accident, I touched Kilty’s hand: it was long, shapely and competent.
On Christmas Eve she invited me to dinner with her parents and her younger sister, Bronwyn, at their apartment. Mr Chaste seated me between Kilty and himself and talked to me as a friend, while his wife went through all the correct motions of a cordial hostess and treated me as one of the family. Nevertheless, the evening seemed a little stiff and forced, especially because Kilty acted as if I were her parents’ guest, conspicuously avoiding speaking to me. Yet the more she ignored me the more I felt drawn to her.
Early in the new year we had dinner with two friends at a German restaurant. When I walked her home, she seemed excited, almost hyper.
As we approached her building, I cautiously put my arm around her, and fully expected her to disengage herself gently. Instead, she turned her face toward me and rested her head on my shoulder.
I found myself kissing her. We circled the block, kissed again, crossed over to the park side of Fifth Avenue, kissed again and
In the morning, just as I walked into my office and was wondering about the appropriate time to call Kilty, the telephone rang.
‘It’s me,’ Kilty said. Perhaps because of her little girl’s voice, the greeting sounded very intimate. ‘Beware,’ I told myself. ‘Go slow. It takes you forever to recover from a love affair.’
‘Last night was wonderful,’ I said, not quite certain whether I was saying the right thing.
‘What are you doing tonight?’ she asked.
That’s a question that I should have asked, I thought.
‘I’m taking you out to dinner,’ I said quickly.
In speaking to her, I seemed to veer from caution to boldness, from one extreme to the other.
‘Same German restaurant?’ she asked.
‘I thought you might like a change.’
‘This little mouse is a homebody. She likes the same nibbles again and again.’
I found the way she talked in her little girl’s voice about nibbles both exciting and threatening. I was reminded of my mother, who had a girlish side, and who, like a child, was by turns sweet and arbitrary. I recalled how the atmosphere of the household would change from rational discourse to arbitrary fiat whenever my father went away and we were left under my mother’s thumb. One moment she’d be very cuddly when all I wanted to do was go outside and play, and the next moment she would start shouting at me for no reason I could imagine.
When Kilty and I went out to dinner that night, we happened to get the same table and the same waiter that we’d had the night before.
‘The same as before,’ she said. ‘This little mouse –’
‘I know. The mouse doesn’t like change.’
We both laughed.
Over dinner, Kilty told me that at boarding school and at college in Toronto she had painted posters and watercolors and sold them to fellow students in order to help pay for her education. When she came to New York, she felt that she had no practical skills for getting an ordinary job, so for the first month or two after graduation she had tried out painting as a career, and had made the rounds of galleries in SoHo and Greenwich Village. Although the gallery owners were very taken with her paintings, she didn’t sell any. Her father then suggested that she try modeling – she was stunning, with a delicate face and deep blue eyes set off by long jet-black hair – and that was what she was doing now.
Modeling: what an odd suggestion for a father to make, I thought, and I asked her if she liked being a model.
‘No, I don’t – it’s horrible. Many of the models I have to hang around with at the agencies have never set foot in a college, and they shamelessly offer themselves to slimy hustlers just to get one measly little job. Outright prostitution would be more honest than modeling.’
‘Doesn’t your mother object to your modeling?’ I asked.
‘What’s wrong with people admiring a beautiful body? It makes me happy that God has given me good looks to share.’
I was taken aback by her abrupt change of stance. I quickly turned to another subject, and asked her whether she had ever thought of going to graduate school.
‘After you’ve lived and worked in New York City as an adult, it’s hard to go back to campus living,’ she said.
‘I suppose anything would be better than the dreary life of a graduate student,’ I said, trying to be agreeable.
‘How can you say that?’ she asked sharply. ‘I thought that, as an Oxford man, you had the highest regard for academic life. As it happens, I’ve been seriously considering going on to Yale for a PhD. I love studying. I could even become fond of New Haven.’
Glossing over her contradictions, I told her about my experience as a graduate student – how I had loved Oxford but found Harvard cold and uncaring.
‘What was Oxford like?’ Kilty asked eagerly. ‘Bronwyn talks about going there when she finishes college.’
There was so much to say about Oxford that I could think of no one concrete thing. I finally said, ‘I had my happiest years there.’
‘What were your friends there like?’
I told her about Dom Moraes, a vivid poet friend of mine, and, on an impulse, described the funny way we’d sometimes talked, inserting ‘tiny’ before certain words and attaching ‘kins’ to others.
She suddenly became excited. ‘You mean I might say to Dom, “I’m having a tiny dinner with Vedkins”?’
‘That’s about right. And sometimes, if we were especially silly, we would call each other “ducks”. I think that was a take-off on “duckie”, which is what English shop assistants used to call us.’
‘How wonderful! Can we talk like that to each other?’
‘You don’t scorn such talk as precious and adolescent?’
‘I’d love calling my tiny boyfriend Vedkins.’
Gosh, what have I let myself in for? I thought. That stuff had sounded pretty silly even at Oxford when we were undergraduates.
‘I don’t think that kind of fatuous Oxford talk would go over in America,’ I said.
‘Why do you always think in big categories, like women and America? The “tiny” stuff will be our private talk, just between you and me. You know, I still call Bronwyn “Roo”, and she calls me “Piggy-winks”. And sometimes when we really don’t want anyone to know what we’re saying, we talk pig Latin, lickety-split. So you see that we Americans have silly talk, too.’
‘What are you thinking?’ Kilty said a moment later.
‘I was just wondering if you minded that I wasn’t an American.’
‘You are such a wondrous bird. Don’t you know that we Americans are all originally immigrants?’
‘So you don’t mind?’
‘I find you very exotic – like baklava!’
On the street corner, I hesitated between turning south and taking her to her parents’ apartment and turning north and inviting her to my apartment. Kilty instinctively turned north, and I fell in step.
Once we were inside my apartment, she sat down on the sofa. I sat down next to her, and we embraced.
Later, as I switched off the lamp on the bedside table, I remembered an episode with Gigi, my first serious girlfriend, when I had suddenly become impotent. I started shivering.
‘Why are you shivering so?’
‘It’s no good!’ I cried, pulling away from her. ‘I’m good for nothing.’
‘You should have nothing to do with me,’ I cried into the pillow.
‘I can’t stop shivering. It’s all over.’ I was getting maudlin. ‘You don’t know awful things about me,’ I said. ‘I’m not a man.’
I expected Kilty to say, as Gigi had done, that I shouldn’t worry, that it didn’t matter – I wanted her to console me – but she did nothing of the kind. Instead, she said, ‘First-time jitters.’ She threw herself on me and wrapped herself around me, biting and licking me. I remember thinking that she was as voluptuous as a Zola heroine.
I revived in a rush. She was initiating me into making love with my whole body. My relief, however, was momentary. Her wild passion stirred a new fear in me, different from the earlier, paralyzing one but equally intense – that she would be demanding and uncontrollable. I never stopped to think whether she was actually wild or I simply perceived her that way, because I was still ignorant of the true scope of a woman’s passion and needs. Even as I was delighting in her unrestrained lovemaking, I worried that I might not measure up to her expectations, and so a more desirable man would materialize and tear her away from me.
‘You’re scowling. What’s the matter?’ she asked.
‘Nothing. Just for a moment, I had a bad thought.’
‘What was it?’
‘I was remembering some losses.’
‘You are my strange, tiny Vedkins. My very own tiny Vedkins.’
I take things too seriously, I thought. I must learn to enjoy things. She’s being playful. That’s part of lovemaking.
I fell asleep with my cheek resting on her shoulder.
Where shall I put the question? I asked myself. The apartment? There’s no romance in that. In a restaurant? That’s a public place. On the Top of the Sixes, with a stunning view of the city I love? That’s touristy. On a boat on the Circle Line? That’s certainly romantic, but also public and a bit tacky. Take her away to an inn somewhere in the Catskills? That’s sort of middle-aged – OK for divorcées and widowers but not right for young love. Walking along the Brooklyn Bridge? That’s all right for spring, but not for the winter. Still, I didn’t want to let another day go by. We’d been together now for only a few weeks, but I was deeply and irrevocably in love. Trying to learn from what I thought of as mistakes with other women, I was determined not to be tardy and casual. I felt that I had to take control and act quickly.
When I was in high school, I had fallen under the spell of J.D. Salinger and his toy epic, The Catcher in the Rye, and had been mesmerized by Holden Caulfield’s ingenuous question to a New York taxi driver: ‘You know those ducks in that lagoon right near Central Park South? That little lake? By any chance, do you happen to know where they go, the ducks, when it gets all frozen over?’ In my adolescence, I had identified with those migrating ducks.
I decided that as soon as Kilty and I got together that evening, I would coax her to take a walk with me in Central Park and steer her to the duck pond. We had generally been meeting for dinner at my apartment after she finished her day of modeling – or, what was more likely, looking for modeling jobs. But that day she was held up during some modeling session and didn’t get to my apartment until about nine-thirty, by which time it was dark and not safe to be out in the Park. It was also fiercely cold. I had to put off my proposal until the next day, and I thought that that was just as well, because it happened to be Saturday and I could take her to the Park in the afternoon, when the sun might be out.
After we’d had a potluck – since I was incompetent in the kitchen, she always did the preparing – she slumped down on the bed, uncharacteristically neglecting to wash the dishes, and said, ‘I hate my body. I hate men gawking at me. It makes me shy all over. When I’m posing for the camera, I always squirm and fidget, and then they have me start all over again. That just makes the sessions longer and more agonizing.’
‘You are tired, sweet – just close your eyes and rest,’ I said, lying down next to her and reaching for her.
‘Leave me alone,’ she said, and she turned to the wall and began crying into the pillow. ‘I hate you,’ she sobbed.
‘You can’t mean that,’ I said, trying to get close to her.
She edged away from me, toward the wall.
‘Has something happened?’ I asked weakly.
‘You should know.’
‘Kiltykins,’ I said, ‘what has happened to my tiny girlfriend?’
‘Don’t you dare call me that.’
She had never spoken to me that way before, and she seemed so remote that I myself started crying.
‘Please turn to me, please look at me,’ I pleaded, but she kept her face averted and pressed into the pillow. I ventured to stroke her back, but she didn’t respond.
‘I hate being a kept woman. Why haven’t you asked me to marry you?’ she demanded, her voice muffled by the pillow.
‘Oh, no! Is that what’s rankling you? This very evening, I was going to ask you to ma-ma-marry.’ I still couldn’t say the word without stammering, so the sentence remained unfinished. I was now almost thirty-five. The long years of wanting to be married hadn’t helped me overcome the feeling that I could never be married.
‘You were really going to ask me?’ Suddenly warm and tender, she wiped my tears away with the end of the bed sheet and snuggled up next to me, as abruptly as she had earlier turned her back on me. ‘I feel like a bad girl. Will you forgive your tiny Kiltykins? Sometimes demons take hold of me. I don’t know where they come from, but they come and go like dog days.’
‘I was going to propose to you this very night, and then we could have tied the knot whenever you wanted.’
‘What were you going to say?’
‘Some sweet things,’ I said, and I told her of my plans.
‘Well, let’s go there tomorrow, just as you planned – by the duck pond,’ she said.
‘You don’t think I’ve ruined the surprise?’
‘But I haven’t given my answer. A lady needs to be properly wooed and given time to think.’
She then threw herself on me passionately.
The next day I took Kilty for lunch at a little Italian restaurant on Madison Avenue, and afterward we walked over, through a cold, sunless afternoon, to the pond. It was windswept and bleak, and there was not a single duck or child in sight.
‘Well?’ she prompted.
I was flustered. ‘Will you marry me?’ My words came out in a single breath. I wondered whether I had surrendered to her what should have been entirely my initiative.
‘In books, men kneel on one knee.’
I knelt down, and she seemed happy.
‘But I’m waiting for your answer,’ I said.
‘You know so little about me. I gave you my answer when I slept with you.’
‘I was hoping for a definitive response, sweet.’
She flung her arms around me and kissed me powerfully, murmuring, ‘Yes . . . yes . . . yes . . . yes.’
As Kilty and I were walking back to my apartment, after the formalities at the duck pond, I said to her giddily, ‘The moment we get home, I’m going to telephone my parents in New Delhi, and Jasper and Miriam, my friends in Oxford . . .’
Her hand in mine went rigid.
‘Are you all right?’
‘Yes,’ she said, in a distant voice. Then she said, ‘You aren’t to breathe a word about marriage to a soul.’
‘I won’t if you don’t want me to – but why not?’
‘Don’t ask me any questions unless you want me to flip.’
‘I won’t,’ I said accommodatingly.
Her spell – or whatever it was – passed, but the rest of the way home I stepped along in a gingerly fashion, as if my very balance had been shaken. Finally, in the evening, when she was her relaxed, flirtatious self again, I asked her the reason for the secrecy.
‘I must speak to Pappy and Mother before anyone else hears about our marriage. You can’t have any idea how much persuading it will take to get them to agree. I’ll have to find just the right moment, or everything may go kaput.’
‘I don’t understand,’ I said. ‘You talk as if your parents regarded me as a pariah.’
‘The problem is not with you, sweet. It’s with them. You don’t know my parents. Mother is so moral, with such strict principles, that she would never give her consent – never accept you into the family if she knew that you’d already slept with me.’
‘Why does your mother have to know anything about that?’
‘She has her ways of finding out. Ever since I was small, she has been able to look right through me and know whether I’m lying.’
I tried another approach. ‘Maybe I could have a word with your father in the club.’
‘You don’t know Pappy. He’s very possessive of me. Only Mother can bring him around.’
‘I know he’s eccentric,’ I said, ‘but he has always been friendly to me at the club. I think I can talk to him man-to-man.’ I realized as I spoke that I owed such self-confidence to Kilty.
‘Please don’t even think of talking to Pappy,’ she protested. ‘If you love me, you will let me handle my parents in my own way.’
‘I will, but I need to understand what I’m up against.’
‘If you must know, Pappy and Mother want for their daughters blond, blue-eyed, tall, all-American boys, who are good Protestants like themselves. And you are dark, and unconventional in looks and on top of it, an Indian and a Hindu. Another thing against you is that you are a writer. Pappy has had so little success with his drawings that he never wanted us girls to go near anyone who was in the arts. He wants us to marry doctors or lawyers.’
I said to Kilty, ‘You’ve got to lead your own life. It may take your parents some time but they are good people and they will accept anyone you love.’
‘I know that. And time is the very thing I want to give them. All I ask of you is patience.’
Patience, I thought. How can I forget how patient she was on our first night together?
So it was that what should have been our joyous news became our miserable secret. When we were together near my apartment, we’d skulk around in case her parents might catch sight of us and she even stopped meeting me anywhere in the vicinity of the club, in case we should run into her father.
At the time Muriel Spark had an office across the corridor from mine at the New Yorker, and we became fast friends. Hardly anyone was more fun to be with than Muriel. She dressed like a schoolgirl but had a muscular intelligence, and was full of tart observations and laughter. I was so taken with her and her books that within a few weeks of meeting her I’d read nearly all her novels.
I told Muriel about Kilty, and after that Muriel would always ask me, ‘How are you and Kilty getting along, Veders? When am I going to hear some wedding bells?’ Not knowing that all the resistance came from Kilty, she used to badger me for holding back.
One evening, she had dinner with Kilty and me in the apartment, and after she had gone Kilty said, ‘I found your friend Muriel cold and frightening. I couldn’t wait for her to leave. I’m sure she has X-ray eyes and she could see right through me.’
‘I don’t think she has X-ray eyes at all,’ I said. ‘Nor is she particularly cold.’
‘If you say so,’ Kilty said in a resigned tone. Then she picked up and opened Muriel’s novel The Bachelors, which Muriel had brought as a present. ‘Look, she has inscribed it to you: “To my favourite bachelor.” What a wonderful inscription.’
‘Actually, it’s a bloody insult, à la Muriel,’ I said. ‘She’s comparing me to the criminal-protagonist of the novel. As she sees it, I am leading a barren life. She’s as acerbic with her pen as she’s sweet with her tongue. On second thought, maybe she just wishes me well and is trying to hasten me on toward marriage.’
‘So she guessed our secret?’
‘It’s no secret that we are seeing each other,’ I said.
‘I’m sure she thinks I’m a witch.’ Kilty’s voice quavered so eerily that I almost had the illusion that it belonged to someone else.
‘I’m sure she thinks no such thing,’ I said.
One evening, soon after Muriel Spark’s visit, both Kilty and I got off work a little early, and we walked over to a market and bought shrimp, rice, asparagus, onions, thyme and bay leaf. When we got home, laden with our purchases, I put Don Giovanni, a favorite opera of ours, on the gramophone while Kilty prepared an East-West combination of shrimp curry and wild rice. As always, it was exciting to have Kilty puttering about in my kitchen and filling the apartment with homey aromas. She deftly cut, mixed and ground – at every stage cleaning up after herself, so that the kitchen was almost as neat as when she started. Perhaps because for most of my life I had been living in a solitary environment, I was disturbed by disorder and so was especially taken with her standards of neatness.
When Kilty finished in the kitchen, we went into the living room, turned the opera down and ate at the dining table. After dinner I poured a little brandy into a couple of crystal snifters and we settled down together on the sofa.
‘Coby called today, and I’m going to Philadelphia to see him tomorrow,’ she said without any preliminaries. ‘I broke up with him last October, just before I went to Paris with Michael.’
I knew about Michael – he was a good friend of mine – but Coby was news. I was stunned.
‘You’ve never mentioned Coby before,’ I said.
‘You’ve never mentioned any of your ex-girlfriends to me, either.’ Her tone was defiant – one of tit for tat.
Why had I never stopped to think about her earlier involvements, I wondered. Why hadn’t I learned something from my experience with Gigi? Why had I simply assumed that I was Kilty’s first love, even though every woman I had previously been involved with seemed to bring with her the memory of another lover?
‘But there hasn’t been a woman in my life for a long time,’ I protested.
‘I know,’ she said, putting her head affectionately on my shoulder. ‘Don’t be alarmed.’
‘But I am, very alarmed. How many beaux have you had?’
‘You know about my liaison with Michael, and I had a beau when I was at boarding school, but Coby, whom I started dating in college, was the only serious one.’
‘How long were you together?’
‘Two, three years, but why is that important?’
‘Do you still think about him?’
‘I still sometimes wake up from dreaming about him.’
‘Do you dream much about me?’
‘Do you feel competitive with him?’
‘Yes, and desperately jealous.’
‘I can’t swear that you have no reason not to be.’ She cuddled up to me. ‘Sweet, don’t put me through an inquisition.’
‘I must know, Kilty. I can’t –’ I broke off.
‘Before I can be really all yours I must take leave of Coby properly. I will have no peace unless I do.’
‘Kilty, I’ve gone through this business of waiting for a girlfriend to say goodbye to an old boyfriend before,’ I said. ‘I’m not going through it again.’
She pulled away and half stood up. ‘You want me to walk out the door and never come back?’ Her voice quavered, as it had after she met Muriel.
Her threat was so unexpected and so at variance with my perception of her character that I wondered in passing whether I knew the woman I had so recently proposed to at all.
‘Please don’t talk like that,’ I said. ‘I’ll do anything you want. Sit back down. Relax.’
On the gramophone, Leporello was singing ‘Madamina, il catalogo è questo’.
‘There is no way I could ever be happy with you – or with anyone else – unless I squared things up with Coby,’ she said, sitting down and sounding like a little girl again.
I didn’t want to hear anything more about Coby. Images of her kissing him were already disturbing me. I felt as though I needed a Wailing Wall. I told myself that instead of sweeping away thoughts about Coby I should try to learn every last thing about him.
Inwardly, I was crying, but I said, in my most encouraging voice (the one I used for interviewing reluctant subjects), ‘Tell me more about Coby. He sounds fascinating.’
‘You know the way people refer to Frank Sinatra as “Old Blue Eyes”? Well, everyone at Toronto used to refer to Coby as “Bedroom Eyes”.’
The nickname was so unexpected that I flinched.
‘What does “Bedroom Eyes” mean?’ I demanded. ‘It tells me nothing about his eyes. Are they restless, or deep, or penetrating, or seductive? Is his gaze so intense that you feel you are in his power? Are they those X-ray eyes that can see through you, unclothe you?’
‘Don’t overdo it,’ she said. ‘I know how you feel.’
‘I’d really like to know who my competition is,’ I said.
‘To begin with, he’s not your competition. Besides, you must control your jealous impulses.’
‘It’s only fair that I should know something about him,’ I said. ‘What did he major in? What is he doing in Philadelphia?’
‘Please, don’t. Not so fast.’
‘Who is he? How long have you known him?’ I knew I was beginning to sound prosecutorial, but I couldn’t seem to check myself.
‘If you must know, we met at Toronto. We were taking the same class and he started passing notes to me.’
Exchanging billets-doux right under the nose of the unsuspecting professor – how sly and intimate.
‘Now Coby’s at the University of Pennsylvania Law School,’ she said. ‘He’s the top student there.’
Oh, God! Unlike me, he will have a real profession, I thought. He can give her financial security, while I can only struggle to make ends meet.
‘Why do you look so sad?’ she asked.
‘Is Coby very handsome?’ I asked.
‘When I first saw him, I ran in the other direction, because he looks like a movie star. But, sweet, don’t torture yourself. I’ve broken up with him, and that’s the end of it.’
‘But it’s not the end of it if you want to go and see him.’
‘I want to go and be with him, not for my sake but for his. He can be really violent, and I want to make sure he doesn’t do harm to himself.’
‘Why couldn’t you just talk to him on the telephone?’
‘As I told you, I am finished with him, but he’s not finished with me. I have to help him get over me.’
‘If I were you, I’d make myself scarce – cut off all communication,’ I said. ‘Otherwise, you’ll simply be reminding him of what he’s lost, and prolonging his misery.’
‘How little you understand about women.’
Understand women! Was I as ignorant about them as she seemed to think I was? And how different from men were they, really?
‘It’s true. I don’t have much knowledge of women,’ I said.
‘But at college you must have gone on a lot of dates.’
‘I didn’t,’ I said. ‘I must know where you will be staying if you go to Philadelphia.’
‘In Coby’s apartment.’
‘Why do you have to stay with him?’
‘Why not? I’ve always stayed with him. If you think Coby would let me stay anywhere else, you’re crazy.’
I could contain myself no longer. ‘Kilty, I’ll go mad if you stay with Coby. It’s cruel. It’s unbearable.’
I half expected her to get up and head for the door, but she didn’t make a move. Instead, she said, in a bantering tone, ‘I thought
that as a writer you would have a greater range of sympathies – that you’d be tolerant of people who are quirky and do unconventional things.’
‘I might like to write about someone who’s quirky and does unconventional things, and I might even be drawn to such a person, but it doesn’t follow that I would want to live with her.’
‘So my Vedkins doesn’t want to live with me.’
‘Kilty, be serious. You know that’s not what I was saying. I just find the idea of your staying with Coby insane.’
‘I am disappointed in you.’
‘I am disappointed in you.’
Kilty went to Philadelphia on Friday without giving me Coby’s number. She asked me merely to wait for her calls, and then she didn’t telephone until Saturday afternoon. She explained that she hadn’t been able to call earlier, because she couldn’t talk privately to me from Coby’s apartment.
‘Where are you calling from, then?’ I asked.
‘From a telephone booth.’
I knew that I was being blunt, but I asked her, ‘You aren’t sleeping with him, are you?’
‘What do you think?’
‘Of course not.’
‘Then why do you ask?’
‘Look, Kilty, I’m going crazy. Just swear to me that you’re not.’
‘Do you cuddle?’
‘What kind of question is that?’
‘Kilty, I have to know.’
‘He tries, but I tell him I’m spoken for. Don’t you trust your Kiltykins?’
‘I do, but I grew up hearing my father say, “All men are wolves.” ’
‘Then your father has Coby’s number.’ She laughed.
‘Don’t you see why I have these head-splitting images? Can’t you just say goodbye to Coby and get on the next train and come back?’
‘I gave Coby my word that I would stay with him for three days.’
‘Tell him that your fiancé is about to check into the mental hospital – that he needs you.’
‘Shhh. I told you that has to be a secret.’
‘What? My going into the loony bin?’
‘No, silly, the duck pond.’
‘Why can’t you say “our engagement”? Coby isn’t there, is he?’
‘I think of it as “duck pond”. Do you mind?’
‘But why does that have to be a secret from him?’
‘Because he’s my mother’s pet. He still talks to her. Or when he’s feeling lonely he calls Bronwyn. They call each other Buddy, and they’re very close.’
‘I myself need some comforting.’
‘Why don’t you take Bronwyn out to lunch?’
My anger was mounting.
‘I’m sorry I’m putting you through all this, but it’s necessary,’ she said. ‘Do you know why I love you so much? Because you’re the strongest man I’ve ever known. Stronger than Coby, stronger than Pappy. Just let me get through this in my own way.’
‘But I don’t feel strong. I have these nightmares. I seem to be always shivering.’
‘In a little more than two days, I’ll be back, dear heart.’
‘Where do you sleep?’
‘You know that law students are very poor. He just has a studio apartment.’
‘How many beds does he have?’
‘One? So where do you camp out?’
‘He has a sofa.’
‘Where do you get dressed?’
‘In the bathroom.’
‘What do you wear when you sleep?’
‘Does he turn off the lights, or does he see you in your nightie?’
‘Of course, he sees me in my nightie. I told you, he lives in a one-room apartment.’
‘Is there a lock on the bathroom door?’
‘What questions you ask! I don’t know. Vedkins, I trust him. He would never do anything stupid. If he did, that would be the end of everything.’
‘But I thought everything had already ended.’
‘I mean, after something like that we couldn’t even be friends.’
‘I don’t think you can be friends with someone with whom you had a deep involvement. There is too much history.’
‘Most of the time, I forget you’re not an American, but sometimes you really talk like an Indian.’
‘I am an Indian.’
‘But you’re living in America.’
‘Your toilet things.’
‘What about them?’
‘Do you keep them in a toilet bag or are they spread around the bathroom?’
‘I don’t have a toilet bag. When have you ever seen me with a toilet bag?’
‘I don’t want your toothbrush to be touching his toothbrush.’
‘What did you say?’
‘Dammit, I don’t want him to be mucking around with your toilet things.’
‘He would never do that. I must go. Coby is calling me.’
‘I thought you were telephoning from someplace other than his apartment.’
‘I’m calling from a bank, but he’s waiting outside the booth.’
When she finally came back from Philadelphia, I asked her, ‘Are you over and done with Coby?’
‘You talk as if I’d gone to bury him.’
‘Kilty, you know what I mean.’
‘I don’t.’ There was a sharpness in her voice that made me wince. ‘Do you think you can finish a relationship over a weekend? Is that how you finish your relationships? You should have warned me if that’s the kind of person you are.’
‘But, Kilty, you told me –’
‘I told you that I will be all yours, but only after I have nursed Coby through this terrible black period.’
‘You don’t mean to say you’ll have to go back to Philadelphia?’
‘I think I can handle it over the telephone, and take care of things when he comes to New York – or, at least, that’s what I think now. But I must be free to do whatever I think is right.’
‘Why in hell would he be coming to New York?’
‘To see me, Bronwyn and Mother. Besides, he has some family here.’
‘Did your mother find him suitable for you?’
‘Of course. He is so handsome and presentable.’
‘In other words, I’m not.’
‘What do you expect? He looks like a movie idol.’
‘Then your mother is dumb to prefer him to me. I mean “would be” when she gets to know about us.’
‘Now you’re getting personal. In America, we are not rude about people’s mothers.’
Listening to her, I sometimes felt that she was the reasonable one and I was the unreasonable one. How could I expect Coby to stop loving Kilty, just like that? Would I have Kilty treat Coby with any less kindness than my last girlfriend had treated me? The truth was that I was beginning to discover in myself sympathy for Coby. I told myself, ‘You’ve been behaving like an ogre. Stop persecuting Kilty. Show some understanding for Coby.’
‘You must help him to get over you,’ I said. ‘In his place, I would expect nothing less from my Kilty.’
Summer came and went. Every two or three weeks either Kilty would go to Philadelphia or Coby would turn up unexpectedly in New York. And she so arranged matters – unconsciously, I presumed – that I was never able to meet Coby and judge for myself how much of a threat he really was. On top of all that, she would frequently swear that she was going to talk to her parents about our engagement and would later come up with an excuse for not doing so. Whenever I pushed her on the subject, her voice would harden and her hands would tense up. At first, I didn’t know what to do, but eventually I caught on that if I hugged her she would immediately relax, almost as if she had been playing a little game.
One Saturday evening, when I was walking Kilty home after dinner, she was especially warm and forthcoming and I seized the opportunity to bring up something that had been puzzling me about her.
‘I sometimes feel that I know two Kiltys. I mean, there is this Kilty I am walking with. But there is also the other Kilty, who, without any warning, can become as stiff as a poker.’
‘You’re talking about the demon Kilty. I’d like to be free of her, too, but I have no control over her.’ There was an undertone of deep distress in her little girl’s voice.
‘Why don’t you have control over those demons?’ I asked, gently.
‘Because Libbie takes me over.’
‘Who is Libbie?’ I pressed.
‘Libbie was our little sister.’
‘I’ve never heard you mention her before.’
‘We never talk about her, because Pappy was watching her on the beach. She was just a little girl when she drowned. Maybe Pappy’s attention wandered, or maybe Bronwyn and I distracted him. Please don’t ask me for any more details.’ She seemed on the verge of tears.
As I was kissing Kilty goodbye just outside her building, she said, ‘I’ll be leaving for New Haven tomorrow. I’ve been accepted at Yale.’ She was going to study for a PhD in English literature.
I berated her for never telling me about her plans.
‘I applied just as a lark. I was sure I wouldn’t get in.’
‘I can’t bear the thought that you’ll be in New Haven while I’m in New York. If you want to go to graduate school, why don’t you go to Columbia?’
‘It’s too late to apply anywhere else now, and Yale is giving me money.’
The next day, I took Kilty to Grand Central Station, and hauled her suitcase full of clothes and books from the taxi to the platform.
‘It won’t be too bad for you, sweet, will it?’ she asked.
I felt like yelling, ‘What do you think? Why are you doing this to us?’ But instead I said, ‘No, it won’t be too bad. I’ll try to come up on weekends.’
‘Wouldn’t that be very disruptive to your work?’
‘It will be OK.’
‘It will be expensive – what with taxis, trains, hotels and restaurants.’
‘I’ll manage,’ I said.
‘So you’ll come up next Friday?’
I hadn’t planned on it, but I said yes.
‘So we’ll be separated for only five days – right?’
‘And every night I’ll call you and wish you goodnight.’
‘Yes, of course.’
‘Once I get used to graduate school, maybe I’ll be able to come down for weekends and spare you the trouble. And, you know, I don’t have to stay at Yale the whole year. Your Kiltykins might be fed up to her gills by December.’
‘Since you’re going, you should make the best of it,’ I told her. Why am I saying things that I don’t mean, I wondered. By not being honest about my feelings, I’m playing games with her. But what choice do I have?
‘Dealing with my parents will be so much easier once I’m not living under their roof. I could announce our wedding to Mother and Pappy over the phone, and if they didn’t agree we could just go down to City Hall in December and get married.’
‘Yes, of course.’ I felt old and tired.
Within hours of her departure, Kilty sent me a telegram saying that unless I objected she would arrive in New York City the following Friday evening. That made me wonder why she hadn’t waited until the end of the day, when we would be talking on the telephone.
Kilty arrived in the city late that Friday. I suggested that the next day we go to Cartier so that I could get her an engagement ring. ‘Even if you shouldn’t wear the ring, it would be a testament of our promise at the duck pond,’ I said.
Kilty agreed with such alacrity that I reproached myself for not having suggested the expedition earlier.
At the jeweler’s, the salesman, a vice president of the company, announced in a manner both deferential and unctuous, ‘I have never failed to satisfy a bride with just the right ring.’ As he brought out a tray of rings with ornate settings of single diamonds flanked by smaller diamond baguettes, he added, ‘Diamonds are forever.’
Kilty shyly slipped one or two of the rings on to her finger but then said firmly, ‘I don’t like diamonds.’
The salesman was clearly surprised but, turning to me, he said, ‘Madam is right. Diamonds are not for everybody.’ He turned to Kilty and asked her if she had a favorite stone.
‘Gravestone,’ she said to me, under her breath in pig Latin, but brightly asked the salesman if he could show her some rubies, and he brought out another tray of rings. Kilty chose a modest platinum ring discreetly set with a blood-red stone, and, putting it on her finger, examined it, back and front.
‘I love it,’ she said. ‘I think I read somewhere that this is a stone of passion.’ Taking it off and playing with it, she asked the salesman if there was any danger of the stone’s falling off while she was washing the dishes.
Another educated girl might look down on domesticity, but my Kilty thrives on it – goes public with it, I thought. Maybe we really are on our way to being married.
‘I can guarantee, madam, that the ruby is well set and that the ring can undergo a lot of punishment,’ the salesman said.
‘We’ll take it,’ I said, without asking the price.
‘Spoken like a bridegroom,’ the salesman remarked.
I started. The word ‘groom’ made me think of someone taking care of a horse, rather than a woman, and, in any case, it did not quite fit me.
I made out a cheque for 41,102.40. While the salesman was writing the receipt, with his back to us, Kilty put the engagement ring back on her finger and said, in a whisper, ‘This tiny duckie now has a duck-pond souvenir.’
She might go about things in a lighthearted way, but she fully savors them, I thought. Her way is much better than my serious approach.
One day in early October, Kilty announced on the telephone, without any preliminary, ‘I may never be able to do it.’
‘Do what, sweet?’
For a moment, I imagined that she was in the middle of one of her demon fits.
‘You’re not being serious,’ I said soothingly.
‘I am too,’ she said petulantly.
As we talked on, it appeared that she had made up her mind to call the whole thing off.
‘Is there another man in the picture?’
‘Boys are constantly ogling me in the classroom and on the streets. It’s very flattering. But you know your Kilty isn’t fickle.’
Your Kilty – the words confused me.
‘You don’t know what you are saying,’ I said.
‘I need time, lots of time.’
‘If you are so unsure, maybe we should stop seeing each other,’ I responded, but as soon as my words were out I regretted them.
The last thing that I imagined was that she’d take me up on it, but she said, ‘If that’s the way you feel, I think we should stop seeing each other, but remember the onus is on you.’ She hung up.
I was too proud to call her back, and she didn’t call me. A few days went by. All that time, I kept thinking that this was merely a lovers’ quarrel – a temporary impasse, which we would somehow soon get over. Then I received a letter from her with a protruding object, which turned out to be a pink seashell. Its outside was so crinkly and knotty that it could have been a piece of bark, while the inside was so smooth and fine that it could have been a piece of glass. She might have had any number of reasons for choosing that particular seashell – she liked it, she’d just been to a beach, and so on – but I imagined that she was telling me to take the rough with the smooth. Her letter, however, said that she loved me.
I felt I could now initiate a call to her without injury to my pride.
‘Are you very sad?’ These were the first words from her on the telephone.
‘Overwhelmingly so,’ I said.
‘I know,’ she said. ‘I can’t help it. I’m very sorry. I’ll be a good girl from now on, I promise. But I warn you, sometimes those roaming demons take over your Kilty, and it’s as if I had no control over what I say and do.’
One weekend I took a train to New Haven and there, on a glorious day in late fall, we sat under a tree on the campus with students sprawled all around us – eating, talking, or simply basking in the warmth of a brief Indian summer.
‘Being in these surroundings reminds me of my failures at Harvard,’ I said, and then, thinking that I was being too gloomy, I added, ‘I’m told that in Japan people glorify failure, as if success were ignoble.’
‘Maybe, after we get married, we should go and live in Japan. I’m ready for something different.’
Her mention of marriage, unprompted, lifted my spirits, and set the tone for the rest of the weekend.
A day or two later, in New York, I received a letter from Kilty. It was written on a sheet torn from a Latin notebook with declensions of the three pronouns ego, nos and vos on one side and on the other this message:
Darling, I love you. I miss you. I could only be writing this to you. Do you believe me? The radiator bings. Also a cold draft hits our legs. Our heads are hot. For the class, he has put aside his pipe. The dullest are in the class. He wears a college blazer, consumes our time with impossibly dull genius. Because of him, us are uniformly restless. How can we let him know that he is bound by the social contract to be quiet.
The letter, if a little incoherent, was so evocative of damp New Haven and self-absorbed Yale, that it seemed sheer poetry to me. Another delightful and loving letter followed. I wrote and told her that I could no longer go on living without her, that she had to take her parents into her confidence and stop wavering. She immediately responded with two telegrams, dispatched within a half an hour of each other. Because they were sent to the office over the weekend, I didn’t get them until the following Monday. The first telegram read:
saturday november 22 sorry to send this to the office cant reach you by phone i love you and want to marry you now or when ever you choose if you dont call by monday night i will know that you have decided no love kilty
And the second telegram went,
darling please telephone i love you and want to be with you for always kilty
On the one hand, her telegrams filled me with hope and excitement, but, on the other, they made me weary. Could she really think that my failure to call her within forty-eight hours would indicate that I didn’t want to marry her? And why send the telegrams on a weekend to my office rather than to my apartment? Was she just being absent-minded or did she consciously want me to miss her deadline? I should have noticed a kind of danger signal in these telegrams, but as soon as I read them I got her on the telephone. She said that she was determined to get married before Christmas and would be coming down to New York on Friday to make all the necessary arrangements.
Kilty had vacillated so much that I didn’t allow myself to take her coming for granted until she actually arrived on Friday November 28. This was such a heady period that for years afterward I remembered each date as if I were marking off days in an Advent calendar. That weekend, she talked about quitting Yale, arranging the wedding, and going on a honeymoon to Merano, in northern Italy; her friend Sophie had been there, and reported that it was an incomparable place. For myself, after all I had lived through, I had trouble thinking beyond the wedding, especially since Kilty had still not broken the news to her parents. I had come to share her dread of approaching her parents, so that I now imagined they had the power to abort
‘You leave Pappy and Mother to me,’ she would say stubbornly whenever I brought up the subject. ‘They lost Libbie, and they won’t want to lose Kilty. But I have to get at them in my own way and in my own time. Actually, I’m sure they have already guessed, and reconciled themselves to everything.’
As luck would have it, I won a free trip to New Delhi in an airline raffle the same Friday that Kilty came down to the city to set our marriage plans in motion. Since coming to the West, I had had such limited funds that I had been able to go home only twice in twenty years. And just then my father, who had heart trouble, was not keeping well. I mentioned the free trip to Kilty and asked her what she thought of it.
Before the words were out of my mouth, I regretted them. Kilty would not hear of my passing up the trip.
‘You have to go,’ she said. ‘It would be easier for me to talk to my parents if my Vedkins wasn’t sitting around waiting for an hour-by-hour account.’
Even as Kilty is tackling her parents, I will be giving the good tidings to my family, I thought. For many years, my relatives had been waiting for the news of my marriage. I had now turned thirty-five and, in their eyes, was long past the Hindu stage of a householder – of becoming a family man in my own right. The Hindu life cycle calls for a man to devote his first twenty-five years to learning, his second to raising a family, his third to doing community service, and his fourth to preparing to take leave of worldly cares.
‘I’ll just go for a week,’ I said. ‘Two days and two nights will be taken up by flying there and back, but I will have five days at home. That will be plenty.’ I remember noticing that she seemed to be relieved that I was going, but I told myself that that was natural, given the pressure of making wedding plans in such a short time.
On Monday December 1, in order to fulfill a requirement for the marriage license, Kilty and I got our blood drawn by my doctor. The next morning, furnished with the blood-test reports, we rode down in the subway to City Hall and obtained a marriage license, stamped december 2, 1969, 11:53 a.m. It admonished us: the marriage solemnization may not be performed within 24 hours after this date. If the date had been left up to me, we would have returned to City Hall on December 3 and got married. But Kilty wanted a proper wedding, so we settled on December 20 – the Saturday before Christmas and almost a year to the day since she had trimmed the Christmas tree in my apartment. She thought that would give her enough time to find a wedding dress and to invite the few guests we wanted. We got in touch with Judge J. Howard Rossbach in Riverdale, a friend of mine, and he agreed to save the date and perform the ceremony.
‘The marriage plans are going lickety-split,’ Kilty said. ‘Now I feel we are going to be married, for real.’
‘I feel that, too,’ I said.
On Thursday December 4 I flew out, and as I was saying goodbye to Kilty I made her promise three things: she would talk to her parents promptly; regardless of what they said, she would telephone the guests and invite them; and she would keep me informed by cable. Since at my home people routinely opened mail that wasn’t addressed to them, we decided that whenever we had something private to say we would sign our cables with the names of our respective close friends, Jasper and Sophie.
Just as I was getting settled in my seat on the plane, the hostess handed me a box containing long-stemmed yellow roses and this little card:
To dearest Ved and Kiltykins—from you know who.
I held the roses in my lap all the way to New Delhi.
The very first day, in the midst of all the family excitement of my coming home, I slipped off to the telegraph office and cabled Kilty:
new delhi 5 12 69 sweetheart my father is well stop keeping up my spirits by thinking of your three promises stop cable how you are love ved
She cabled back,
new haven 12 6 69 ved sophie misses jasper and loves him enormously
My second cable to Kilty went,
new delhi 7 12 69 kilty dearest made my day to have news of you stop dreamt of you all night long stop family arriving from everywhere stop wish you could be here stop love and kisses ved
And hers went,
new haven 12 8 69 hello seminar presentation went well stop missed jasper immensely please send news love
This was the first time I had heard of any seminar, and there wasn’t a word about her parents. I tried to keep a lid on the cauldron of my anxieties, and sent a cable reminding her of her promises and asking her for some concrete news.
new york 12 io 69 ved sophie heard upsetting story about jasper from a mrs quincy howe concerning her daughter stop even though the incident which involved an invitation was seven years ago sophie asked me to find out because she is sad about it stop much love
I think the fire went out of me when I intuitively grasped that Kilty hadn’t spoken to her parents, and that the ostensible excuse was a seven-year-old incident I could scarcely recall. Had I stood up Tina, the daughter of the newscaster Quincy Howe? Or had I made—God forbid—a pass at her, which she had reported to her mother, and which her mother had remembered for seven long years only to inform Kilty of it now? Did Kilty really want me to believe that she was so fragile that a mere unconfirmed rumour had shattered her? In any event, could she hold something against me that had happened long before she came on the scene, especially when, despite my protestations, she had continued to see Coby even after we were engaged?
I was relieved that I hadn’t given an intimation of my pending wedding to anyone at home. In some part of my mind, I must have known that when it came down to it she would welsh on her promises. The fact that I was able to put a rational face on things I ascribe to my knowledge of Kilty and to my history of emotional disappointments. As I was leaving New Delhi, I picked up a blue silk suit that I had ordered on the day I’d landed to be made up for her as one of my wedding gifts: it matched the shade of her eyes. I now intended to give it to her and pretend that I had casually picked it up as a travel present—glossing over the fact that so very recently it had signified my hopes and expectations.
From the airport in New York, I reached her on the phone at her parents’ home and we arranged to meet that night at my apartment. Kilty entered with a heavy step and returned my embrace a little self-consciously.
‘Is it because of Tina?’ I asked.
‘Who is she?’
‘The daughter of Mrs Quincy Howe, the person you cabled me about.’
‘Let’s not talk about that, please.’ She seemed very edgy.
While outwardly I was calm, inwardly I was fretting about the embarrassment of telling Judge Rossbach at the last minute that the wedding had been put off.
I said, a little offhandedly, to make her relax as much as anything, ‘I suppose you were too busy with your seminars and papers and such to do much about the preparations.’
‘My Vedkins understands everything.’
One weekend early in January 1970, a couple of weeks after our missed wedding date, I went up to New Haven. Kilty met me at the station, we got into a taxi, and I gave the driver the name of the hotel I had booked myself into. I noticed immediately that she wasn’t her usual ebullient self. At first, I thought she was preoccupied with the upcoming semester exams, but when I reached for her hand she jerked it away but then let me take it.
‘What’s the matter?’ I asked.
‘Not in the taxi,’ she said, her eyes tearing. Then she snuggled next to me. ‘How is my Vedkins, my sweetiekins?’
Her changes of mood were always abrupt; in fact, that was one of the things I found most enticing and most terrifying about her. There was something so delicious about kissing and cuddling her that for the rest of the ride we cooed and talked gibberish as if we were young lovers.
In my hotel room, she slumped into the armchair in what I could only call a catatonic state.
‘Come and sit here and tell me what’s the matter,’ I said, patting a place next to me on the couch.
‘I hate you.’ She said hurtful things like that sometimes, especially after we had made love and had been deliriously happy, and later she always apologized, saying that such seemingly angry statements were mere ejaculations, her way of coming down to earth. I had learned to brace myself against them, especially since her demon moods passed quickly. But this time there was a vehemence in her voice that stung me.
It was some time before I could get her to talk at all. And then she said, ‘I’ve missed my period.’
‘I’ve always been regular to the minute. I’m warning you that I’m getting an abortion.’
I thought of Coby. ‘Oh, Kilty, you haven’t been seeing him, have you? You promised. I trusted you.’
‘What are you talking about? If I’m pregnant, it’s with your baby.’
‘Oh, no!’ The idea that Kilty could think of getting rid of the baby was so upsetting that I barely knew what I said.
‘You mean you wouldn’t want it, either?’ she said, brightening.
‘I don’t think I’ll survive your having an abortion,’ I said. I knew that it sounded like a form of blackmail, but I couldn’t help it.
‘Let’s not talk about unpleasant things, sweetheart. Your bunny is not in the mood. She just wants to snuggle up next to you.’
‘But, Kilty, this is very serious.’
‘Vedkins is a very serious fellow, but Kiltykins has been put here by God to lighten his spirits.’
Toward the end of the week, I received a typed letter from Kilty addressed to me at my office. I had never received a typed letter from her before, and I was frightened by its portentousness. Moreover, it was so different in tone from her other letters that, although its contents were meant to be reassuring, I was anything but reassured. She wrote:
Since you left Sunday, I have been trying to think so as to arrive somewhere other than the state of confusion in which I was left. Sunday and Monday nights have been difficult; it is during the night that my own demons roam most freely. In addition, I have been worrying about you.
I want to get this letter off quickly to you, because I think that whatever you think about its contents, it will make waiting more endurable.
I have decided that if I am pregnant we should marry and have the child. I would like to finish one semester here, and then leave for wherever your next piece of writing would take you.
I think that we would both die slow deaths if either one of us allowed me to destroy something that was made by love. When I think that the something is (if it exists) a human being, that course of action just saddens me beyond expression.
Besides that, how could we delude ourselves into thinking we had a hope for a happy life together if we could not nurture our own creation, but killed it instead? It frightens me to think that either of us could be so impervious to the most basic . . . oh, I am sick of these words.
This decision being made, I can’t imagine what it would be that would stop me from being a good mother.
On Monday I was given back my English test. It had a huge A on it. As soon as I looked at it, tears were sliding down my face. I didn’t know what to do with my stupid, stupid A.
Please, for my sake, get sleep and nourishment. It would be a lovely triumph if you could be happy as well.
At the bottom of the paper, she had written ‘I love you’ and had drawn the usual smiley face. Kilty arrived at practically the same time as the letter and came to my apartment weeping. She told me right off that she had had second thoughts after sending me the typed letter, and that under no circumstances would she now have the baby. Her declaration upset me so much that I told her that if she went ahead with an abortion I would leave her, and, no matter what she said or did, I would never be there for her. She thereupon got so upset that she clung to me, swearing that she would have the baby, come what may. At that moment, she seemed so vulnerable and helpless that I almost regretted my threat, but I felt that I couldn’t go back on it – that it was my only hope of bringing her to her senses and making her do the right thing, as I saw it.
But I was also beginning to realize, if tardily, that whatever she asked for, I would slavishly give to her – that, despite my threat, I would never have the will to leave her.
Kilty called me from New Haven. In the course of the conversaton, she casually mentioned that her pregnancy had been confirmed by the medical tests and that she had already made an appointment at the hospital for a ‘D and C’.
‘That sounds ominous,’ I said. ‘What is “D and C”?’
She was squeamish about the subject, and it took her some time to explain to me that D and C stood for ‘dilation and curettage’ – a medical procedure for scraping the uterus, which was legal at the time as abortion was not.
‘You mean for terminating your pregnancy?’ I said bluntly.
‘But, Kilty, you can’t do that. Don’t you remember what you said in your typed letter? You’ll be killing “our own creation”.’
‘But I don’t love you any more.’
‘You don’t mean anything to me.’
‘I’m sure that’s not what is in your heart. You are just under tremendous stress. I am taking the next train to New Haven. You are not to do anything until I get there.’
In the hotel in New Haven, Kilty said, ‘I don’t care what you do, but I’m having this thing out.’ She sounded broken up.
‘You mean you are not ready for a baby?’
‘I’m not ready for your baby.’
‘You don’t feel anything for the baby?’
‘How would you feel about seeing a psychoanalyst?
‘I’d like to, but I don’t have any money.’
‘I’ll pay for it, but I myself don’t have any experience of psychiatry.’
‘I do, but I don’t know any doctor in New Haven.’ She told me that she and her sister had off and on seen a psychoanalyst named Dr Aldridge in Scarsdale since they were fourteen.
I suddenly felt disenchanted with her in a way that I had never felt before. I was so ignorant about psychoanalysts that I thought the people who went to them were either pathetic lunatics or rich wastrels. My way of getting through life was with the British stiff upper lip, and I couldn’t imagine myself being involved with a woman who didn’t take the same approach. Still, living in New York City in the Sixties, I knew many people who went to such doctors and all of them were evangelists for the Freudian method, each of them talking as if his or her doctor were the best. It was always ‘everyone needs a shrink to grow up’, and ‘my doctor says’ this or ‘my doctor says’ that. They seemed to subscribe to one view of the world, one model of the mind, one way of doing things – something that was intellectually and emotionally repugnant to me. Yet I was now suggesting that Kilty see a psychoanalyst.
‘Why don’t we call up Dr Aldridge?’ I said.
‘Going back and forth from New Haven to Scarsdale would take up a lot of time in travelling. You know, Dr Aldridge only sees patients on weekdays. And, besides, I don’t know if he has any time free – he’s very much sought after.’
‘Then we have to try to find a good doctor for you in New Haven.’
‘I need time to clear my head—I’m going for a walk.’ And before I knew it she was gone.
I scurried after her, but she said over her shoulder, ‘Please leave me alone.’
I went back into the room and dropped down into the armchair. When Kilty was with me, whatever the provocation, I held back my tears. I seemed unable to cry in front of her. But now I cried like a child.
I generally came out of depression by exerting myself to do something active. Remembering that I had a mission – to find a New Haven doctor for Kilty – I picked up the telephone and called my editor at the New Yorker, William Shawn.
‘I need to see a doctor, badly,’ I said. I covered the mouthpiece with my hand so that he wouldn’t know I was sobbing.
‘Have you had an accident? Where are you?’ he said, apparently sensing that I was crying.
‘I am falling apart. It has to do with Kilty.’
Mr Shawn gulped audibly. He had met Kilty with me, and had more than an inkling of my romantic predicament.
‘Do you know a good psychoanalyst—one in New Haven?’ I asked him.
Within an hour or two, he had found us Dr Shortt.
We made an appointment with Dr Shortt for the next day. He turned out to be a tall, rather wasted man in his seventies, who greeted us at the door from a wheelchair. He was reputed to be a leading psychoanalyst in New England. I was immediately drawn to him. As a disabled man, he knows about suffering at first hand, I thought. He’ll bring Kilty to her senses and make her do the right thing.
‘Come in! Come in!’ Dr Shortt said kindly.
‘It’s Kilty who needs the treatment,’ I said after we were in the doctor’s house.
‘Do you want to see me, Kilty?’ the doctor asked, as if he wanted to confirm the fact for himself.
‘Yes, I do,’ she said sweetly. For the first time since I had come up to New Haven, she sounded like her old self.
I was about to follow Kilty into the doctor’s consulting room—it didn’t occur to me that she would be seeing the doctor alone—but Mrs Shortt, who had appeared to help her husband with his wheelchair, firmly directed me into an adjacent room, which seemed like a little study. I sat down in a wing chair, but not for long. I stood up, paced back and forth, opened and closed the window, and looked at my watch repeatedly. Now and again, I could hear a rumble of voices from the other room, but I couldn’t make out any words. At one point, I thought I heard Kilty laughing, then screaming. Her eerie outbursts recalled my own visit to a hakim, or healer, in Lahore when I was a small boy. My mother had taken me to him, thinking that a neighbour had cast the evil eye on me, and he had applied a few brisk strokes of birch to my backside, then announced, ‘There! That’s the end of the curse.’ I wondered if, even as the hakim had exorcized the evil eye with his mumbo-jumbo, the doctor on the other side of the wall was now cuffing and pummelling the demons out of Kilty. Indeed, I thought I heard Dr Shortt say the word ‘trepanning’, which made me imagine that he might be about to perform that procedure on her in order to dissuade her from the D and C. (As I write this, the idea seems outlandish, but at the time I had never grasped the fact that people went to psychoanalysts only to talk.)
Sometime later, however, Kilty walked into the room where I was waiting, and she was cheerful. ‘He’s a good daddy,’ she said glowingly. ‘And you know what? He’s very wise. He reads Marcus Aurelius. He quoted some ancient lines from him to me: “Herein is the way of perfection . . . to live out each day as one’s last, with no fever, no torpor, and no acting a part.” Isn’t that wonderful?’
‘But did he tell you to have the baby?’ A little like her, I had already begun to think of Dr Shortt as a father figure, and to imagine that he would counsel her to get married and to become a good mother.
‘He told me I should do whatever feels joyous to me. Dr Shortt is waiting for you. He’ll tell you everything himself.’
I hurried in.
Dr Shortt was seated behind his desk in his wheelchair. Far from sounding infirm, he exuded authority.
‘I know it’s bad manners, but I should tell you that I don’t believe in psychoanalysts,’ I said, pulling a chair up to his desk and sitting across from him.
‘We can talk about all that some other time, but we need to get Kilty into treatment immediately.’
‘Have you convinced her that she should have the baby?’
‘She’s in no condition to have any baby, mentally – or even physically. She has a date to go into the hospital tomorrow for a D and C. You shouldn’t interfere.’
I almost stood up and walked out of his office, for my surge of good feeling toward him was turning to hatred. What am I doing, listening to this crippled, wizened man, I thought, and asking his opinion about anything? My father brought us children up saying, ‘Think for yourself.’ I am my father’s son. I’ve always been self-reliant.
‘What right do you have to make such an absurd judgement, Dr Shortt?’ I cried. ‘Didn’t she tell you that I’m the father?’
‘Whether or not to have the baby is the mother’s decision only,’ he said coolly.
‘Are you telling me that I don’t count?’
‘No. I’m only saying that in this particular decision you can’t have any say.’
‘Don’t I have any rights?’
‘Look, we are talking about her body. She has full control to do what she likes with it. Anyway, since you love her, you don’t want to make her feel guilty about not having the baby. Guilt is a very destructive emotion.’
‘Are you bringing up the guilt business because we are not married? As far as I am concerned, we are as good as married.’ I started to tell him about the wedding arrangements that Kilty had bolted from a couple of months earlier. I wanted to know if there was anything I could do to help her change her mind about the baby.
‘I don’t think so.’
‘What did I do wrong? Where did I fail her?’
‘I don’t know enough about the situation to give you a meaningful answer.’
‘Do you think that if I stand by her through the D and C she will then do the right thing and start a family with me?’
‘I wish I could I tell you that she would marry you, but I’m not a prophet, merely a doctor. It’s clear from talking to her that she finds herself under tremendous pressure and is on the verge of snapping and having a full-scale nervous breakdown. She’s going to need a lot of time to think through things and work them out.’
‘While she was with you, did you manage to exorcize some of her demons?’
‘What did you say?’
‘Never mind,’ I said. I worried that by having mentioned her demons I might have betrayed her confidence. ‘Do you have any specific advice for me?’
‘Not really. Just be totally supportive of her. And after the D and C we shouldn’t lose a day in getting her to a good psychoanalyst for regular treatment.’
‘Will you be treating her?’
‘I’m sorry to say that I’m not taking any new patients, but I have an excellent young colleague, a Dr Washburn, who could see her on a regular basis.’
‘What will he charge?’
‘He has an arrangement with a foundation to take one or two Yale students as patients, so he can see her for a nominal fee.’
Then Dr Shortt told me kindly that he couldn’t give me any more time.
In the morning I went with Kilty to the hospital.
A nurse directed us to a private room, and after Kilty had put away her things and changed into a gown another nurse came, prepared her for the operating room, and shifted her on to a cot with wheels. I kissed Kilty, but her lips felt inert.
The nurse rolled Kilty out of the room and down the hall. When the whirr of the wheels subsided, I closed the door and sat down in the armchair. While Kilty was with me, I hadn’t noticed the miasmic air of disinfectants and drugs. Now I choked on it, and remembered the scourges of my childhood – the attack of meningitis, and recurrent bouts of typhoid, paratyphoid and malaria. In those early years, having spent so much time in the hospital, I had imagined that I was cursed. Now I imagined a doctor scraping Kilty as if she were a dirty plate and I started groaning.
I couldn’t sit still, and soon I was shuttling back and forth between the chair and the bathroom. I felt dizzy and lay down for a couple of minutes on the recovery bed. I started shivering and got under the covers, telling myself as I slipped off to sleep that I must immediately get up and make the bed before Kilty returned.
Suddenly, Kilty was lying next to me, her breath warm against my cheek and her limp arm around me in a half embrace.
‘It’s you,’ I said, waking with a start. ‘How do you feel?’
‘It’s over. That’s all I can say. But how is my sweet?’
She took my hand and put it under the blanket on a sort of diaper she was wearing. ‘Isn’t it ironic?’ she said.
‘My poor Vedkins, I’ll get married to you in June, after I’ve finished the school year, and then we’ll start again, in the right way.’
I was thrilled to have her next to me, talking so optimistically, even if I had trouble believing any of it.
‘Don’t look so sad,’ she said.
Back in New York, I woke up every morning crying and would not be able to stop. I would take refuge in the bathroom basin. After I had somehow washed my face, brushed my teeth and shaved, I would bend over the basin and, putting my hand under the cold-water tap, direct the icy stream into my eyes until they were numb. My tears would stop only to start up again. Somehow, I would get dressed, all the time feeling grateful that I was alone and unwitnessed.
I would arrange my face into a smile and set out, telling myself that I was the son of a woman whose capacity for endurance was awe-inspiring. Most of the time while I was growing up, my mother was sick, and subject to severe asthmatic attacks. Sometimes, as we children listened to her struggling to catch her breath – wheezing and coughing – we would think that she was going to die. Yet, no matter how poorly she felt, she would tie on a colourful sari and put on bright lipstick and get ready to set out cheerfully into the world. What was my psychic pain to her physical suffering, I would ask myself, and, defiantly, I would go down in my apartment-house elevator, take the bus, and arrive at the door of my office generally before any of my colleagues did. I would work through the day, careful not to betray the real state of my mind by a twitch or a gesture. I dreaded the approach of the evening and my return to the apartment.
Soon after the D and C, Kilty started going to Dr Washburn twice a week for psychotherapy. One evening, late in the spring, she called me and said, ‘Dr Washburn says that if I want to get married and have children one day, psychotherapy isn’t enough: I have to go into deep psychoanalysis.’
‘I don’t understand. What’s the difference?’
‘In psychotherapy, a patient sits and talks to the shrink twice a week, but in psychoanalysis, the person lies down on a couch and goes four times a week.’
‘That sounds wonderful,’ I said. ‘It means that you will be finished with all these doctors very quickly.’
‘How little you know. Psychotherapy is short-term, but psychoanalysis takes many years, and, once I start it in New Haven, I will have to stay put here because I won’t be able to leave my shrink. And I will not be able to make any major decisions or make any changes in my life at all until it’s finished.’
‘You mean you will have to suspend your whole life – it sounds like a jail sentence. How horrible. You shouldn’t go near it.’
‘But you are the one who wanted me to get married.’
‘Not to a wretched doctor.’
‘But I have no choice. I have to get my life together. Dr Washburn thinks that even when I’m in New York this summer I must continue with Dr Aldridge in Scarsdale. Otherwise, those demons in me will run riot. I will be going back and forth to Scarsdale two, three times a week.’
I listened to her in complete disbelief. I had taken her to Dr Shortt as a sort of quick fix.
‘How do you know that Dr Washburn is right about your needing psychoanalysis?’ I asked her. ‘Since he is a psychoanalyst, he probably thinks everybody needs it. Isn’t that what they all think?’
‘I trust Dr Washburn, totally,’ she said. ‘He’s already done so much for me. But I am worrying about how I will find the thousands of dollars to pay the nominal fee next year.’
When Kilty came down to New York for the summer and moved back in with her parents, I fancied that, always ethereal, she would now also be psychologically frail and I would have to nurse her along. But she was her old self – lissom and playful, demonstrative and competent, and we resumed our old life as a New York couple, glossing over the New Haven year and all its pain. When I was at the office, she might be at her parents’ apartment sewing fall clothes – skirts and shirts and dresses – in order to save money. When I finished work, we might have dinner and go to a play or a concert, or to a nightclub for jazz. Then she might get the idea that we should throw a dinner party. Within a matter of hours, she would have invited a dozen people – my colleagues and her school friends – and shopped, cooked, and set the table. She would preside and serve and then wash up with such finesse that one felt that giving dinner parties was second nature to her. Maybe when she feels psychologically strong and better about herself, everything will fall into place, I thought.
One afternoon when we happened to be walking in Central Park, I guided her to the duck pond, thinking that it would be pleasant to revive our old associations with it.
‘The duck pond has so much meaning for me,’ I said.
‘These ducks drive everything out of my head,’ she said. ‘Just listen to them quacking.’
‘Do you remember when I knelt down on one knee at the edge of this pond?’
‘How could I forget that? But then there were no ducks in the pond. Anyway, I was talking to Dr Aldridge the other day about this duck pond, and he said, “Isn’t the reality that it is just a miserable, murky artificial lake with some ugly, incontinent birds in it?”‘ She laughed shrilly.
‘But aren’t all the other things we felt and thought reality, too?’ I said, trying to rally my spirits.
‘Yes, but what have they to do with feather-brains?’
‘What else do you talk to Dr Aldridge about?’ I asked, disheartened.
‘Everything. When I see him tomorrow, I’ll tell him about this conversation. That’s how therapy works.’
At the end of the summer, Kilty took a train back to New Haven. This time, I didn’t see her off because the previous week she told me that Dr Aldridge had counselled her not to be involved with me any more. ‘We can still talk on the telephone, and I’ll write to you,’ she said. ‘You needn’t worry that I’ll be involved with anyone else. I’ll be living like a nun.’
I laughed out loud. There was something of the buccaneer in her but nothing of the nun, I thought.
‘You laugh because you don’t think I’m serious, Ved,’ she said. Her voice was cold and judicial. ‘Through my therapy, I have been discovering that we have been in a destructive relationship from the very beginning, and that you must look to your mental health and I must look to mine. I think it has all been a mistake. It took Dr Washburn and Dr Aldridge to make me realize it.’
I had long felt that no doctor could make sense of our relationship just on the basis of Kilty’s perceptions, and I tried to make that point now. ‘But neither of them knows me. Neither of them should be passing judgement on us. It’s not right.’
‘But they are like daddies to me.’
‘Damn your daddies.’
‘Dr Aldridge said that you’d be angry, and that if you were I shouldn’t be upset, because that’s a healthy emotion for you to have in this situation.’
‘I’m coming with you to your next session, to convince him that he’s wrong about us.’
‘But that’s my last session, and I have a lot to talk to him about.’
‘But what I have to say to him is important. I’m going to tell him that I love you, and that, for whatever reason, he has not got things right.’
‘He may not see you.’
‘I’ll force myself into his office.’
The next day, I insisted on taking the train to Scarsdale with her. We sat beside each other, but she wouldn’t let me get close to her – hold her hand, or touch her at all. She sat inert, staring out the window – it was as if we were going to the hospital all over again for her D and C. I couldn’t stop crying. I knew that my snivelling behaviour was contemptible, but I felt exposed and vulnerable and I would cry at the slightest provocation.
At the Scarsdale station, Kilty got off, ran ahead, jumped into a taxi and sped away, leaving me to find my own way to Dr Aldridge’s office.
I caught up with her in the waiting room, just as a door on the far side of the room opened and a disembodied voice called out, ‘Kilty!’
I tried to follow her in, but she said, ‘It’s my hour. You’ll have to wait till I finish,’ and she closed the door behind her.
When almost an hour had gone by, Kilty came out and said, in gentle tones she hadn’t used for some time, ‘You can go in now.’
I composed myself and walked into Dr Aldridge’s office. The doctor was standing by the door. I thought he would ask me to sit down, but he himself remained standing – towering over me. Either he was a foot taller than I was or I just imagined that he was, because I suddenly felt shy and confused. I couldn’t even remember why I had barged in and what I could possibly say to a psychoanalyst that could make any difference.
‘What have you been telling Kilty?’ I finally cried. ‘You are ruining our relationship!’
That was the extent of my tirade, and it took so much out of me that afterward I felt spent.
‘I am Kilty’s doctor,’ he said, as if he were speaking to a child. ‘You are not my patient, and I’d like you to leave now, so that I can get ready for my next appointment.’
His voice – as flat as a robot’s – sent a chill through me. He is supposed to be a doctor of the soul, I thought, but he talks to me mechanically, as if I meant nothing to him or to Kilty. I left his office crushed and angry, and took the return train to the city with Kilty. All the way back, she dozed. That was just as well, because I didn’t feel like talking.
At Grand Central Terminal, she said, ‘I wish everything good for you,’ and hurried toward the subway entrance.
Postscript: Dr Bak
It was thanks to Kilty – in my despair of her – that I became a patient myself. For two years I went for psychotherapy for two hours a week at forty dollars an hour. For two years after that, I went for deep psychoanalysis for four hours a week at the same hourly rate. For those four years, I saw Dr Bak at his office on the thirteenth floor of a building at the corner of 87th and Park. Bak, a pillar of the New York psychoanalytic establishment, was a large, dark, imposing man; he had the authoritarian air and debonair manner of a European aristocrat. He seemed always to have a Monte Cristo No. 2 in his mouth and the cigar was always lit, which gave me the impression of Dr Bak as a dragon breathing fire. He had a basso voice and an elusive, confusing way of speaking. I fancied that he spoke that way either because English was not his first language (he was a Hungarian Jew who had escaped to the US in 1941) or because, as a psychoanalyst, he thought that he could keep his patients off balance by making them struggle to understand him, and thereby get them to yield more unconscious material. But his English pronunciation was good – with the exception of guttural consonants such as ‘k’ and ‘g’ which he often transposed. In sessions with Dr Bak, Kilty became Gilty.
‘I feel I’m talked out about Kilty today,’ I said at one point in my third session. ‘I can’t think of anything more to say about her.’
‘You have a lot to say about Gilty. That’s my impression from the other two times you’ve come here.’
‘It’s hard to talk about her to a complete stranger,’ I said.
For a couple of minutes he just puffed at his cigar and leaned back in his big chair, waiting for me to go on. ‘Maybe all you needed were these three consultations with me.’
For the next three years I talked endlessly about my past loves, among other things. I talked about Kilty and Lola, Vanessa and Gigi, but I never referred to my blindness, just as the women had never referred to it. The subject just never came up; even the word itself was never mentioned. When the dam eventually broke – that’s another story – I flooded Dr Bak with questions. Did I fall for these women because, like my mother, they denied my blindness? Or did they fall in love with me because I was blind? By falling in love with me, were they denying their own beauty? Did they think that in some magical way I could tell they were beautiful, despite the fact that I couldn’t see? Was it their fantasy that I could actually see, and did their love turn to ashes when it clashed with reality? Since the fantasy had served me well in my writing, did I assume that it would serve me well in love?
I asked Dr Bak, ‘Why didn’t you bring up the subject of my blindness months or years ago? I wasted all this effort coming here and paying my hard-earned money by talking about everything else but the most obvious subject.’
Dr Bak replied, ‘But if an insight doesn’t come from within you, it is like reading a book. You feel that it is about someone else – not you. It doesn’t get integrated into your psyche. You continue to resist the insight.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘You are forcing me to be very pedantic. Resistance is a psychological defense mechanism that we all have, but it is also a way of fending off unpleasant truths.’
‘And of course it could be that my blindness played no role in any of those women falling in love with me or leaving me.’
‘Yes, it could be.’
‘But then I suppose you would say that if I had been reconciled to the fact of my blindness I would have fallen for a different kind of woman. Maybe a woman who wouldn’t have ended up hurting me.’
‘Yes, it could be.’
One June day, Kilty telephoned and told me that she had gone into deep psychoanalysis with Dr Aldridge and that he had reached the conclusion that she was ‘unanalyzable’.
‘Dr Aldridge says that, though unusual, sometimes that is the case,’ she said. ‘I feel that a stone has been lifted from my head. Now that I am free of these shrinks once and for all, I can go on, as I always have, like a blunderhead.’ She laughed as if she were making a joke, but rather demonically, I thought, as if also to underscore the fact that, in contrast to her freedom, I would be a slave to psychoanalysis for many more years.
I reported Kilty’s call to Bak in my penultimate session before the summer break. Like most psychoanalysts, he took a vacation from his patients in July and August.
‘Blunderbuss,’ he laughed, from his chair at my head. ‘Unconsciously, she wants to shoot dead the person who dares to fall in love with her.’
‘Utter nonsense.’ He didn’t rise to the challenge.
‘The galling thing is that Kilty is free from psychoanalysis, and I will have to go on with this hateful stuff, until God knows when.’
‘How can you justify that, after three years of coming here, you still have intimate conversations with her? Do you see her? Does she write to you?’
‘Yes. The other day she sent me a book about Russian literature because she wanted me to have something “valuable” from her. She said she thought of me because she saw me at a party from across the room at a mutual friend’s house. She thought I had “the purest, sweetest smile of anyone”, that she deeply regretted the “destruction and suffering” that I had gone through out of love for her, and that she wished for the return of my natural strength and energy. But I feel like a heel telling you this, and betraying her trust.’
‘As I’ve often told you, what you think of as betrayal is an inescapable part of therapy and psychoanalysis. Everything you tell me stays with me. You still seem to love her, but maybe she’s just a –’
‘I didn’t catch the word. What did you say?’
‘You heard me.’
‘What do you think I said?’
‘It sounded like “itch” or “witch”. . .’
‘It sounds as if you did hear – your unconscious just doesn’t want to acknowledge it.’
Bak stood up – his signal that my hour was up.
I got up from the couch, but instead of walking out of his office as I generally did, I hung back.
The telephone rang. Bak often got calls as I was leaving, as if his friends knew to telephone him during the ten-minute break between patients.
‘Go!’ Bak said irritably, walking around his desk and picking up the telephone.
‘I’m not leaving until you tell me the word,’ I said truculently.
He covered the mouthpiece and spat out, ‘Bitch.’
Until that moment, I had thought I was over Kilty, but I suddenly had such a surge of anger against Bak that I felt like throttling him. But, being the good patient that I was, I left, quietly closing his office door behind me.
‘Kiltykins’, by Ved Mehta. From All for Love, part of the autobiographical series Continents of Exile. © Ved Mehta, 2001. Reproduced by permission of the author, Penguin India and Bold Type Books, an imprint of the Hachette Book Group.
Ved Mehta, 1934–2021