Cover image from The Practice of Deceit.
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A man finds himself facing criminal charges when he finds out that his lawyer wife is not everything she seems, in this "beachiest of beach books" recommended by All Things Considered's book critic, Alan Cheuse.
Excerpt: Chapter 1, Women Who Need Too Much
The reasons I fell in love with my wife, Colleen O'Brien Golden, on December 30, 1999:
5. My deadbeat dad.
6. Her broken heart.
7. The milky breasts that covered it.
I will stop at number seven, lucky seven. My luck seems to have run out, just when I thought I still had so much to draw on, and here I am, in a holding cell in the Scarsdale Police Department on the corner of Tompkins and Fenimore. It's a building I go by nearly every day when I take my stepdaughter, Zoe, to preschool or pick her up, sometimes both if I can work it into my schedule. What a lucky SOB you are to live here, I often say to myself when I see the boxy, two-story brick structure roll past me, lucky to have landed in a town where the police don’t have enough to do most days of the week. Sure, there are incidents now and then, including that hostage situation last month. But day to day, week to week, the cops have it easy in our picturesque village, celebrated for its stellar school system, its mock Tudor mansions, the sales at Zachys Wine and Liquor, where you can sometimes pick up a case of St. Emilion for $189, and our seventeen thousand well-heeled, well-behaved, college-educated residents. Many of the women can tell you the best places to buy chanterelle mushrooms, and the men to play golf, not only in Scarsdale but in the Berkshires, Amagansett, the Outer Cape, and the coast of Maine. The crime report is a feature of the local paper, but fifty-one weeks out of fifty-two, teenagers driving under the influence comes in way ahead of grand larceny. Not many places like that left, I would say to myself, and gaze at my darling stepdaughter, who has her mother’s green eyes and her mother's soft strawberry blond hair, ditto her charm, and, alas, her temper, whether we were talking about how to tell if it's today or tomorrow, where goldfish go when you flush them down the toilet, and how it happens that Peter Pan doesn’t grow up. She's four and a half years old.
I imagined there were only offices here, nothing like the holding cell I’m in now, or the booking room I just came from, where they took off my shoes, my belt, my watch, and asked if I ever thought of killing myself. "Never, until you showed up at my door." Would they put me on a suicide watch? They took two mug shots, three sets of fingerprints, and did a DNA swab of my tongue with a Q-Tip. Even those were a relief after the throttle of the handcuffs.
"Can you loosen them?" I had said in the back seat of the police car, my arms tied behind my back, as if I were a bull about to be de-balled. "I tore my rotator cuff last year, and my chiropractor says I’m not supposed to stress it."
"I don’t know if you heard me, but shoveling snow last year, I ended up with a torn —"
"We heard you." They don’t get judged on their manners, these guys.
"If you loosened them just a little —"
"All you bastards who can’t keep your hands to yourselves say they’re too tight." The driver’s accent was heavy Brooklyn, as thick as a slice of Sicilian pizza. "That’s the point."
"I’m innocent," I said. "Does everyone say that too? You know who I am, don’t you? The shrink you called to keep the kid from killing his old man at the end of August. They wanted to name a street after me — and now I’m a felon?"
No answer from the front seat.
No one wanted to name a street after me, but I thought it would get their attention. I needed to find a joke in this somewhere. Bastards like me? My right shoulder blade felt as though it were being jabbed with an ice pick, and I needed to take a piss.
This was not a joke.
This was not a social call.
Two sounds you never want to hear: the serrated metal against metal of the cuffs locking and the jail cell door clicking shut behind you.
My new identity: B0307. My arrest number. Could they make an exception for me and add "Ph.D." to it? I’ve been seeing patients since 1982. I’m Dr. B0307, Ph.D. What seems to be your problem? Depression? Anxiety? Uncontrollable rage? Smoldering rage? Is your husband a schmuck? Do you want to kill your deadbeat dad father with his own gun because that’s the only way you can get him to pay the bills? Does your kid want to drop out of Scarsdale High and flip burgers at Fuddruckers? Is your maid addicted to Botox? Come on in. Have a seat. Sorry the wood’s so hard. Take a piss if you like. There's no water in the bowl because they don’t want me to dunk my head in there and drown. Did they take my watch because they think I might kill myself with it or because they don't want me to know how slowly the time passes behind bars? Will I be arraigned today or spend the night here? Will the judge set bail or send me to the real jail in Valhalla, next to which this place will seem like the Marriott? In myth, Valhalla is a hall where slain heroes are worshipped. I wonder if the Westchester Department of Corrections gets the irony.
I have no idea what time it is. There is a video camera against the wall, across from the cell, and it is trained on me: Eric Lavender, Ph.D., neighborhood shrink, with a minor specialty in the problems of teenage boys. The cops called on me late last month when fourteen-year-old Jason Cummings took his father hostage with the old man’s handgun, in the house where he, the father, was living with his girlfriend in the Edgewood section of town, and I spoke to him on the phone from a house across the street. I’m dynamite in a crisis. I’m Sam Spade with empathy, Al Pacino with a New Age bedside manner. The kid put down his gun and walked out of the house with his hands on his head and his Tommy Hilfiger shorts halfway down his butt. Five minutes later, dear old dad was ungagged and untied from his chair and arrested on the spot for failing to pay child support for two years. Last I heard, Dad is still in Valhalla, overdosing on irony. The turning point in my conversation with Jason, the point at which I knew we were home free, was when I told him that I had had a deadbeat dad myself.
I poke my arm through the bars to see if I can reach the phone, which is bolted to the wall next to the camera on a tightly coiled cord that reminds me of one from my mother’s old kitchen, the place she lived before the nursing home. I've already made two phone calls with the cops' help. Places like Scarsdale, you get more than one. What else do they have to do all day long? I phoned my sister, Pru, and the lawyer she found for me, Lily Lopez. She'll be here any minute. A little architectural oversight, that the prisoner can reach the phone through the bars! Hah! My desperate fantasy. I don't know who else I'd call if I could. Sandy Lefkowitz — and tell him I'm a felon? I mean, alleged. My new favorite word. What were my old favorites? Insight. Transformation. Possibility. I'm talking to the walls. I'm waving to the cops through the video cameras. Losing what's left of my mind. Losing my children. My freckle-faced Zoe with her collection of teddy bears, and my own flesh and blood, the glorious Sarah Rose, the wonder of my forty-eighth year on earth. Daddy probably won’t be home tonight, honey, but I promise I'll never leave you. Solemn promise, little one. Tiny angel. Beautiful snowflake.
CHRIST. I cannot begin this way. Sarcastic one minute and full of self-pity and mawkish emotion the next. On the phone, Lily Lopez, Esq., told me to collect my thoughts, pull together the key events that led me here, so she'll have a story to tell the judge. She said to keep my emotions out of it. Now I see why. At least she believed me when I explained the charges; Pru must have filled her in on what's been going on. Or maybe that's what criminal lawyers always do: put on a show of believing the client's story. Whichever it is, I’ll take it.
"You ever been arrested before?" she asked me.
"How long you and your wife been together?"
"Almost three and a half years. We have a daughter who's two and a half, and Zoe, my wife’s four-and-a-half-year-old."
"Your sister saved my son's life. I'm taking this case, because, I'm telling you, these pinche mujeres in Scarsdale —"
"Dont take it as a favor to Pru. If you want to do her a favor, find me a lawyer who wants the case."
"No, you don’t understand. I’m psyched, Eric. Some of these women in Scarsdale, with their movidas and their face-lifts and their yappy little dogs. We’ve seen this movie before."
She was jumping to a lot of conclusions — my innocence, for one — and she was no smooth-talking Scarsdale attorney like my wife. She had a tough-sounding New York accent with a Spanish tinge. "What are movidas?"
"Moves. Manipulations. What Scarsdale types pull when they want to keep living in the big house without the hubby. They don’t even want him in the room over the garage anymore. That's when they learn how to work the system. When you’re that rich —"
"If you want to rant about Scarsdale, Ms. Lopez, I’ll find myself a lawyer who isn’t so —"
"I'm just talking, Eric, blowing off steam. My acupuncturist is out of town. Forget I mentioned it. I'm on good terms with one of the detectives over there, Detective Lawson. I'm bringing you a computer notebook in half an hour so you can collect your thoughts. Makes my job a little easier for tomorrow, and they won't give you a paper and pencil because you might hurt yourself. Focus on the facts. Try to keep your feelings out of it. Dates you remember, conversations, events. Let's see, it's almost four. Lawson's good about getting you in to see a judge, because rich people aren’t used to waiting, even when they're in the clinker, but it's late. You might have to spend the night. Sorry about that. If I don't get a call from the station, we'll meet in the morning before the arraignment. When that hearing is over, I want you to be released. I don't want to see you shipped to Valhalla in handcuffs. You're not one of those men who can't type, are you?"
"I can type. That's nice of you to bring me the computer."
"This is not about nice. I'm bringing you the computer because I'm good — and I hate to lose."
"And because your sister saved my son’s life."
IF I WERE a religious man, I would say that my sister, Pru Lavender, M.D., does the Lord's work: fixing what’s broken inside the hearts of tiny babies, valves, arteries, ventricles. She’s one of two pediatric cardiac surgeons in all of New York City, one of two doctors who operate on the hearts of newborn babies, which are the size of a small plum. I am in awe of Pru. So is half of New York — though it still pisses me off that she got into medical school and I didn't. And that she does the manly, macho thing of cutting people up and sewing them back together, while I do women's work: talking them through their problems.
We have a complicated but not too fractious relationship. Pru is, in so many ways, the superior sibling. She balks when I mention it, but we both know her balking is politeness, not an argument with the truth. I am two years younger than she is, and when I got rejected from all six of the medical schools I applied to, she was a good big sister and tried to make light of it, to interpret these denials as information about me rather than a judgment. "You're destined for other things," she said, "like getting a good night’s sleep once in a while. Like not spending the next ten years in school." I'm not unhappy to have ended up doing what I do, but it still stings sometimes that I didn’t make the grade.
Did it work out that way because the women in my early life were so present and the man so much trouble? That's the theory of the poet who takes groups of men into the woods to bang drums and helps us get in touch with our proud, warlike selves. The poet claims that we men suffer from not getting "enough father," that since we no longer learn trades from our male elders, our primary relationships are with the women who raise us — and we learn to please them by becoming like them. Not enough father? When I was a kid in Teaneck, New Jersey, I thought I had too much goddamn father, even though he worked sixty hours a week — and took off for California when I was twelve. When he was home, he was always yelling. My mother’s pocketbook was a mess, my sister left her shoes in the living room, I got a D in geography and my hair was too long, another sign of my overfeminized urges. All you had to do to ignite a blowup was put a seventy-five-watt bulb into a sixty-watt socket. My mother learned to cower, I learned to fight with him, and my sister, two years older and obviously smarter, did all she could to pass for perfect. These days, she speaks Spanish with the Puerto Rican mothers and fathers of her patients, French with the Haitians, and Upper East Side English with the gringos. Her office walls are covered with snapshots of babies magically restored to life because of her fine motor skills.
Did I mention that she is a lesbian? Did I mention how aware of this I am when I think of her? It's not that I disapprove, only that I wonder whether it was a case of nature or nurture. I wonder what effect, if any, our father's behavior had on her sexuality, in the same way that I wonder what effect his behavior had on me in general. My wife would tell me to quit wallowing in the past. She would tell me what her deceased mother always told her: You won’t get anywhere in this world worrying about what already happened. Can I blame my father for my having married a woman who does not believe that our past holds the key to the rest of our lives?
She must be the only woman in Scarsdale without a shrink. She's got more important things to do than dredge up the past and complain about the present. Les femmes de Scarsdale call me when they want a sensitive man to talk to. They call my wife when they want a divorce. Until recently, I thought only the husbands in Scarsdale were movida masters, those alpha males with their stock options and their offshore girlfriends. They weren't men I had much feeling for from a distance, and they weren’t my patients. Their wives were. Some of their wives still are.
When I am with them, I am empathic and supportive, and I do my best to help them through their sorrows and loneliness, which they feel as acutely as the poor and the middle classes feel their heartache. But I am tired of the way they whine about their interior decorators, their children's SAT scores, the two wrinkles that have shown up on their foreheads, and the new Saab, which has more problems than the old Jaguar. I call them the Women Who Need Too Much, and I vow to tell the next one who calls that I am not taking new patients — but you can't tell much from a phone call, and I cannot afford to turn down work. But I know I’m not the therapist I yearn to be when I recall an old New Yorker cartoon of a woman on a beach saying to a man: "I do think your problems are serious, Howard. I just don’t think they’re very interesting." Of course there are exceptions. The oddballs, misfits, newcomers, the older women who've had their careers or raised their children, lost their husbands to death or divorce, and possess real wisdom. And I like working with the teenage boys who are sent to me by their frustrated parents or the high school psychologist. Usually they need more discipline, less money, fewer tutors. I often think the best therapy would be to ship them to Manhattan, where smart, restless teenagers have things to do besides drink, drive, and rebel against the narrow ambitions of their self-satisfied hometown.
And then there is Sandy Lefkowitz. A patient in a league of his own. Poor bastard.
I've lived here barely three years. After I took up with Colleen and she wanted me to leave Manhattan and move into her house in Scarsdale, I resisted, punted, tried, as men often do, to change the subject. But when she got pregnant, after we’d known each other for four months, the conversation changed. Did it ever. I was forty-seven and she was forty-one. She had one child and I had none. Earlier in my life, I'd have pressured her to have an abortion — nevermind the politics, keep your laws off my body, and all that. But I wasn't such a cocky son of a bitch at forty-seven, and Colleen was different from the women I used to date: stable, self-sufficient, a woman of the world, a warm, loving mother, and eager to be with me but not in that clingy, hectoring way that usually emerges soon after the initial blush of lust. I don't mean I decided that first night that I wanted to marry her. God, no. I was a hardcore bachelor, but by the time I actually made the decision to marry her, leave the city, and move to Scarsdale, all of which, I admit, was prompted by the pregnancy, I had convinced myself I was finally ready for a serious woman, a family, the house she already owned, the child she had already given birth to, and this one of ours who was coming. And once we were all together, I was shocked at how this family — my family — took hold of me, cradling me in varieties of love I had never felt before.
My patients in New York had been artists, designers, writers, medical researchers, community activists. I fancied myself a confidential Charlie Rose, talking to deeply interesting people about what mattered most to them. Dream on, Dr. Lavender. I wasn’t talking cutting-edge architecture with them or about Middle East peacemaking. I was talking about absent mothers, insane ex-hus-bands, cybersex, cigarettes, and obsessions with Princess Di both before and after her death. Still, I loved what I did and the people I worked with. But when the workday was over, I indulged my politically incorrect cravings for women, as they say, young enough to be my daughter. I dated them one at a time, not in small groups and not behind each other’s backs. You couldn’t have accused me of being a two-timer, just a guy who had, well, a short attention span and a commitment phobia.
I told myself that I took care of people for so much of the day that when it was over, I needed someone to take care of me. Someone young, energetic, preferably buxom. There was nothing secretive about it; I took them out, these lovely specimens, introduced them to my friends — what friends I have — and tried not to notice the suppressed disapproving scowls when I would show up with yet another Brandy or Consuela or Misaka. Whatever their origins, my girlfriends tended to be actresses or dancers or aspiring account executives at BBD&O and McCann Erickson. They read the occasional Oprah novel, fashion magazines, and Modern Bride, with no encouragement from me. I wasn't exactly slumming. I'm a bright enough guy, but all the great books I'll ever read I read in college and graduate school, and my musical tastes are straight down the middle: Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Mostly Mozart, the Brandenburgs, a little cool jazz, a few show tunes.
To a degree that surprised me, they liked to quiz me about text-book-aberrant behavior and about my unhappy childhood, thinking, once they heard the stories, that this was the way to my heart. But they would soon find out that it was not my heart that ruled my appetite, and there would often be tears, theirs, a dramatic departure, phone calls in the middle of the night, a dozen e-mails, clothing to be sent for, and so on and so forth. Once, there was a suicide threat, which shook me up for months and should have sent me looking for a smart woman my own age. But it didn't. The acquisition of personal insight isn’t exactly a plane ticket, passage to a distinct destination. Sometimes it's more like a cloud: a beautiful thing you can see but not put your arms around. And the next time you look, it's gone.
My friends gradually stopped fixing me up with the interesting women they knew, and I gradually stopped bringing dates to my apartment. I had paraded too many past my doormen and was afraid one of them might turn me in to the Children's Defense Fund. That's a joke. They were all well over the age of consent. But I never knew what to say once they started asking about "the outlook for our future." The present was all I could handle. Amanda, a friend from graduate school, dared me to go back into therapy to find out why I seemed stuck, why I kept repeating the same old scenarios. I had some ideas — Mom and Dad and the misery that was their marriage — and was on the verge of calling an old therapist when two things happened that altered my life.
One. My father died suddenly, in Los Angeles. The deadbeat dad I had mentioned to Jason Cummings.
Two. On my eighth day there to settle his affairs, the day I scattered half of his ashes into the Pacific Ocean — keeping the rest for Pru, who had already returned to New York — I met Colleen.
I have said almost nothing about her. It's not that I don't know where to start. Told from here, from this hard bench that is both bed and chair, table and couch, inside walls and bars painted a dark gray like a grim parody of jail, the story has a different ring than it would if I could tell it from the desk in my office. Told from here, who would believe I’m innocent? Where, I wonder, did our troubles begin — or were the seeds always present in our marriage?
If I had had a better role model in my father, I might be able to do the manly thing and stick to the facts. But as a therapist, I deal in feelings the way bankers deal in money. As a man accused of molesting his stepdaughter, who is four and a half years old, I am livid. The charge: "Forcible touching," Lily Lopez told me. "Touching her genitals in a sexual way," she explained as I shuddered with rage. Why avoid my feelings? They're the only thing they can’t take from me, the way they can take my children, my practice, my reputation. They will try to build a case against me, but they know and I know it will be built of air, of smoke, of the cards that make up the house of cards in which I have been living.
Chapter One from The Practice of Deceit: a Novel by Elizabeth Benedict. Copyright (c) 2005 by Elizabeth Benedict. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.