The Snake

Dr. Drema moved thirty-nine times before she was forty-eight. She felt like a different person whenever she lived somewhere new. In all, she’d had consulting rooms in thirteen different cities in the United States and in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

It was always sad to shuck an old self. But Dr. Drema grew spiritually from shucking. She gained freshness and vitality, like a snake sliding out of its old skin. (Shpilkes, her mother called it—ants in the pants.) Moving so often had left Dr. Drema’s material life in disarray. She kept storage units in several cities on the East and West Coasts of the United States (and a small house in San Miguel de Allende) for indispensable articles that she could no longer visualize or name. Someday, when she was less busy, more settled, she would sort through these articles or let them go. In the meantime, she paid rents on storage units (and on the small house in San Miguel), but paid them only after receiving final notice that her possessions would be sold or thrown away. Paying rents late was Dr. Drema’s acknowledgment of how conflicted she was about holding onto her past identities (and multiple identities), rather than simply grazing across the unspoiled range of one’s life, like a Neolithic buffalo.

As a result of moving so often, Dr. Drema had a changing clientele. She never had trouble, in a new city, attracting patients. For those who remained loyal—who were really lost at sea—she held appointments by telephone. In any large or even medium-sized city in the western hemisphere there are hundreds, thousands of people—and their adolescent children—who suffer from anxiety, depression, compulsions, addictions. Dr. Drema was personable, brilliant, and charismatic. She belonged to all the important professional organizations. In this way she was like the Neolithic buffalo on the range: she roamed free.

She’d seized the occasion of her forty-eighth birthday to reinvent herself. On a whim, at a bargain price and with an exceptional interest rate, she moved into the old customshouse in a small New England town at the confluence of a river and an ocean, took a young lover, and shaved off eight years. She had suffered an unpleasant period, which she wanted expunged from her record—the failed relationship, the car accident, the gall bladder, the yeast infection. She wanted to return to the part of life when every year marked an improving, a flowering out. She gazed out her salt-specked windows and said the number forty in her head over and over until it became her number, proprietary—in the same way that she associated candles with the number eight and Tuesdays with the color blue. Forty, forty, forty. She said the number until she became the thing. She no longer existed passively; she had changed something. The lie lay near the very core of her identity and intensified ordinary transactions—filling out forms, listening to patients, talking to strangers.

Dr. Drema’s customshouse overlooked the estuary of the Glass River. The town itself was formerly working class and almost defiantly second-rate. Its converted industrial properties drew the sort of young professional people who were just raising children and confronting primal dramas—or shucking their primal dramas and sending Dr. Drema their bruised adolescent fruits.

The consulting room occupied the second floor. Persian rugs covered the floors, a couch, and a table. More rugs hung from the walls. A faint tang of history clung to the rugs—old dust, mothballs, something sour underneath the wool—which Dr. Drema associated—pleasantly—with the dead. (She had bought the rugs all together at an estate sale when she moved.) Because of the rugs, the consulting room absorbed most of the sounds made there, and the air sparkled with motes of dust. She quickly lost three patients who suffered from allergies. But because there was more demand for her hours than she could supply, Dr. Drema could afford to let them go.

She’d come to the small town following a dancer called Peter Dvorjak, whom she had met when he performed in a festival in San Miguel de Allende: he begged her to become involved with him. She had been moved by his physicality, by his ability to communicate, through dance, complex psychological states. Peter Dvorjak was drawn, in turn, by Dr. Drema’s intensity, intuition, experience, and apparent lack of interest in producing a child of her own.

Peter had a child from a previous marriage, a boy called Mikhail (who asked to be called Mike). Mike was another reason why Dr. Drema became interested in Peter—and why she kept a corn snake in a terrarium in her consulting room, on a table covered with a Persian rug. The snake was Dr. Drema’s first attempt to bond with Mike, and the cause of the first frisson between herself and Peter, who was squeamish about feeding or touching the snake. (One had to hold a thawed mouse by the tail and let the reptile strike.) What if Mike lost interest, Peter asked, or if the relationship ended? Dr. Drema was generous—generosity was easy—and said the snake could live at her place. She kept the tank in her consulting room, the heart of her house; she didn’t mind. Dr. Drema’s chief interest in life was symbols—and what animal is more symbolic than a snake?

She and Mike named the snake Herpatia. Sometimes, between appointments, Dr. Drema removed Herpatia from the tank and let the snake slither between her hands and around her shoulders. Herpatia’s skin felt like fine leather; she was also playful and strong, even headstrong, since this quality came out chiefly in her head. One time, Herpatia slithered down the cleavage of Dr. Drema’s sweater and emerged above the metal button on her jeans. She made a light, dry sound traveling, and produced an extraordinary sensation; Dr. Drema had never felt anything like it.

Always, after she had handled the snake, Dr. Drema washed her hands. Someone at the pet store had said, “You must always wash your hands after handling the snake,” plus one other indelible word: ectoparasite. Convincing!

Herpatia (in her twenty-gallon tank) became a point of focus for Dr. Drema’s patients—a live animal, a symbolic presence, but not active enough to distract from the analytic work. The snake also drew the child naturally into this room of confidences in which anything could be said. Dr. Drema herself found the atmosphere—the live animal, the heavy silence, the glittering bands of dust from old rugs in the air—vicariously liberating. She liked all animals, but especially nonmammals. Before the corn snake—in San Miguel—she used to keep a little yellow bird, which sometimes sat upon her shoulder while she listened to her patients talk.

Sometimes she sat in the consulting room with Mike and kept him company while he handled Herpatia. In Dr. Drema’s professional opinion, Mike was a too-busy child, always studying Greek or Latin or practicing Wolfheart on the violin, or studying tennis, or openings in chess. He was only ten years old! Peter Dvorjak was a serious parent, and a serious person himself, up every morning at 5 a.m. to stretch and do his movement exercises. He then spent hours every day rehearsing—living in his body.

The level of the Dvorjaks’ activity was exotic, interesting; Dr. Drema was constructed differently. She was slow, lazy, intuitive, empathic. Most days she sat in her consulting room drinking mugs of weak tea, which she replenished with water from her electric kettle, while patients came to her, or called, at their own expense, on the telephone.

Although young professionals were her bread and butter, Dr. Drema found most satisfaction working with adolescents. It was not their openness that drew her, because the open kind of child did not visit Dr. Drema. The children Dr. Drema saw had clouded over. Their eyes had a milky bluish cast like Herpatia’s eyes before she shed her skin. Some had damaged their surfaces—were obese, or anorexic, or bulimic, or cut themselves. Some of them had no surface at all, only depths that Dr. Drema tried to plumb in a series of fifty-minute hours. She always had a beautiful career; she intended to write a book about her cases. Sometimes at night she dreamed she had taken hold of her subject (adolescence, the cliff over which one had to persuade oneself to jump). She heard (in her dreams) the tone she needed; the whole scope of her work revealed itself. But when she woke she could not hold onto it—sometimes in her dreams this tone was a scent, something wild and animal, and she, Dr. Drema, lay concealed, ready to strike and seize it.

Dr. Drema’s house was large enough to take in Peter and Mike. This was her plan. She had income enough to support the three of them, supplemented by the pittance Peter Dvorjak brought in from his grants. (Peter brought riches of his own, an energy that came from performing, from creating something original—dances, choreography—out of nothing. Also, of course, he brought the child.)

Dr. Drema and Peter did not understand money in the same way. Dr. Drema’s relation to money was practical: money was time, energy, power. Peter, on the other hand, thought money was secondary. (He had to; he was an artist.) He lived from grant to grant and by teaching. He lived dependently already, as Dr. Drema saw it. And yet he had a charming, stubborn pride, or perhaps just reluctance, to move permanently into the customshouse, into Dr. Drema’s sphere. Dr. Drema encouraged Peter to talk about his reluctance. In this way, he might come to understand and even overcome it.

One morning, Dr. Drema sat at her kitchen table, sipping tea and watching Mike spread honey on a slice of toast. It pleased her to see the child calmly using the things—the knife, the jar of honey, the toast, the plate—that she had bought for their work (she meant their life!) together. Mike dipped the knife into the honey, and a few crumbs migrated into the jar. For Dr. Drema, in some respects a fastidious person, this was a defining moment, though what it defined she could not say. She was (she knew) generally loved by her patients for her good qualities: her loud, authentic, life-loving laugh, her irreverence, the depth of her understanding and her empathy with the psychic life of others. She was brilliant but not pretentious; she was down to earth; her credentials were impeccable and enviable and might have worked against her were it not for the muddle of her actual life, the charming gap between professional and personal practice. Perhaps because of her profession, people assumed that she was a giver, that generosity was her dominant quality. It was—and it wasn’t.

The image of the crumbs in the honey jar gave Dr. Drema a warm, longing feeling, followed, as time went by, by a more irritable hunger.

Peter Dvorjak’s relation to his dance company was both collegial and parental. He owned them, he ran them, he bullied them; he fretted over his dancers’ welfare more than his own, or Mike’s; he was also very like them. The company survived on the grants he wrote, not that the grants were large; they were meager. Peter Dvorjak wrote grants the way coal miners go down into the mines. He descended into the writing and emerged hours later, the muscles in his arms shiny, his hair standing up on end, his eyes ringed with gray. All his work depended on these pittances. Sometimes he used Dr. Drema’s consulting room, spending hours on his laptop computer, writing a grant for a new piece to be performed in the spring. Dr. Drema encouraged this. A night like this was heaven, as far as she was concerned. She made corn fritters for Mike and herself and served them under a blanket of maple syrup. Sometimes they let Herpatia bask on a stone in the oven (heated to “warm” an hour beforehand) while they drank tea at the kitchen table and played Battleship or chess. Upstairs Peter Dvorjak tapped at his keyboard, used his lighter and wound open the casement before he leaned out of the window to smoke. This was happiness for Dr. Drema, creating conditions that allowed others to work, to behave in a higher way. She did not, herself, have this kind of energy or drive. She hoped to write a book about primal dramas in adolescence; it seemed like work she could do in a slow, solitary way. (She could even write the book in bed, if she wanted to.) When she realized that she might be able to wake at eight, and lie in bed writing all morning in a notebook, Dr. Drema felt a fresh burst of confidence: she could do this.

She bought a notebook and spent time between her sessions in a state of inspiration. But her notes lost their pungency as they lay dormant. Later, her observations seemed banal, her handwriting indecipherable or unattractive. It was as if the writing had given over its crucial function—to communicate words to herself—and become simply an artifact, a repository of thought. The notebook itself—a handsome leather object—seemed more valuable than the words it contained. Eventually the notebook slipped behind the headboard of Dr. Drema’s bed, swallowed as if into her unconscious mind, along with the Moncrieff translation of The Guermantes Way, an important pair of glasses, a slender digital camera with photographs of Peter Dvorjak in San Miguel de Allende embedded on a chip inside, a slice of whole grain toast, and a postcard from Dr. Drema’s mother, showing the scenic overlook from which, according to Mrs. Drema’s note on the back, a man from Idaho had recently pushed his second wife. The notebook slipped behind the headboard and became another artifact of Dr. Drema’s psychic life. She stopped thinking about it; she forgot she had begun it.

The tiny theater became so crowded for the first performance of Peter Dvorjak’s new show that some of the audience sat on cracks between the seats. Dr. Drema was surprised that anyone tolerated the shortage without complaining; she was used to getting what she paid for. She’d taken precautions, arrived early, and nabbed a single seat in the front row.

A couple of men climbed over her knees. One man asked the other, “Is this the choreographer you said is sublime, or does he work from a rigid computer-generated formula?”

“Remind me what sublime means. Spontaneous?”

“It means awesome.”

Before the show began, stagehands emerged from the rear of the theater and laid staging across the corridor that led to the fire exit. It was as if every button that covered Dr. Drema’s body had been simultaneously pushed. The sensation of anxiety approached ecstasy, simply because it was so intense. Had she created a too-rigid formula for her psyche, wondered Dr. Drema, digging and probing all day so that her patients, as Freud suggested, could learn to be simply unhappy, in ordinary ways? Had she missed the noisy camaraderie, the heady dangers of real life?

The lights came up. Peter Dvorjak kneeled over a suitcase. (Dr. Drema relaxed immediately—she understood symbols, baggage.) His powerful, toned body was covered in loose clothing—work pants and a work shirt in martial green. Peter Dvorjak spoke of a lover—clearly male—who had “gone in” when he was twenty-three. Dr. Drema was immediately drawn into the story and forgot about the discomfort of the too-few seats. Apart from the threat of fire, she felt happy; she loved to listen. Listening was her calling, attention without action, noticing what part of the story was withheld. She had less sensitivity to movement—though she liked to watch.

Dance was Peter Dvorjak’s gift. He moved fluidly, and expressed something human that was beyond analysis. Dr. Drema watched, impressed, slightly outside the moment. She enjoyed being part of a full house, watching her young lover move across the stage, curl up into a plastic cube, roll ecstatically across the floor, rise and grind and tango with the imaginary prisoner and move as if he were making love to this other man, although it wasn’t sex—it was tango, hip-hop, and ballet. Dr. Drema’s skin began to prick up. She felt a chill, in spite of the body-heated air.

A woman appeared on the stage and began to sing a haunting melody. The company came out—dancers of various colors, mostly androgynes, very slight. Peter Dvorjak looked like an Amazon, except that he was short, his tragedy—or maybe the source of his machismo—as a dancer. The dancers whirled across the stage into each other’s arms, and they held and then tossed each other into the air. The smallest ones lifted and tossed the heaviest like hacky sacks. Suddenly she felt everything intensely. (Could it be the glass of wine she had with dinner? She drank so rarely, because of the health risks, and the awkward loss of self-control.) Every jeté and glissade, the grands ronds de jambe, planted her more firmly in her chair. The planted feeling was not rootedness, it was a sensation of being stuck, nailed down in her role as observer, as audience. The situation was almost immediately unbearable, not because Dr. Drema could not bear it, but because she wanted to be part of life. She began, almost mischievously, to rub her hands together. She rubbed her hands over and over each other, producing a dry, sandpapery sound. Soon, the audience picked up on her friction and began to rub their hands together, too. Dr. Drema had started it, and now everyone was doing it, and Peter Dvorjak improvised, and moved to the rhythm and sound of the hands.

“That was weird,” someone said at intermission.

“She started it,” said someone Dr. Drema couldn’t see.

The first person said, “I mean, how can you write a play about incarceration and not address the political dimension? Can this really be a play about one person’s feelings? Can you have a play anymore about a political issue that has, at its center, a love story?”

(Yes, no, thought Dr. Drema. She could argue with equal vigor on one side or the other.)

At the reception afterward Peter announced to his dancers, “EV and I are lovers.” The loose, expanding confederation of dancers and acolytes battled with each other to sit next to Dr. Drema on the slippery cushions; they spilled beer on her, offered her cigarettes. They pressed boldly up against her, murmuring “That’s cool,” and “That’s hot—you being so much older.”

Dr. Drema asked them about the performance, what they thought it was about. The prisoner’s crime was not significant, the dancers agreed, because the play wasn’t about guilt or innocence; the play was about essence, and how the state, in some profound sense, controls the essence of who we are—whether we are “inside” or “outside” the margins of society. A young dancer said, “The prison system is a powerful engine of hegemony; the play’s point is that we are workers in that system, whether we agree with it or not.” Another dancer said, “Really, it’s just a love story—the tale of Peter’s first love, his sexual awakening. That’s what his work is always about.”

The next morning Dr. Drema walked downtown to a gift shop and bought three pair of fuzzy lobster slippers—for Peter Dvorjak, Mike, and herself. Mike was a Cancer, and had a hard shell. Dr. Drema thought the lobster slippers might bind the three of them symbolically (with a touch of lightness and absurdity) while also acknowledging the shell that kept each of them protected and private. She hoped Mike and Peter would think of her when they wore the slippers.

She was walking home when her cell phone rang. It was her mother, who called every Saturday. Mrs. Drema was a vessel for news from the town where Dr. Drema had grown up. Over the course of the week she filled and then bubbled over with the dramas of her town—the accidents that were not quite accidents, the murders and illnesses. For a town, the numbers were high. There was the man who worked at the boatyard who encased his ex-wife in fiberglass, the couple in the old apartments behind the Catholic Church who drugged tourists and then used them sexually, the young woman who felled her employer—an eighty-year-old woman—with a ceramic gargoyle and left her to bleed to death on an antique Zarouk, the man from Idaho who threw two consecutive wives over the cliffs into the ocean in California. Many of these felons or their victims had passed through Mrs. Drema’s third grade class, and Mrs. Drema remembered significant, retrospectively revealing details about each of them. She saw into their reasons and personal histories with compassion and empathy, and Dr. Drema had been profoundly influenced by her methods of analysis.

She listened to her mother now out of a complicated sense of duty; talking about the disturbances of strangers was their way of keeping connected and close.

“You feel this girl is less guilty of her crime because of her violent history,” Dr. Drema said when Mrs. Drema went quiet.

“I suppose I do,” said Mrs. Drema.

After three quarters of an hour Dr. Drema let the conversation stall. “Well,” she said, “save time next week?”

“Same time, you mean.”

“That’s what I said,” said Dr. Drema pleasantly.

Mrs. Drema would have loved nothing more than to analyze intimate details from the lives of Dr. Drema’s patients, not out of a frivolous curiosity, but from an earnest interest in humanity. Dr. Drema was compelled by professional ethics, however, to keep her analysands’ stories confidential. And so in adulthood Dr. Drema continued to do what she did best—to listen, to withhold.

When she arrived back at the customshouse, Dr. Drema did something unusual: she climbed back into her bed and slept intensely. She dreamed of the town where she originated—the town at the root of herself or, rather, the reservoir underneath the town. The reservoir was a lake in the dark, and here she found an underground boat, and launched it from the dock. The boat carried her across the slow black water under no sky, and after she had paddled for a time, she reached a stony island where underground birds made their nests in underground trees covered with pale green lichens, and here (in the dream) Dr. Drema spread her blanket and unwrapped her bread and cheese and ate, with pleasure, in the company of mice and worms and ants. It was beautiful waterfront property—rich and private and exceedingly valuable, only interior, dark and original, like a mind.

Later, as she drank coffee with Peter and he smoked in his mournful eastern European way, she knew she would miss him, this carelessly disheveled young man who looked incomparably beautiful in the morning, and begged her for love. She was shy, in a middle-aged way, about her body, and she’d understood from the beginning the toll such a relationship could take on her energy and time and ultimately her amour-propre. In spite of what people said about analysts, she had to be sane: it was the sine qua non of her credibility. Also, Peter had his habits of movement, and she had hers. Already she felt the mobilizing signs: an itchiness like the beginning of a cold; her shpilkes.

Some opportunity presented itself in California, and Dr. Drema sold the customshouse and moved away. She gave Peter one of the Persian rugs he’d admired, and put the rest in storage; she offered Herpatia and the tank as well. Mike was disappointed, even a little wild with grief at the loss of Dr. Drema, who promised that they could keep in touch by telephone. He wore almost compulsively the pair of lobster slippers she’d given him. Peter agreed to keep the snake, under certain conditions, which Mike met. He never had to be reminded to feed Herpatia frozen pinkies and larger frozen mice until summer, when he went to camp (violin, Jewish spirituality).

By this time Peter had become interested in the snake, the way it moved and settled and used its body. He liked the way Mike and Herpatia interacted, the dry sound Herpatia made when she slid across Mike’s loosely open hands, or wound around his shoulders. He hoped soon to feel comfortable handling the snake himself; he planned to do some choreography around the idea of a man learning to trust a snake, which, of course, betrays him.

One morning, in the spirit of a gift, Peter released a live rat into the tank. He bought the rat because he wanted Herpatia to experience authentically the drama of the hunt, the intensity of nature. He lit a cigarette and stood before the primal stage: a twenty-gallon tank in which the hunter faces her prey and the prey confronts his destiny. He watched as Herpatia ignored and then approached the rat with her head. She struck almost diffidently, and then appeared to wait. Peter had already choreographed the sequence of events in his mind: the heightening effects of the hunt, the necessary idea of fear, the prey representing itself as an appetizing vibration.

When he saw the determined yellow incisors tearing into the flesh and the spastic movements of the sinuous body he swore at the rat and shouted meaningless words to the snake. His cigarette dropped from his lips into the tank, and fumed around the scene like dry ice. Peter wrapped his arms around the tank and lifted, as if it would help, in spite of the impediments of the reptile heater and its electrical chord, to move the primal stage elsewhere.

About Carolyn Cooke:
Carolyn Cooke’s short story collection, The Bostons, published by Houghton Mifflin, was a winner of the 2002–2004 PEN/Bingham Award for a first book and a runner-up for the PEN/Hemingway Award. Her fiction has appeared twice before in The Idaho Review, as well as in two volumes of The Best American Short Stories and twice in Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards. She teaches in the MFA writing program at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, and is working on a novel.