“Why are you telling me this?” his father asked.
John was thrown by the question. No longer did he feel like a thirty-seven-year-old man seeking advice from a wiser, more experienced friend. Instead, he felt childish and foolish.
They were in a diner, the “Yuppie” diner, as John called it, a spacious establishment with ostentatious decorations of marble and mirrors to justify the inflated prices. It was Sunday morning, moving toward noon, and John’s father had suggested the get together “to touch base” because time was slipping away.
“I don’t understand what response you want from me,” John’s father said.
He sat with his hands flat on the table on each side of the place mat. He was approaching seventy and appeared shrunken sitting back in the booth, but his eyes were still dynamic, intense, so seemingly sure when it came to evaluating human behavior.
Across from him, John felt like he did when he was a child, Dr. Melcamp’s son, the son of a renowned psychiatrist, retreating into silence as the best defense against over-interpretation; off-the-wall interpretation, most of the time, as far as John was concerned.
Dr. Melcamp had five children. John was the oldest; an oddity, a rare case of a first born son not following his father into the medical profession. John attributed that fact to his own rebellious sensitivity and to his mother, to whom he was forever grateful because she was the “norm” character in an accelerating changing world in which continuity no longer seemed to matter.
John’s youngest sister was a graphics artist, joining him as an exception. His two brothers and other sister had all become psychiatrists. In the Melcamp family, the psychiatrists held the edge over the civilians four to three.
John remembered attending a gala luncheon at the Hilton Hotel honoring his father as psychiatrist of the year. As John sat at the front table off to the left of the podium with his father, the three psychiatric siblings, graphic artist Janet, and his mother, he was struck by how all the other psychiatrists were in complete awe of Dr. Melcamp. It wasn’t just a case of superficial hero worship either, they genuinely regarded Dr. Melcamp as a contemporary celebrity version of Freud.
When Janet went to the rest room she was accosted at the sink by a dumpy, middle-aged woman, a psychiatrist, in a green felt shawl, whose eyes were madly wide. The woman clutched Janet’s arm and wildly stared at her.
“You’re Dr. Melcamp’s daughter,” the woman gushed. “He’s such a great man. Do you hope to be a psychiatrist like him one day?”
“No, but I hope to someday be a patient,” Janet quipped, freeing her arm from the woman’s grasp.
John was neither a psychiatrist nor a patient. He was simply one whose life had been sent reeling in an unexpected direction when the woman he was about to marry suddenly, inexplicably, called it off.
“What response were you expecting of me?” Dr. Melcamp asked, as the waitress, a young woman in a green and black uniform with a rose tattoo above her left ankle, took their orders.
“Usually when people say something there’s a required response that’s expected,” Dr. Melcamp said.
“I don’t want anything,” John said. “I was just telling you how I feel.”
His father raised his coffee cup up before his face, studious, impassive. He seemed to be waiting but John wasn’t sure whether to keep talking or whether Dr. Melcamp was already systematically formulating a diagnosis in his mind.
John felt awkward, his fingers trembling as he reached for his coffee. The breakup with Lisa had left him devastated. One morning they were in love and by evening, though nothing specific had happened, Lisa was hysterically berating him over the phone, screaming that he didn’t meet her needs.
“The girl is crazy, you should move on,” Dr. Melcamp said.
“Are you dating other women?” he asked his son.
“Other women,” Dr. Melcamp said. “There’s nothing better to get over a disappointment in love then to find a new partner.”
“You make it sound like losing someone you love is no different than replacing a battery.”
“In some ways it isn’t,” Dr. Melcamp said. “The new one may be better, more compatible.”
“I just don’t understand,” John said, ignoring his father’s observation. “One minute she was a person I knew and loved and then suddenly she was someone else.”
“But you don’t love someone else,” Dr. Melcamp said. “The girl you love is no more, so what is the problem? What do you want from me?”
“None of it makes sense.”
“None of it makes sense to you,” Dr. Melcamp said. “That’s not to say that there isn’t an inherent reason or motivation for this girl’s behavior. But I still don’t know what you want from me.”
John knew his father sincerely meant to be helpful but somehow it never quite came across that way. He remembered one of his father’s colleagues, one of the few who was not completely mesmerized by Dr. Melcamp’s charisma of the mind, once confided what he thought John’s father’s greatest flaw was.
“I don’t know quite how to put it,” Dr. Broadman had said. “But your father doesn’t know how to be.”
Dr. Broadman then went on to relate how he was once at a barbecue with John’s father at Dr. Weinstein’s house.
“Weinstein, your father and I were all just sitting around, you know, bullshitting,” Broadman said. ” After about twenty minutes your father looked very uncomfortable, very serious. He turned to the two of us and in all earnestness asked who we thought was the leader of the discussion we were having.
“I looked at Weinstein, and Weinstein looked at me, and all I could think was ‘Who gives a shit?'”
As John recalled the anecdote, he realized it summed up his father pretty well.
“In life, whether it’s with co-workers or friends, people say things to elicit a specific response,” Dr. Melcamp said.
“If I complain to my secretary about all the work I have to do, I want her to offer support, and then turn that support into more productivity.”
“I’m not talking about a secretary,” John said.
“That’s not the point.”
“There doesn’t seem to be a point.”
“That’s not entirely true,” Dr. Melcamp observed. “Just a point you don’t want to accept.”
“The final argument with Lisa was stupid,” John said.
He lit a cigarette and his father frowned, even though John had specifically asked for ‘Smoking’ when they were seated.
“Lisa has a six-year-old nephew she wanted to stay with her for a few days,” John said.
“Her sister absolutely prohibited it, said it was out of the question. Lisa was raped as a teenager and somehow her sister believes that because of that, Lisa might sexually abuse her nephew.”
Dr. Melcamp nodded, his stern eyes registering no surprise.
“I told Lisa that her sister was insane,” John said. “That’s when Lisa went nuts. She became enraged as if she was possessed. She screamed at me, ‘Don’t you fucking call me insane!’
“I tried to explain that I wasn’t calling her insane. I felt crazy. She wouldn’t listen, wasn’t hearing a word I was saying. She went off, accusing me of all kinds of things. I can’t believe she believed anything she said, but she rambled on and on, accusing me of insensitivity and not caring about her.”
John lit another cigarette. “We haven’t talked since.”
“I hope you see it’s not you,” Dr. Melcamp said.
“I know it’s not me, it’s Lisa I’m talking about.”
“But it has nothing to do with you.”
“It has everything to do with me. She’s gone.”
“That is if she ever was.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“That she is gone. She’s no more.”
“But I love her.”
“Why is that?”
“Why is what?”
“Why do you feel you love her?”
John’s stomach tightened, a burning sensation rising up in his gut.
“Why do you like whole wheat toast?” he asked his father. “Why does anyone like anything?”
Dr. Melcamp leaned over, hovering over the runny yellow of the eggs on his plate.
“When it fulfills a need,” he calmly said. “When you derive satisfaction from it.
“The problem is not Lisa; it’s you.”
“I want to understand her,” John said.
“It’s more important to understand yourself. Once you understand yourself, your feelings and motivations, everything else becomes secondary and you can deal with anything.”
John laughed. “Like clowns?”
“You’re not scared of them anymore, are you?”
“I still don’t like them.”
“But they don’t control you.”
John didn’t know why, and probably never would, but since early childhood he had an instinctive dislike of clowns. He thought they were grotesque, ungenuine, wearing makeup to deceive, trying to convince you that things were other than they seemed.
The trouble started when John’s nursery school planned a Circus Day. John wanted no part of it and had to be removed from the classroom when a clown visited one day to see how the children were doing preparing for the big event. John’s mother was forced to pick him up and take him home early from school.
Then the nightmares began, followed by the hysterical crying and screaming, the confrontations every morning to avoid going to nursery school. Each night, as he lay in bed, the minute the lights went out, John was seized with panic. He fought to stay awake, desperately fighting off sleep, because he knew once consciousness was lost, the next moment of awareness would be when he was sitting up in bed, the sheets warm and damp, as he tried to catch his breath and then summoned his parents with a piercing scream.
The ritual was repetitive. The determination to avoid the nightmare, the failure, and then the inevitable arrival of the tortured dreams, with the bed wetting, and then the loving, protective parents turning on the light, hugs and reassurance, a changing of sheets, and then untroubled sleep til morning.
He could never remember the specifics of the nightmares, any details, but the vividness of the fear remained, and then fear of the nightmares became as gripping as the actual nightmares themselves. And then the humiliation, and the painful recognition of defeat, to wake every night in soaked sheets despite his tenacious but futile efforts to master his surroundings and his body’s reaction to them.
One Sunday Dr. Melcamp and his wife gathered up John and two of the future psychiatrists into the family’s red Mercury station wagon. The destination, though Dr. Melcamp didn’t elaborate during the drive, was a small traveling circus which was making a short stop in the Pocono Mountains. Mrs. Melcamp, for her part, simply told the children, “We’re going to a fair.”
When they arrived, it looked more like a trailer camp than anything else. There was a gravel parking lot in front of a worn out, beige canvas tent, the site of the one-ring affair.
Off to the side of the tent was what was billed as a “Petting Zoo,” featuring stalls and pens with domestic animals: sheep, goats, a few rabbits, and a donkey. Mrs. Melcamp took John’s brother and sister down toward the “Petting Zoo,” while Dr. Melcamp extended his open palm toward John, and holding hands, they walked in front of the main tent and over to a row of trailers.
Dr. Melcamp scanned the names on the sides of the trailer doors. “Where are we going?” John asked.
“It’s a surprise,” his father said.
Dr. Melcamp stopped before a yellow trailer with red curtains. He led John up the three steps to a blue door with a gold star on it.
Rapping on the door with two sharp knocks, Dr. Melcamp entered. John edged in behind his father and saw a man in blue overalls with red suspenders seated at a bench-like table with a rectangular light running along the top of a mirror that was attached to it.
The man turned to face them, his cheeks covered with a coarse three-day stubble, the stump of an unlit cigar jutting out of the lower corner of his mouth. Dr. Melcamp introduced the man as Slats.
“Pleased to meet you, kid,” Slats said.
Panic began to take over as John realized his father was standing behind him blocking his path of escape.
Slats wheeled around on his stool and started powdering his face with white pancake makeup. When he faced John again, red and blue streaks were already on his cheeks.
“You want to help me with my nose?” Slats asked, reaching out toward John.
John screamed. He hit Slats’ hand, knocking it out of the way.
“Take it easy, kid.” Slats slipped a red bulbous nose over his real one.
John started flailing his arms at Slats’ face, smashing what was left of the cigar.
“I’m a man, just a man,” the clown laughed, trying to fend off John’s blows.
John ducked under Slats’ outstretched hands and raced for the door where Dr. Melcamp was waiting. He rushed into his father’s arms, but instead of helping him out of the trailer, Dr. Melcamp held John in place, spinning him around to face Slats.
Slats crouched before John, who was now crying hysterically, as Dr. Melcamp gripped his son’s arms.
“It’s make believe,” Slats said, taking off his nose and holding it up.
“Let me out!” John screamed. “Let me go!” He was clawing frantically and kicking wildly.
Slats shrugged. “I don’t understand.” He shook his head. “Everybody loves a clown.”
Dr. Melcamp carried John out of the trailer. They went for cotton candy and didn’t stay for the main event. The nightmares stopped shortly after but by then John was no longer in nursery school.
“You got over clowns,” Dr. Melcamp said, as the waitress poured more coffee.
“You’ll get over this girl Lisa the same way, and in time you may even find you don’t like her.”
“I love her,” John said.
“You love something you thought she provided,” Dr. Melcamp said. “Response, counter response, give and take, all relationships fall within the terms of the unwritten contract. Anyone at any time can cancel or revise the contract.”
“That’s it, that’s your commentary on human behavior?”
Dr. Melcamp shifted uncomfortably in the booth, averting his son’s questioning look, and waved for the check.
“How many contracts have you revised?” John asked.
Dr. Melcamp sighed. “Life is a series of revisions.”
“What response do you want from me?” John demanded.
“I don’t,” his father said.
The two men, father and son, sat across from each other, eyes locked on each other, each seemingly trying to gain an advantage. The stalemate was broken when the waitress, bubble gum flapping, placed the check between them.
Dr. Melcamp reached for it. “I’m sorry, I’m not very responsive,” he said. “It’s just that there is a lot you don’t know about me.
“Someday maybe I’ll be able to tell you about my life,” his father said. “Til then, be yourself, keep talking, keep questioning.”
Dr. Melcamp’s hand rested tenderly on his son’s shoulder as he steadied himself after rising from his seat. John still had no answer but it was the closest he ever remembered to having his father’s approval, and for today, that was enough.