Tightwire, my second novel, is available on Amazon (link below). This is the first chapter. Thanks so much for taking a look!
First Session July 8, 1982
Collier Z. Tratner sat alone in the waiting room, a picture of calm. Six-one, blue eyes, brown curls to his shoulders, strikingly handsome in his jeans and T-shirt. He looked like he’d never had a mentally unsound moment in his life. Caroline Black introduced herself, and waited to see if he’d initiate a handshake. He didn’t. With a curious grace, not quite an athlete and not quite a dancer, he followed her to the office. He took in the windowless cubicle, the tattered lime carpet, the metal furniture. Two posters hung on the scarred stucco walls: Van Gogh’s white roses, and Monet’s water lilies. Caroline’s failed attempt to create a soothing ambiance.
“I almost didn’t show up,” Collier began impassively. “I don’t know what I’m doing here.”
“Well, um, since you’re here, I mean, the next fifty minutes are yours, so you might as well tell me, what brings you here?”
“Already answered. I don’t have a clue.” He watched her carefully. “Am I your first patient?”
“I…what makes you ask?”
“It’s okay,” he nodded coolly. “I’ve never done therapy before either.” To her horror, Caroline blushed, and he grinned. “Relax, Doctor, we’ll just figure this out together.”
“Actually, it’s my legal and ethical obligation to inform you, I haven’t received my Ph.D. I’ve just completed my dissertation, but I won’t be awarded my degree until next July. I’m not a doctor yet.”
“What manual are you reciting from? And more to the point, why didn’t they give you the doctorate? Something wrong with your research? You’ve finished your dissertation, ready to publish, but…wait…hold on…I get it. You have to finish this year of seeing patients. Then they’ll give you walking papers.” She nodded. “So, this–” Collier gestured around the room, “Oasis Psych Clinic, San Francisco County Hospital. This is your last requirement. Then you’re free.”
“That’s how my program works. But truthfully, for me, the dissertation was the requirement. This–” she copied his gesture, “is what I want to do. But I’m still a pre-doctoral intern.”
“So you’re a partial doctor. I’ll call you ‘Doc.’”
She stiffened. Is it okay to acknowledge a joke?
“Look,” he continued, “I think we’ve got an obstacle to overcome. I’ve traveled all over the world. I’m fluent in French, Spanish, German and Italian. You clearly speak Textbook, but do you speak English?”
He raised an eyebrow, and before she could rustle up neutrality, she began to laugh softly. “How’d you learn to read people so well?”
“Good question. A necessity for survival. This’ll entail a history lesson.” His voice turned sing-song, lulling. “It’s twelve midnight, 1961. Twenty-one years ago. Los Angeles. Hollywood Boulevard. A studio apartment with cold water and a colony of roaches. My mom woke up with contractions. She called my dad, who was pouring drinks at a sleazy bar three streets over. He said he’d meet her at the hospital. Those were his last words to her. I was born fourteen hours later. I’ve never met my father, and my mother never saw him again.” Collier’s speech had become a boring lecture, cultivated to snuff out any interest from his listeners. “He didn’t want a long-term deal with Mom, didn’t want a kid, she refused an abortion, and here I am. End of story.”
“That explains everything except the past twenty-one years.”
He grinned in surprise. “Good, Doc. You’re not as uptight as I first thought.” No pause. “How old are you?”
She stifled the urge to stammer. Thou shalt not answer a patient’s questions. The Psychoanalytic Manifesto. Collier looked her over. Five-four, dark blonde, one-hundred-twelve, no make-up. Long navy skirt, matching jacket with red piping, cream blouse, knee-high boots, no jewelry. Warm clothes for a San Francisco summer. She’d been called pretty by some, beautiful by others, but to the majority she skimmed by unnoticed. Everyone agreed there was absolutely no flash to her presentation.
Now Collier peered at her, not liking what he saw. “Are your eyes blue? No, they’re green.” He relaxed back in his chair. “I’d say twenty-four years, one month, four days.”
Wrong, five days. Caroline acknowledged his victory with a nod. “You’d rather talk about me than anything that’s happened since you were born.”
“You’re smart,” Collier frowned. “I’m not sure I like that.”
“I like to be the smartest.”
“It’s safest that way.”
“If I’m smart, I’m dangerous?”
He crossed his legs, outwardly composed. A sexual aura stirred. Sexual, seductive, unreachable. “You want my story?”
“What do you want? The outline? The first chapter? The whole book so you can tag it, file it in its proper section?”
“I can’t file it until I know whether it’s biography or fiction.”
“The story is fact. My who-gives-a-damn attitude is pure fiction. By the way, your office is awful. Uglier than the last E.R. I visited.”
“Why’d you go to an emergency room?”
“The metal furniture’s a homey touch. Just dial 1-800-HIDEOUS, emergency decorator fashion police.” Caroline held her smile in check, and Collier’s voice turned quiet. “I think the last time was a mild concussion. I’ve had three fractured wrists, a busted nose, two broken ankles, a dislocated shoulder, countless sprained fingers. I might have missed a few, but that’s the general idea.”
“That’s a lot of injuries.”
“Comes with the territory.”
“What territory is that?”
He cocked his head, measuring her. “I get it. You’re asking about child abuse.”
“Actually, I was asking about broken bones.” She steeled herself. “Should I ask about child abuse?”
“I’m not sure,” a dense sadness permeated the office. “But the broken bones are a different issue. The breaks, the fractures, the languages I speak. I was born into the circus. I’ve done the trapeze and the highwire since I was a kid. Falls are a given. I’ve performed, and I’ve fallen all over the world. Anywhere there’s a Club Med. Mom’s a clown, a unicyclist and a contortionist. She’s at Club Med in San Diego, as we speak.”
The circus, ultrahazardous activity? Caroline shook her head slightly, loosening the image of poodles trotting, horses prancing. “Where do you fit into that picture now?”
“In my book, I’m emancipated. In theirs, I’m AWOL.”
AWOL? You ran away from the circus? “Who’s ‘they’?” she asked.
“Mom, and the group we work with. The Club Med Circus Team. Mom and I flew into San Francisco a week ago, to interview a few potential new members. I met this guy in a bar, and he offered me a job at this restaurant he owns in North Beach. Nice part of San Francisco. One of his waiters just quit. Trattoria Anesta. Upscale Italian. Expensive place. Good tips. I’ve only worked there two days, and I’ve opened a bank account. I’m staying at the YMCA. I’ll get an apartment in a few weeks.”
“And the abuse?”
“None of your fucking business.”
Fucking. So it’s sexual, whatever it is. Collier was suddenly breathing hard. Caroline put up her hands, a clear message that she wouldn’t force him to talk. His breathing slowed. Finally, he looked at her curiously.
“You didn’t have a coronary when I said ‘fuck.’”
“No, I didn’t,” she answered evenly.
“Why not? You reek of proper manners, etiquette, crisp navy and tailored.”
“Are you looking for ways to startle me? So I can’t think clearly because I’m too jumpy?”
He nodded, sheepish and impressed. “I guess that’s right.”
“You can just tell me to back off. I’ll listen. Much more straightforward.”
“I’m not a straightforward person.”
“Okay, I’ll remember that.”
Collier glared, suddenly ferocious. “I don’t give a shit if you remember or not. I never said I’m coming back for a second session. You’re obviously a rookie.” Caroline blushed. “Your office sucks. Your waiting room is enough to send Mickey Mouse into a suicidal depression. You could at least have some music for us while we sit in those grey plastic chairs.”
“What song would you choose?” Caroline heard herself ask, both shaken and fascinated by his tantrum.
“That’s easy,” he smiled, as the rage switched off completely. “Tight Rope. Leon Russell. My favorite song.”
“Okay,” she glanced at the clock, “we’ve got a few minutes left. Where do you want to go from here?”
“I’m not making any promises. You’re on probation. Not hired. Do you read me?”
“Loud and clear. You need to figure out if I’m ‘too blind to see.’ Then you’ll decide.” Caroline willed herself to hold his eyes, amazed at how professional she sounded.
“That’s right.” He studied her. “You know the song.” She nodded. “Maybe you’re not a complete loser.”
“I expect that’ll remain an open question for you.” He chuckled, and Caroline allowed herself a small smile. “How about Tuesdays at eleven.”
“One session at a time.” A hard stare, then he stretched. “Are we done for today? You never asked me where I got my name. What the Z stands for. Most people, that’s their first question.”
“Want to tell me?”
“Tratner’s my mother’s last name. Collier’s my dad’s. Z is for Zeus, Mom’s miniature poodle. I’m named after my father, my mother, and her pet.” Now on his feet, firing words down at her. “And no, I don’t give a damn! And no, it doesn’t mean shit! And no, it’s not up for analysis! So leave it alone! Off limits!”
Caroline nodded, rose slowly.
“So, I’ll see you next week. I…why are you staring at me?” She shook her head, palms up. He rolled his eyes. “Order rescinded. It’s not off limits.”
“You just told me why you showed up for this appointment.”
“Brilliant, and why’s that?”
“You’re here to find yourself in the mix of other people’s names.”
He didn’t move for several seconds, standing sculpted, in control of every muscle. “Not just people’s names. There’s even a canine in the cocktail. I’m quite a mongrel.” She waited for him to continue, but instead, he dug into his backpack for a handful of something. He lobbed it onto her desk: an unopened pack of Marlboros. “You can have these.” She looked up at him, and he shrugged. “I gave up smoking a few months ago. I brought them in case I needed to piss you off.” They grinned, and he held up a hand to halt her speech. “I know, your training manual says never accept a gift from a patient. It won’t happen again. But do me a favor and toss the cigarettes. They cause cancer.”
She weighed the pack, then took aim. Bank shot into the trash.
“Thanks,” he said softly.
“Next week, then,” Caroline answered.
He opened the door, then turned back, hand outstretched. They shook.
Tightwire is available on Amazon. You can follow Caroline through her first year as a psych intern, and Collier’s first year of therapy. If you want to read about Caroline Black in high school, check out my first novel, Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable. http://amykaufmanburk.com