Excerpt I’m Calling the Police
As the farewell banquet of my fiftieth medical school reunion came to a close, Bob Brent, my old friend, my only remaining friend from medical school days, gestured to me that he needed to talk. Though we had taken different professional directions, he into heart surgery and I into the talking cure for broken hearts, we had established a close bond that we both knew would be lifelong. When Bob took my arm to pull me aside, I knew something portentous was up. Bob rarely touched me. We shrinks notice things like that. He leaned to my ear and rasped, "Something heavy is going on.... The past is erupting.... My two lives, night and day, are joining. I need to talk."
I understood. Ever since his childhood spent during the Holocaust in Hungary, Bob had been living two lives: a daytime life as an affable, dedicated, and indefatigable cardiac surgeon and a nighttime life when fragments of horrific memories tramped through his dreams. I knew all about his daytime life, but in our fifty years of friendship he had revealed nothing of his nocturnal life. Nor had I ever heard an explicit request for help: Bob was self-contained, mysterious, enigmatic. This was a different Bob whispering in my ear. I nodded yes, yes. I was concerned. And curious.
That we had become friends in medical school was odd. Brent was a "B" and Yalom a "Y," and that alone should have kept us apart. Medical students commonly choose their chums from their own part of the alphabet: Cadaver dissection and lab partners and clinical rotations are assigned alphabetically, and I mostly hung around with the S to Z group—Schelling, Siderius, Werner, Wong, and Zuckerman.
Perhaps it was because of Bob's unusual appearance. From the start, his vividly blue eyes beckoned me. I had never known such a tragic, faraway gaze, a gaze that beckoned, that flirted with my gaze, but never quite met me full on. His face, no ordinary punum, was cubistic, full of sharp corners all over, sharp nose and chin, even ears. His razor-nicked skin was pallid. No sun, I thought. No carrots. No exercise.
His clothing was rumpled and nondescript gray-brown (I never once saw a bright color on him). And yet he drew me in. In times to come I was to hear women say that he was irresistibly unattractive. Irresistible is a bit strong but alluring, perhaps. Yes, I was fascinated by him: In my provincial Washington, DC, high school and college I had never met anyone remotely like Bob.
Our first encounter? I remember it well. I was studying in the medical school library where he spent evenings doing bibliographic research for Professor Robbins's textbook of pathology (a text destined for a bright future, a text that educated, and still does, generations of physicians all over the world). One evening at the library he strolled over and informed me that I had studied enough for the nephrology exam the next day.
"Do you want to earn some money?" he asked. "Robbins has given me far too much work, and I need some help."
I jumped at the offer. Aside from some pocket money gained by selling my blood and sperm—the traditional medical student source of fast cash—I was totally supported by the proceeds of my parents' grocery store.
"Why me?" I asked.
"I've been watching you."
"And you might have potential."
Soon we were spending three or four evenings a week side by side in the Boston University Medical Library working for Dr. Robbins or in my apartment schmoozing or studying. It was mainly me studying—Bob didn't seem to need to. And besides he was preoccupied with solitaire, which he played hour after hour, sometimes, he claimed, for the New England championship, sometimes the world championship.
Before long, I learned that he was a war refugee who had survived the Holocaust and found his way alone as a DP (displaced person) at the age of seventeen to Boston.
I thought of myself at seventeen—surrounded by friends, embraced by family, preoccupied with wide neckties, my clumsy dancing, and fraternity politics. I felt naïve, soft, flabby. "How did you do it, Bob. Who helped? Did you speak English?"