The Psychiatrist’s Couch

(C) 2014 by Metta Anderson

I just bought a new couch. Okay, not new. Used, but new because I FINALLY could buy a couch for my apartment. Had to sell the other one with the two side chairs last August when I had to leave the other apartment (couldn’t pay the rent, nor anything else, hence the sale of everything).

Anyway, I bought a couch and now the dogs and I have a place to sit that is not the floor nor the bed. Big improvement.

The couch belonged to a psychiatrist who had his office somewhere along Carrera 11 in the Nineties (between calles 90 and 99). He retired some years ago but kept the couch. His widow told me that first they put it in their country house, somewhere around Guatavita (la nueva, not the old one, which was flooded in the Sixties to form a reservoir/lake). Originally the couch was covered in a hand-loomed wool but the patients complained about that (allergies, the fuzziness of the fabric (and their LIVES!), the possibility of germ transfer; stuff that would only bother psych patients), so the couch was re-done in a warm brown leather. Nevertheless, the widow had the original upholstery applied to a pair of sitting room chairs and there they were, in the apartment’s sitting room, looking like the first day they would have gone on sale at Ervico (which is the store which sold a lot of furniture with hand-loomed upholstery in the Seventies; I should know, because I had some of it in my livingroom then).

Why am I digressing like this!? Confessions to a couch once owned by a psychiatrist. Catchy title. What else did the widow tell me?

Oh yeah, the travails of the couch.

Something about the weather in Guatavita didn’t suit the couch so they brought it back to their house in Chicó. (No, Antiguo Country. The widow has an apartment in Chicó but they used to live in Antiguo Country and the husband walked to work in the afternoons; taught medicine at Javeriana in the mornings; probably knew my dentist, who taught there as well.) So teh couch came back to the house and was squished into the doctor’s study (“den,” in American English). And for several years everything was fine. The doctor, the couch, his library, dictation equipment and old typewriter (a Smith-Corona; I almost bought it but someone else beat me to it) spent many happy hours together, even after he got sick and had to spend less and less time in that room. Sometimes he wrote an article for a medical journal, but more often it was a letter to the editor over something–to El Tiempo, to El Espectador, to El Siglo (this man was very catholic in his reading material!), to medical journals and to his children and grandchildren. Toward the end, when Avianca’s mail service was crudely disrupted by a government edict and everyone had to start using an expensive courier service, he fretted and found he had to cut back on the letter-writing. His widow became (and remains) convinced that the mail frustration contributed to her husband’s illness and decline. He was 85 when he died, had met an international Who’s Who of psychotherapists and was active in almost all the local medical organizations as well as some international ones. He collected art and I loved a lot of what I saw in the widow’s apartment. Not for sale. She’s toying with the idea of donating most of it either to the MAMbo or the National Museum, whichever has storage space. That’s after her children and grandchildren have their pick of what the psychiatrist had lived with all these years. I asked her, out of curiosity, if the doctor believed that the art was a window on teh soul or showed psychic states. It’s something of a cliché in some art circles to explain a work on the basis of an artist’s emotional/psychological state at teh time of execution, and as an artist, I usually disagree with that kind of commentary.

I guess she’d heard that kind of thing an awful lot in her life because she sighed and rolled her eyes. I explained the reason for my question and she immediately put on the kettle for tea. (Well, she didn’t. She told the maid, who put on the kettle. And then went to the panadería for some cookies, so we had tea and cookies while it drizzled outside.)

Very simply, the doctor liked art. He liked artists because of the way they seemed to take a puzzle, take it apart and put it back together again, only differently. That was his definition as quoted to her on (no doubt) endless occasions. He liked to talk to composers and authors and artists of all kinds about their creative processes, but almost never asked what the artist (composer/author/whomever) was feeling during the process. As a kind of eavesdropping witness, the wife listened to confessions of “I did it because I hated the gallery” and “I just liked the light” or “I did it for my daughter’s birthday” and “A client asked me to. . .” and “It was part of a conversation I overheard at a cocktail party in Chicago. . .” Stuff like that.

And after that, the process itself is the least of your problems, if you’re the creator.

And that’s how we ended up talking about the couch. She told me where they bought it (Ervico; HA! I was right!), and the problems with the upholstery; moving it to Guatavita and back; making sure it fit in the study. And there it sat, after the doctor died, for over a year. None of the children wanted it. Neither did the grandchildren, even though the sleek design was pretty classic and the leather cushions in superb condition. She wondered if the children and grandchildren thought more than confessions ahd taken place on the couch. Her husband admired Freud, but wasn’t a Freudian. No one lay down on the couch. Besides, she’d tried it out one day, lying down to see how it felt to be a patient and discovered, to her suprise, that the couch was not all that comfortable in a horizontall position. Maybe it needed new cushions but as it sat in the study now, it couldn’t even be sued for an overnight guest.

She was going to keep it, maybe move it to another part of the apartment, but late at night, it began to bother her. In the last few months, she’d look at the couch and get the feeling that there were people sitting on it. Or standing near it. No one she knew, but people anyway. Not lost souls in torment or anything morbid or Gothic. More like people waiting to go into a cocktail party or attend a lecture. People waiting.

Waiting for the doctor.

Waiting for her husband, as she was.

She came to the conclusion that she was the person her husband was waiting for, not these other people, so, the couch had to go. She had hoped a nice young couple would buy it and put it in their livingroom, someone with a sense of what the couch meant, at least in terms of design or social history. Some couples had indeed looked at it, but Ervico meant nothing to them. They were looking for a fantasy, a piece of furniture desisgned by, for example, Fernando Martínez, the architect, or someone internationally famous (Mies van der Rohe or Aalvar Aalto). An unknown Colombian designer working from drawings and photos in international magazines was not famous enough for them. I sympathized with the widow. Everyone and his (totally unknown brother) only wants to buy art made by someone famous, and at ludicrously discounted prices (a five-million pesos Botero knocked down to US$50). On several occasions I have had to bite my tongue to keep from snapping, “For fifty dollars, I’ll take you to lunch at El Corral, gringo,” and not at El Corral Gourmet, either.

I did not argue the price with her. I was just glad I could afford it AND the transport to my not-exactly-new-but-affordable apartment downtown. I gave her some money to hold it and went back the next day with a truck and driver. I paid what I owed and the widow said she was glad the couch was going to an artist. She knew her husband would be glad, too.

The driver and his helper weren’t exactly thrilled to have to carry the couch up three flights of stairs. The furniture was not really heavy but it was awkward to negotiate around the turns in the hallway. The leather cushions were heavier than they appeared, but caused less complaint. I tipped the driver and his helper for their efforts. (It was that or buy them beer and let them hang around for an hour.)

So there sits the couch, now with the dogs on it. The widow was right–it’s not that comfortable for sleeping. The couch is in the small room facetiously known as “the livingroom,” where the TV is, and I streetch out on it sometimes in the afternoon for a nap. After about 20 minutes, my body tells me to wake up and move. And I do, a little stiffly.

In spite of their ages, the dogs seem to find the couch comfortable, each having found a place next to an arm. I get the middle.

As for people waiting. . .

Again, the widow was right. It’s not creepy. I guess they like to watch TV as well while they wait. I let my mind drift and sometimes I think I can hear them confessing–wives, husbands, girlfriends, ex-lovers, bosses, employees. . . Love, betrayal, emotional conflict of all kinds. I’ve been down that road myself, more than once. I love my mother and miss her, but she did steal about 25 years of my life from me because she equated artistic talent with psychiatric disturbance and mental instability. And that’s what this psychiatrist listened to for so many years. His own private Peter Greenaway movie, if he was into Greenaway. Not everyone is. I’m. . . sort of not. But these days, we all sit on the couch and watch TV and know there’s someone who actually listened to us. We like that.

(C) 2014 by Metta Anderson



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