Not So Different

47. Seeing More Than Some Would Like

'Which animal would you rather be: a dog, a seal, or a lion?'

'How about a bat?'

Sonny was making an effort to complete a questionnaire, or at any rate simulating an effort to complete a questionnaire, and Jane was making an effort to help him, or at any rate simulating an effort to help him. As 'bat' was not one of the options offered for the 'choose an animal' question, she told him to write it in. He explained that he had to give a brief justification for his choice.

Jane's suggestion was 'I've always wanted to sleep upside down and spread rabies'.

'You know what', Sonny said, 'I like that, but I'm going to put it under "Career Goals". My choice of animal is going to be "salamander".'

Jane paused in her task of adjusting the webcam she was attaching to her computer, and turned to look at Sonny. 'And what's your justification for that?'

'A, some of the stories about salamanders are so strange as to be impossible, and yet some people believe them; B, salamanders have the ability to generate material which makes them repulsive to predators; C, they have a remarkable capacity to recover from physical injury.'

Jane gave him a look he recognised. She was thinking of a picture. But all she said was, 'I thought it was supposed to be a brief sentence.'

'Only because these people are lazy. They're getting paid to read this stuff, which is more than I can say. It's not my fault if they can't be bothered to do their job properly.'

'They' were the staff at 'Quiet Ivy' ('Renewal and Rejuvenation for the Spirit and Soul', or so their brochure said). Vitale, Davis, Horowitz, Riordan, Schrecter, Schrecter, and Schrecter were paying for Helen Morgendorffer and her whole family to go there. It was part of the process by which the firm 'assessed' potential future partners. Sonny, Quinn, Jake, and Helen were all expected to complete questionnaires so that the staff could get to know them before they arrived (Helen's version) and (Sonny's version) know who to make into a drone and who just to kill outright.

Sonny began to think that his version was uncannily insightful when the Morgendorffers' car arrived at Quiet Ivy and was immediately surrounded by half a dozen staff members in white coats. 'Uh-oh', he said. 'Four flew into the cuckoo's nest.'

As they got out of the car, Sonny's mother introduced the whole family, but it was Sonny the white coats zoomed in on. When his mother asked for an explanation, the lead representative of the Combine handed her a clipboard with Sonny's questionnaire.

'Favourite pastime: resurrection?' She glared at Sonny.

He averted his gaze and said, 'I also enjoy making the lame see, the fat hear, and the bald dance.'

The staff wanted to put Sonny under 'intensive observation', at which Quinn commented, 'it's about time'.

'Wait a minute.' Sonny's father glared and put his arm around Sonny's shoulders. 'There's nothing wrong with my boy.'

'Yeah', said Quinn, 'he's always like this.'

'Quinn!' said their mother sharply, before trying to provide some reassurance. 'Our son has an eccentric sense of humour, but he's perfectly fine.'

Sonny tried to dissuade the posse from paying any attention to her (and thus to keep the ball in play) on the ground that she was one of 'the Gamma People', but it was too late. They walked away, although Sonny was encouraged to see that they were definitely disappointed at having to spare him.

After this opening skirmish, the Morgendorffers were briefly left alone in the building. Sonny found a bank of computers with Internet connections and logged on to Jane's webcam.

Did he feel guilty about intruding voyeuristically into his best friend's life? Maybe. But how else was he going to pass the time? Jane had told him that Jane-Cam was a public service, providing comfort to lonely Web-surfers and ensuring that her time on Earth was not wasted—and a public service that required practically no effort. As he'd said at the time, a noble cause and one that suited Jane well. Who was he to deny her function? And what lonely Web-surfer could benefit more from her service than he could?

He would have felt less discomfort and more benefit if he'd been doing something different from looking deep into her mouth while she flossed her teeth. But he'd learned well that sometimes in life you had to take what you can get. And at least her mouth wasn't open quite wide enough to show all her fillings. He didn't feel ready for a close view of her uvula.

Suddenly she stopped flossing and shut her mouth as if she'd only just remembered Jane-Cam.

'Hello, Sonny.' A white-coated young man with a French accent had come up behind him unobserved as his attention was focussed on the screen. 'I'm your one-on-one counsellor. Is that your girlfriend?'

'I don't have a girlfriend. I just like to talk to the computer sometimes, because there's nobody else since the air-conditioner left home.'

'You know, Sonny, people often use humour as a barrier to prevent others from trying to get too close.'

'Is that right', Sonny said, looking the man up and down. 'Does it ever work.'

'What are you trying to hide?'

'Nothing.' Sonny closed his eyes for a moment. 'I love my mother very much and feel that she'd make an excellent law partner.' He stood up and turned away from the man. 'Oh dear, I think I hear my ride.' He started to walk away, but the counsellor, not to be deterred, interrupted him.

'Sonny, why don't we have a nice talk?'

Sonny turned and looked at the man.

'Why don't we have a nice talk?' He scratched behind his ear. 'You'd like to know why?' He stopped scratching. 'I think I could tell you something about that. In a way, it's because I know a little about the psychological life-cycle of the bully.'

The man put on a 'concerned' face. 'Have you had some experience with bullying, Sonny? Would you like to talk about it in my office?'

'No, not really.' Sonny sighed. 'But I guess I don't have much real choice, do I?'

'Sonny, have you considered that you might get something valuable out of this experience if you give it a chance?'

Sonny looked him up and down again. 'I suppose we'll just have to put that on the list for talking about in your office as well.' He gestured exaggeratedly for the busybody to lead the way.

In the counsellor's private office, he ushered Sonny to a seat on the couch and then lowered himself into one of the chairs.

'Now, you wanted to tell me something about bullying.'

'Actually', Sonny said, 'I said that I could, not that I wanted to, but never mind. What I was thinking about was the way that a bunch of little kids will start at a school, and some of them will get picked on by bullies who take their lunch money. Then they all get older, and the bullies leave the school, and the little kids who were bullied turn into the big kids, and there's always one or two of them who also turn into bullies and start taking lunch money from some of the new little kids. And the reason all this is relevant is that that's how it works at my mother's firm, too, except that what they're taking away from people is not tangible like lunch money. That's what sending people here before they'll consider them for partnership is about. They're sending my mother here to make her suffer because that's what was done to them before they could get to be partners. It's their way of trying to recoup their psychic losses. It's got nothing to do with any actual benefit to the firm or any genuine assistance in selecting the right people for partnerships. But they have to believe it does, or at least pretend that they do, to keep the whole thing going. And that's where you people here come in. Your job, which they pay you to keep doing, is to help them maintain the charade.

'And that', said Sonny, brushing his hands against each other in a 'dusting off' gesture, 'is why I don't think we can have a nice talk and I don't expect to get anything valuable out of this experience. I'm sure that if you put your mind to it you can fake up something for your report that will satisfy your superiors here and my mother's firm, and that way we can both stop wasting each other's time. I mean, seriously, what am I supposed to be here for? To help my mother get that partnership? Or are you just itching to analyse me and discover a subconscious desire to sabotage her? Thanks, I'd rather not know about that. They want to grade my mother on her family life before they decide whether to make her a partner? What happens after that, does she have to "make her bones"?' He paused to look straight at his 'counsellor'. 'Are you going to tell me that people often use sarcasm as a barrier to prevent others from trying to get too close. Does that ever work.'

The counsellor looked at Sonny appraisingly. 'Do you have any suggestions, then, about things I could "fake up", as you put it, for my report?'

'I told you, I love my mother very much and I think she'd make an excellent law partner.'

'And do you have any thoughts about what sort of report would encourage her firm to give her a partnership?'

Sonny drew his brow down for a moment. 'That her tireless dedication to her job in no way impairs her relationship with her family?' He shrugged. 'The truth is that Mom appears to be filled with resentment at being made to work so hard, but the reality obscured behind that is her guilt that she enjoys nothing more than working so hard.' He sighed. 'And as for the rest of the family, what Dad feels guilty about is being less driven than Mom. But he thinks the guilt feelings are just as wrong as the lack of drive, so he ends up hiding everything behind a smokescreen of cluelessness. My sister wears superficiality like a suit of armour, because she's afraid of looking inside and finding absolutely nothing. And I'm so defensive that I actively work to make people dislike me so that it will be less painful when they do.' He stood up. 'Is that enough for you to be going on with? May I have permission to go now? And please remember that if you tell anybody anything I have said I will deny everything, and I'm very good at it.'

'Tell me, Sonny. Have you ever been hypnotised?'

Before they could pursue that dispiriting line of inquiry any further, Quinn wandered into the room to complain about Sonny getting 'the French guy' (Quinn loved accents, or at least French ones). Sonny stood up, happy to change places, but the counsellor was irked and asked Quinn to explain who she was.

'I'm Quinn. Sonny's … trainer.'

Sonny said, 'Now, that's healthy.'

The counsellor, apparently (and disturbingly) accepted Quinn's presence as a spectator as he returned to his effort to hypnotise Sonny. However, pleasingly, it was Quinn and not Sonny who lapsed into a trance. When the counsellor said, 'At the count of ten, you will tell me everything you're feeling with no resistance', it was she who immediately started blathering.

When it was all over, Sonny did wonder whether Quinn had really been in a hypnotic trance or just putting on some kind of act. He felt that he didn't know enough about hypnotism to be sure what kind of difference it made, but he knew enough about Quinn to know how hard it was for her ever to keep her mouth shut.

The counsellor thought Quinn must be experiencing a 'past-life regression'. Sonny would concede only the 'regression' part. Quinn might think she was Cleopatra, but Sonny doubted that Cleopatra had ever told Caesar his butt looked big in a toga, never mind the part of Quinn's story in which Cleopatra invented all her own beauty products. Maybe the counsellor, like Quinn, had a sketchier and more distorted impression of history than Sonny. But Sonny had to give him credit for what he said next.

'Sonny, I was afraid you had some rather deep-seated problems. But I must say, you're remarkably well-adjusted … considering.'

As Quinn blathered on, Sonny stood up.

'At the count of ten', he said, 'I will snap my fingers … and hopefully remember none of this.'

Sonny's one-on-one counsellor didn't bother him after their session with Quinn, and he was able to go back to the computer lounge and log on to Jane-Cam again. He wished he hadn't. It was more or less bearable watching Jane starting work on a painting of a Sonnymander, but then Trent walked into shot scratching his rear, unaware of his exposure through Jane-Cam, because Jane had insisted on nobody else's knowing about it.

Sonny felt himself flush in involuntary sympathy. Although he wasn't himself the one unwittingly displayed clawing at his backside, he felt as if he were transfixed by a pin like a butterfly in a collector's glass case.

'Don't pick your nose', he said, staring helplessly. 'Don't pick your nose.'

The charm was broken by Quinn, who came in looking for 'Jean-Michel' (the French-accented counsellor). Her intrusion enabled Sonny to break away. He logged off, stood up, and went over to the bookshelves to browse.

But though he stalled around with the books for quite a while, in the end Sonny couldn't help himself. He was drawn back to Jane-Cam. This time Jane and Tom were sitting on her bed, watching television. Sonny could only see the back of the set, so he didn't know what program was on. He could tell when Jane used the remote to change channels, though. They must not be very engrossed. Maybe they'd start doing something else instead of watching television.

Sonny examined his conscience and decided that he felt bad about watching his best friend with her boyfriend. He kept watching

Jane and Tom were talking about something, possibly something on the television screen, and then Tom stood up, turned to face Jane, and began playing air guitar. Then, worse, he began gyrating his hips.

'Oh no', said Sonny, his face slackening.

Tom continued shaking his stern at the camera. Sonny covered his face with both hands, then spread his fingers to peek through them, then closed one eye and half-closed the other, still getting a squinting glimpse. He was flushing, too, harder than he had when watching Trent. He couldn't watch, but he couldn't look away.

'Please make it stop', he said.

Some of the other people in the room started grouping themselves behind Sonny's back. The realisation that there was a wider audience for Tom's display shocked Sonny back to something approaching reality. He scrambled for perspective.

'Oh look dear', he said, 'the Kravitzes are here.'

Almost as if he'd heard, Tom turned round and stared horror-struck into the webcam, which he'd obviously been unaware of up to that point. After a moment his expression changed to a more productive fury as he turned on Jane. She stood up from the bed and lifted her arms defensively. Whatever she said did not appear to mollify Tom, who stormed out of shot. Jane picked up a pair of scissors and rapidly approached the camera, and a moment later there was nothing but static, as if the cable had been cut.

'Wow', said a cluelessly gawking bystander, 'what show was that?'

Sonny wasn't sure what to do next with Jane-Cam cut off, and unfortunately the staff at Quiet Ivy had an idea for him. They corralled all the Morgendorffers in the dining room with one of the counsellors, who wanted to suggest that 'we' (meaning, of course, the Morgendorffers and by no means she herself) 'wear each other's faces for a while'.

Quinn was disgusted, taking the suggestion as a literal one, as it had been in some movie she knew 'with that guy and that other guy'.

Taking the suggestion as a literal one, Sonny wanted to be the one who did the surgery.

The counsellor explained that she was only talking about role-playing.

Sonny riposted that he didn't see the problem. He could play the role of the crazed surgeon.

Commendably or not, the counsellor persevered, trying to get them to pretend to be each other. For example, she suggested, Sonny could be Helen, or Quinn could be Sonny.

'Oh God', said Quinn, 'just throw me in front of a train, why don't you?'

The counsellor misunderstood, so Quinn explained that that was her impression of Sonny.

Sonny was irritated. He wasn't suicidal. Not until it was suggested that he should be Quinn, that is. The counsellor decided to try starting with the adults instead.

Sonny's father began by feigning some reluctance, but it quickly became clear that he was only too eager to exhibit his idea of his wife's behaviour, ready to jump every time her boss said 'frog', without any kind of regard for her family at all.

Sonny's mother gave a nervous laugh of embarrassment. She didn't have much room to defend herself. But the counsellor reminded her that she was supposed to be acting Jake, not defending Helen. That wasn't hard. She had him down pat: the ranting, the whining self-pity, the oblivious cluelessness, the defensive evasiveness—even the rocking from side to side and the falling asleep.

Sonny looked from one parent to another as the back-and-forth heated up. He still wasn't sure just what they got out of their relationship with each other, but there was a strong connection of some kind there. He hated to admit it, even to himself, but maybe the counsellor had been on to something with this apparently dopey role-play idea.

'Oh, Jakey', said Jake as Helen. 'Let me bring home the pizza. I have to be the one doing everything so everyone will thank me and tell me what a big superwoman I am. I'm very, very important and very, very stressed and I don't have time to actually do anything for anyone else, but I can pretend I care, can't I?'

This last speech had ignited Helen's face, and as Jake sighed deeply she said quietly, no longer as Jake, 'Everybody hates me'.

'Are you being Sonny now?' Quinn said.

The counsellor restored Sonny's faith in her cluelessness by trying to get them to keep going. It was over. It was all over. Sonny's mother acknowledged as much, stood up, and left. Sonny's father proved that he saw more in his wife than he had revealed so far by giving chase, obviously already filled with remorse.

Pushing back his chair, Sonny said, 'That worked well', and then he left too. As he left he heard the counsellor, inadequate to the last, asking Quinn for an opinion on the scene that had just played out. He knew he could rely on Quinn to give a stupid answer to a stupid question.

He also knew he could rely on himself to find his mother before his father did. The cluelessness wasn't purely an act.

She was in the parking lot, trying to get into the car. When Sonny asked, she said she'd been planning to wait in the car until it was time to leave. Sonny pointed out that they weren't scheduled to leave until the next morning. His mother thought that she'd still do less harm that way.

'Look what I've done to my family! Your father feels completely neglected and resentful. I've shut you out so many times, you don't even try to talk to me, and Quinn … well, I can't even think about what happened there, not right now. Oh my God, Sonny! You didn't hear that!'

Sonny was relieved. Enlightenment had not made his mother smarter than he was.

'Look, Mom. Dad has to feel neglected, it's how he stays the centre of attention. And the reason I don't talk to you is that I know you'll hang on my every word, and frankly, who needs that kind of responsibility? And as for Quinn, well, I can't even think about what happened there.'

His mother laughed, and then stopped herself. She was obviously hesitating about accepting Sonny's reassurances. He explained to her that it was precisely because she was just as committed to the family as to the job that she was half-crazy.

'You really don't hate me for working so hard?'

'I came to this stupid place and pretended to be well-adjusted, didn't I?'

His mother looked at him and he realised he had to concede that one to her.

'Well, anyway, I came to this stupid place.'

It was lucky that Sonny's father caught up with them at that point, because Sonny had had about enough. Jake wanted to apologise to Helen and make up with her. Admittedly, it was a really stupid apology, all tangled up with Jake's recent obsession with milk, something Sonny just didn't want to think about any more. But a really stupid apology from her husband was just what Sonny's mother needed to hear right now. As his parents batted on about milk, Sonny said to himself instead, My job here is done. Now I have to go home and commiserate with Jane about the failure of Jane-Cam. Why isn't there one thing in my life that does not make me feel awkward?

Some dialogue from 'Psycho Therapy' by Neena Beber