The Three-Body Problemby Therese Cox
Excerpted from the novel The Three-Body Problem
For someone who was trying to get rid of Jane Doherty, Thomas Hopewell was spending an awful lot of time poking around the Most-Bombed Hotel in Europe looking for her. A brisk walk through the lobby and thorough investigation of the bar on the ground level and upstairs lounge revealed no sign of the girl and her tortoiseshell glasses and her book of Salvador Dalí, to his relief and disappointment. He’d been fearing another hotel ambush, and rather looking forward to it.
A new thought plagued him that his patient, not content to wait for him, had done the next best thing and opted to spend an hour touring the murals of west Belfast with his stuttering sister and her apologetic accomplice. Might Jane be, right now, enjoying a drive-by black taxi tour of Thomas’s humiliating boyhood home, grilling the history expert and mural semiotician Fiona Hopewell for intimate details about her family life? The chances were certainly slim, which only put him out of his mind with worry and hammered his free-floating anxiety into a hard conviction that this unspeakable, totally improbable event was exactly what was happening. Slim had Jane’s name written all over it in thick block letters. But that was the least of his worries.
All throughout his wanderings, Thomas was rehearsing the ways in which he could explain to Jane the wife situation. For as difficult as the wife situation was, it was infinitely easier than having to explain the wife situation. It was necessary that he be both specific and sensitive in conveying to Jane the appropriate facts and crucial that he present the details of his wife’s arrival in a way that didn’t make him sound like an ETA report. He auditioned them privately: Jane, my wife is coming to Belfast (subtext: I’m married and, with your help and discretion, plan on remaining married); she’ll be arriving shortly (subtext: I will soon be quite unable to grab a “quick bite” with you); and she’ll be arriving at 9:15 Saturday morning (subtext: I would love to see you every possible moment up until 9:15 Saturday morning). The wise thing for him to do would be to check both himself and his wife into a different hotel altogether and eliminate all chance of running into Jane in the hall, around the lobby, on elevators, by the concierge desk, near the swimming pool, at the bar, behind the potted plants, outside his room. Had his wife not insisted on the hotel’s on-site spa (he’d neglected to mention the unsavory statistic about the bombings), he might have been able to do it.
Why had he not told Jane to take another taxi? That was all he needed to say. Jane, in the interests of our professional relationship, it would be best if we did not get into this taxi together. He didn’t have to be cruel about it. A simple, No, I’m sorry, would have done the trick. But not saying no to her the first time made saying it the second time harder. And after not saying it twice, well, what would have possessed him to say it the third time?
He had no idea what to do with her. He kept his mouth shut, hoping if he let her go on long enough, she might be able to tell him.
Jane Doherty put on her fake glasses and walked south. The city center was busy but cheerless, with charmless glass storefronts and unsmiling proprietors. It was gray and bland and reminded her of a visit to Canada on her school’s eighth grade field trip. Those fat, reverent statues to Queen Victoria, the swept streets and timid gardens, that fussy and imposing City Hall. Her imagination had been warped by the bleak, grainy-imaged photos of a soldier-patrolled, war-torn, bomb-blasted Belfast from the Time magazine exposés she’d read in the eighties. In the days leading up to her elopement, she’d expected and had even begun to look forward to the sharp, scary feeling of fearing for her safety, which would have been a welcome change from the usual, bland, amorphous feeling of fearing for her sanity. As far as the city was concerned, Jane was a little disappointed. But then, she wasn’t there to see Belfast.
It was unbelievable how easy it had been. Jane had put on a pinstriped skirt and jacket, headed toward the campus, strolled right up to the check-in desk and checked herself in. Leaning over a stranger’s shoulder, she selected a name surreptitiously from the printout. She signed the name on the line with a blue ballpoint pen and uncapped a green Sharpie, printing her new name on a HELLO MY NAME IS sticker. She decided to reinvent herself for the day as DR. CHRISTINA IRITANO. Relieved at last of the burden of Jane, Dr. Iritano helped herself to a program of Friday’s events, glanced at the caduceus logo on the back and headed toward the auditorium.
When the psychiatrists of the International Group Addressing Suicide Prevention gathered for their annual conference, the suicide rate of their patients back home crept up. There was always one psychiatrist every year (last year there were four) called out of a symposium for an emergency phone call or who disappeared from the conference midway through without a word of explanation. It was bad for morale and still worse for the other attendees, who were reminded unpleasantly of their own patients back home and were forced—often over an otherwise enjoyable all-expenses-paid buffet—into contemplation of how a suicide had the power to not only stain a professional reputation but also ruin a perfectly enjoyable vacation.
The simple act of taking a vacation, a relaxing period of rest and recreation for most of the population, was for the conference-hopping psychiatrist a calculated risk, one that each psychiatrist had to weigh in favor of the greater good. Did you prevent suicides by attending conferences about how to prevent suicide, or did you prevent suicides by not going to conferences about how to prevent suicide? It was not uncommon for a distraught patient to threaten to kill herself when and if her psychiatrist went on vacation. Though not all patients responded to vacations so drastically, all psychiatrists had at least one who did. Suicide was an unfortunate occupational hazard. It was never a question of suicides Yes or No, only suicides Now or Later. The optimistic doctors came to learn how to postpone them; the pessimists came to get them over with. But on one point they all agreed. They all liked to talk about it. They all liked to talk, period.
The psychiatrists had names but introduced themselves according to their research. Eavesdropping on the exchanges in the foyer outside the auditorium, Jane was introduced to a plethora of psychiatric expertise. There was Dr. Serotonin and Dr. Norepinephrine and the long-winded Dr. Abnormal Reactivity in the Right Central-Frontal Region and Left Posterior Region During Long-Latency Auditory Exposure. She saw Dr. Massachusetts Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), Dr. Expert on the Beck Hopelessness Scale, and Dr. Developer of the (in process) Biezylski-Underwood Longitudinal Self-Harm Ideation Test (BULSHIT). Dr. Antipsychotic Polypharmacy hobnobbed with Dr. Wisconsin Card Sorting Test (who made $365,000 at blackjack in Vegas month prior to conference). And lingering on the outskirts was the tweedy and somber Dr. Leading Expert on the Texas Algorithm Project.
As much as the newly christened Dr. Christina Iritano tried to avoid contact with her fellow attendees by placing her undereducated self in the rear of the auditorium, an aggressively gregarious middle-aged suit managed to nevertheless invite himself to sit next to her.
“Do you mind?” said the suit, gesturing to an empty seat.
Dr. Iritano didn’t say yes, but she didn’t say no.
“Thank you kindly,” he said. The middle-aged suit smiled sickeningly, made himself comfortable and proceeded to stare at Jane’s chest. “Dr. Iritano? Or should I call you Christina?”
“Dr. Iritano, thank you.” Jane folded her arms over her HELLO MY NAME IS tag.
“Dr. Akers. Miami, Florida. Pleased to meet you.”
Though it was cold and drizzling outside, the air inside the auditorium was stifling. It was as loud as a stadium at a June graduation and twice as hot. Folded programs fluttered as psychiatrists from twenty-two countries (originally twenty-three, but for a last-minute emergency involving Luxembourg) fanned themselves. Dr. Iritano felt hot in her jacket but the prospect of stripping off a layer in front of the goggle-eyed Dr. Akers was distasteful. She was swarmed on all sides by middle-aged men in ugly brown suits. The smattering of women in the audience were matronly and sexless, dressed in conservative, taupe-colored flat-heeled shoes and formless skirts that sagged over the hips. Jane felt a little racy in her above-the-knee pencil skirt and slingbacks, a little too suspicious, a little too like a TV version of a district attorney. She was glad she decided against the faux pearls, because that would have really been a bit much.
“A pleasure, Dr. Iritano, a real pleasure. This is a real first for me. Never been to Belfast before. I’ve never traveled outside the U.S. of A. at all, matter of fact. Isn’t that something? I work in a hospital in Miami. One of the busiest clinical environments you’ll find in the southeast. Specialize in addictions. Patients’ addictions, that is. Not my own.” Dr. Akers chuckled. “That’s a whole other story. Let’s not go into that! So. What brings a lovely doctor like you all the way to Belfast? What’s your area of expertise? If you don’t mind my asking.”
“I study personality disorders.”
“Is that right? Well I’ll be! Any particular kind of personality disorder?”
“Borderline personality disorder,” said Dr. Iritano coolly.
Dr. Akers smacked a hand on his knee and shook his head. “Golly. Borderline, you say? They’re sure a handful, aren’t they? Those borderlines! Fascinating young women, but quite the challenge! Whew! Not for the faint of heart, are they?”
Dr. Iritano, who seemed to know, nodded.
Dr. Akers went on about the keynote speaker, about the comfort of the seats in the auditorium, about the number of miles he’d traveled to get here and the deli cuts he hoped they’d be serving for lunch. She listened politely, her mind focused on the selection of seminars, until she settled on the one most likely to attract Dr. Christina Iritano–and, by association, her good friend and colleague from New York, Dr. Thomas Hopewell. Dr. Akers leaned over the program, lamenting that he had to attend Once Isn’t Enough: Addiction Disorders, Suicide Frequency, and You, adding that he’d like to meet her for lunch to discuss the seminars.
“Sure,” said Jane. “I’ll meet you by the…over there.”
She pointed to a corner of the auditorium, with every intention of not returning to that corner of the auditorium for the rest of the day, at any price. The keynote speaker started and Jane sat back in the rickety red chair, scanning the crowded auditorium from the back to the front.
The wind blew his charcoal gray overcoat behind him as he stepped over the cracked sidewalks. As usual the clock in the clock tower was frozen at ten minutes to eleven. He passed the old indoor shooting gallery, now converted, he learned from the dignified sign, into the Seamus Heaney Library. It hadn’t ever seemed strange to have had an indoor shooting gallery next to the lecture hall, and even though he had never shot a gun there—and had no desire to ever do so—the transformation made him sad. Part of what made Thomas like the notion of personal evolution was the assurance that some things in the world would remain solid and unchanging no matter what. He reassured himself as he walked that what was happening between him and his patient was nothing but a harmless folie a deux, a coincidence between two consenting adults.
The campus in its picturesque red brick and plain geometry looked much smaller than it had been in his mind. Even the eleven-story library that had once seemed to him a skyscraper now resembled to him nothing more than a dull office complex. He wandered the grounds, the cobbled stone walkways, the sleeping architecture overgrown with ivy and the courtyards decked with sparse chestnut trees that never seemed to get any bigger. There was the ugly gray chapel, the Sir William Witla Hall, and in the corridor outside the Great Hall with the black and white checkered tiles was the alabaster statue of Galileo, body larger than life and face sunken and chalk white, a tiny globe at his side and book opened on his outstretched legs, head sunk depressively into his open palm. The old snoring astronomer.
The seminar (Dissecting the Suicidal Psyche) was scheduled on the other side of the courtyard in a building that used to be the science hall and was now a renovated center for International Studies. The whitewashed lobby had a plasticene smell and chartreuse chairs of a design so modern that they instantly looked dated. Jane checked behind her to make sure she wasn’t being followed by Dr. Akers and snuck a quick cigarette outside in the courtyard, tossing the cigarette in the bushes and feeling heady with anticipation and a nicotine buzz. She double-checked the program and proceeded down the corridor to the stairwell. With the click of her high-heeled shoes on the steps, she made her way up to the room on the second floor.
Examining the program for typos, Dr. Thomas Hopewell was hotly engaged in pursuit of misplaced comma splices and it was only after five pages of hunting that he became aware that he was being watched by a pair of eyes from across the crowded classroom. By the time he saw beneath the strange tortoiseshell glasses and neat suit to the pale, lean face and the red lips that had seated themselves in direct eyeshot across from him, it was too late. The door closed and a purposeful silver-haired psychiatrist-emcee strode to the lectern. With a preliminary puff into the microphone (Testing 1-2-3), he started in with his pompous bominations.
“Greetings and a very good morning to my fellow colleagues.”
Thomas remained painfully still as the psychiatrists adjusted chairs and papers. This one hot glare from across the room did not leave him alone. He felt it stick to him like gum.
“It is my great pleasure,” announced the emcee, clearing his throat, “to have the great pleasure of introducing to you today’s speaker. Widely known throughout the community to all for his scintillating research on the topic of suicide prevention, he is a man who needs no introduction.” The silver-haired psychiatrist paused for effect and surveyed the room. “But I’m gonna give you one anyway!”
The audience, in pressured humor, chuckled.
Thomas saw the glimpse of stocking beneath the pinstriped pencil skirt and high heels as she crossed one leg over the other and all of his rationality fell away like it was an old coat.
“Dr. Robartes,” pronounced the emcee with gravity, “is a leading expert in the field of suicide research. He is the author of a wide variety of clinical texts and narratives with which the audience is no doubt familiar, including the indomitable Rorschach Nation and the searingly relevant and influential Neuron, Interrupted. This book, as you will certainly recall, was a burningly relevant look at the influence of the 5-HT and NE receptors on the severely depressed patient’s human brain. It is a clinical gem, a theoretical feast, and a literary delight. It is a tour guide—a Baedeker’s, if you will—into the pellucid hinterland of the suicidal patient’s tormented world. A world which, I think we can all agree, is a dark forest we long profoundly to navigate and a subject worthy of our deepest curiosity and attention.”
All order in his brain shattered, and he was aware of one and only one creeping sensation. The need to track Jane down, corner her, and tear her apart. This was what happened to the psyche under severe duress. It split off. Thomas, oblivious to the credentials of the esteemed Dr. Robartes, was only surprised it hadn’t happened to him sooner.
ID: Tear Jane apart.
EGO: Oh dear. Oh yes. I mean, oh no. For Christ’s sake, think of how this will ruin your career! Show a little restraint.
SUPEREGO: Gentlemen, tearing Jane Doherty apart is a strict violation of the doctor-patient contract.
EGO: On the one hand, I’m quite sure you’d find acting upon these vile, primitive drives satisfying. Very very satisfying in fact. But you must listen to reason, Dr. Hopewell, there are other important considerations—
ID: Tear her apart. Screw her senseless.
SUPEREGO: May I remind you again that sleeping with, or as you so crudely put it, “screwing the patient senseless” is a dire infraction of the doctor-patient contract and severely undermines the professionalism of the doctor, not to mention the disastrous effects such behavior can have on the patient. No such thing will take place. This is entirely unacceptable.
EGO: Of course, she is very attractive. And there’s no real harm in just looking. Or thinking. Or—
ID: Fuck. Her. Now.
Everything about it was wrong, and the more he told himself it was wrong, the less he wanted it to stop. Nothing at that moment seemed more time-wasting and interminable than a discourse from Dr. Robartes about suicide prevention or emergency crisis management or the relation of the 5-HT and NE receptors to the suicidal patient’s brain. And nothing seemed more worthy of his deepest curiosity and attention than this (once-suicidal) figure across the room from him, mute and intent and irresistibly intelligent, a leather slingback dangling tantalizingly from one foot.
“Who can begin to understand,” proselytized the nasal Dr. Robartes, “the desperate state of mind of a suicidal patient? Though we call ourselves experts, how can we even begin to comprehend the flight from reason, the cognitive disorganization, the confused state? It is seductive to believe that the same logic which governs our understanding of the world also governs the dark psyche of the patient on the verge of self-extinction.”
Thomas flipped over the program and stared at the blue caduceus on the back, afraid to look up and see Jane and her ungoverned dark psyche still there, certain that these inappropriate thoughts about her were being broadcast across his face and certain she was studying them.
He took out a clean sheet of paper from his portfolio and busied himself with the task of drawing squares. He liked squares. Squares calmed him down. While the pretty stranger across from him listened intently and took neat, detailed notes, he started with one small square. Then he drew a whole line of squares, then a squadron of squares, then squares on top of squadrons and smaller squares inside larger ones. When he was done with a row, he stopped and counted, putting a little dot in the center of every third square and feeling deeply satisfied. But when, at the end of the lecture, Thomas looked up again and saw that the girl in the tortoiseshell frames was not there, all of the mind-calming benefits of the exercise disintegrated like paper in water.
He got stuck in a traffic bottleneck near the door and as soon as he squeezed himself out of the crowded room, Thomas searched the grim corridor for Jane: her long dark hair, that fair face, the devastating crimson mouth. He lingered in the foyer of the center for International Studies and drummed a finger on the back of a plastic chartreuse chair.
At lunchtime, a parliament of faces glowered sternly down at him from the portraits on the wall. He saw disproval and judgment in their pasty, bespectacled Protestant faces. He sipped his tea uneasily with the feeling that the painted provosts and university presidents were collectively, across time and space, reading his despicable thoughts and foretelling his inevitable demise. He scanned all the faces, searched all the rooms. He passed by old Galileo outside the Great Hall. The astronomer was still snoring. The clock was still frozen at ten minutes to eleven. And Jane was nowhere to be found.
This is an excerpt from Therese Cox’s first novel now making the rounds. She lives in Brooklyn.
Therese Cox is a novelist living in Brooklyn.