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Truth serum: on sodium pentothal, his secret comes out.

Every Tuesday at exactly three o'clock, the nurse would call my name and lead me into the examining room, where I lay down on a padded table. "Comfortable?" she always asked, and always I said yes, without conviction. I have no recollection of the woman's face, only her white, immaculate back and the click of the door as it closed behind her. I'd be counting holes in the soundproof ceiling when Dr. Sward, my psychotherapist, would bound into the room. The man possessed an inexhaustible energy when it came to the task of psychological exploration, and I think he hoped some of his enthusiasm would rub off on his reticent clients. Dr. Sward prided himself on being a hale, contented fellow, a man able to overcome adversity. A former smoker, he'd had an operation to remove part of his larynx, and his voice, or what remained of it, was somnolent and gravelly. "Hello," he'd rasp. "Are we ready?" Dr. Sward took a seat in the room's only chair--vinyl exhaled under his weight --and removed a fountain pen and notepad from the breast pocket of his blazer. Pen poised, he beamed a broad and expectant grin, a lock of white hair falling onto his forehead.

Next would enter Dr. Townsley, Dr. Sward's stout, mustachioed colleague, who swabbed my arm with alcohol and asked me to make a fist. I barely felt the injection, but serum rode into my vein like an intravenous hot toddy, and a primal comfort seemed to radiate outward from the tip of the needle. Almost instantly, I began to take in rich, intoxicating breaths of air. I steeped in a heedless stew of sensation: felt the rubber released from my arm; heard small talk volleyed between the doctors; saw shiny fronds of a philodendron, which seemed like the greenest things on earth. With the sudden candor of a drunk, I wanted to tell the doctors how happy I felt, but before the words could form, I heard the sound of what I thought was a receptionist typing in another room. Her typing would quicken--faster, manic, superhuman--and invariably I would think to myself: A million words per minute! What nimble fingers! The keys must be shooting sparks from friction! And then I'd realize it wasn't the sound of typing after all, but something more miraculous--chattering watts of light showered down from a bulb on the ceiling. Stirred to the verge of tears, I wanted to shout, "Hold everything, Doctors. I can hear light!" But my jaw went lax and my fist unclenched and I lost my grip on consciousness.

When I opened my eyes, the overhead lights were out. Dr. Townsley had gone, and Dr. Sward's voice emanated from somewhere near the wan glow of a table lamp. "How are you?" he asked.

I was eager to answer any question. I effervesced with things to say. I couldn't have lifted my head if I'd wanted to. "Good," I mumbled, trying to work the moisture back into my mouth. "Very good."

Dr. Sward believed that this experimental form of therapy would help me get to the root of my problem. It was 1974, and his colleagues were having some success with the treatment, a combination of sodium pentothal, known during the Second World War as truth serum, and Ritalin, a mild amphetamine that when given to hyperactive children helps them gather their scattered thoughts. The sodium pentothal, he'd explained, would cause me to pass out, and the Ritalin would revive me. This paradoxical cocktail was supposed to numb a patient's inhibitions while at the same time enhancing his capacity for insight. Its effect vanished without a trace in about forty minutes. Dr. Sward suggested the drugs after I told him that talking to him for the past six months had done nothing to reduce the frequency or intensity of my sexual fantasies involving men. "Frequency," "intensity": those were the terms we used, as though the clinical distance they imposed was in itself an achievement, a way of dividing me from the heat and draw of desire. The final decision was up to me; no treatment could make me change if I didn't have a strong desire to do so, but I might, he felt, be resistant, and the drugs could break down my unconscious defenses and hasten our progress.

"How are things at home?" asked Dr. Sward.

I'd been living with a woman for three years, a woman whom I loved and with whom I had a sex life both playful and pleasurable. I had met Bia at the California Institute of the Arts in 1970. Passing her dorm room, I'd watch her cut bits of black-and-white photographs out of Time magazine with an X-Acto blade and then paste the fragments into long, hieroglyphic columns, giving current events a cryptic twist. In a circle of lamp light, she worked with the meticulous intensity of a jeweler, her concentration unaffected by the jazz blaring from her stereo. We began to eat dinner together at a local restaurant called The Happy Steak, and it was there, amid the faux cowhide upholstery and Formica wood-grain tables, that we honed our love of the lowbrow, discussing at length the soup cans and crushed cars of contemporary art. Budding conceptualists, we were indifferent to the taste of the steak but delighted by the idea that our dinners were impaled with a plastic cow, its flank branded RARE, MEDIUM, or WELL. Instead of saying grace before we ate, we'd bow our heads, clasp our hands, and recite, "Cows are happy when they cry/So we kick them in the eye."

I'm not sure at what point friendship turned to love--our relationship remained platonic for nearly a year--but I'm sure we would have had sex much earlier if both of us hadn't harbored longings for people of the same gender. My secret crushes included Robert Conrad, whose television show, The Wild, Wild West, had him stripped to the waist in almost every episode, his pectorals a lesson in advanced geometry, and Bill Medley of the Righteous Brothers, with whom I'd been smitten since junior high, romanticizing into satyrhood his long, lean, horsy face. Bia, it turned out, was crazy for Greta Garbo, piqued by her high cheekbones, moist eyes, and world-weary manner that suggested a womanhood rich in glamorous disappointments. We confided these guilty attractions late one night during a marathon conversation. Once they were aired, our admissions seemed less shameful, less significant, and I began to feel that sleeping with Bia was inevitable; who better to sleep with than the keeper of your secrets? Besides, as a side effect of our heated discussions, her translucent skin and hazel eyes had begun to excite me.

The only word to describe our first sexual encounter is "premeditated." We gave ourselves weeks to get used to the idea of sleeping together, to weight the consequences--would physical intimacy jeopardize our friendship?--to prolong the delicious anticipation. Like a couple catering a large party, we tried to take into account every eventuality, every shift in the weather, every whim of appetite. Hers was the bed we'd use: it was the biggest, the most familiar; we'd sat on it for countless hours, smoking Marlboros, listening to jazz, watching TV with the sound turned down while improvising snappy patter. Intercourse, we decided, would be best in the late afternoon, when the window shades turned Bia's room the color of butter. Afterward we'd shower together and have a meal at The Happy Steak.

When the day we'd set aside finally arrived, we spent the morning walking through Descanso Gardens. Arms about each other, we were tender and nervous and telepathic, taking this path instead of that, staring at schools of darting koi, lingering before stands of cactus, awed by their bright, incongruous blossoms.

I had slept with only one person up to that point, a girl with whom I'd gone to high school. Alison would whip her long blonde hair from side to side, a semaphore of the feminine. Her arms and legs were hard and tan, and she seemed, walking to class or sprawled on the lawn, all loose-limbed and eager, a living invitation. Alison loved sex. Got it as often and with as many boys as she could. Her flirtations had about them an ingenuous joy, a stark curiosity. The sexual revolution was in full swing, and Alison's hedonism gave her a certain cachet.

The night before I left for college on the East Coast, I took her to a bar on the top floor of a high-rise in Hollywood. We shared fierce and slippery kisses in the elevator. As we toasted each other at a tiny table, the city glittered below us. Men looked at her with lust and at me with envy; her company quelled my sexual doubts. I knew we wouldn't sleep together that night--she had to drive back home to Malibu before her parents returned from a trip--and this knowledge freed me from the performance anxiety that surely would have swamped me had sex been imminent. I helped her off with her coat, toyed with her hair, and paid the bill, playing my masculine role to the hilt because I knew there was no pressure to follow through. I'd carry with me to college the memory of our date, a talisman to ward off the fear that I might never escape my desire for men.

Imagine my surprise when, two months later, Alison showed up at my Brooklyn dormitory wearing a skimpy white dress in the middle of winter, an overnight bag slung over her shoulder. We hadn't seen or written to each other since our date. She'd been visiting her cousins on Long Island and wanted to surprise me. "You're hilarious," she said when I suggested she stay in the guest room at the end of the hallway. She flopped onto my bed. Kicked off her shoes. Fixed me in her bright green gaze. Flipped her hair to and fro like a flag.

We batted her overnight bag off the bed, and it skidded across the floor. Articles of clothing arced through the air. I tried, with brusque adjustments of my hips, to disguise any tentativeness when I entered her. It's now or never, I remember thinking. Her vagina was silky, warm, and capacious. It struck me that my penis might be too small to fill her in the way she wanted, and just when I thought that this tightening knot of self-consciousness might make the act impossible, she let out a yelp of unabashed pleasure. I plunged in deeper, single-minded as a salmon swimming upstream. My hands swept the slope of Alison's shoulders, the rise of her breasts. I didn't realize it until afterward, but I had sucked her neck the entire time, fastened by my lips to a bucking girl. Alison's climax was so protracted, her moans so operatic, her nails so sharp as they raked my back, that when she sat up and felt her neck I thought she was checking her pulse. Suddenly, she rose and ran to the bathroom, a swath of bed sheet trailing in her wake. "I told you," she shrieked, her voice resounding off the tile walls. She appeared in the doorway, legs in a wide, defiant stance, nipples erect. "I told you, no hickies!"

"No, you didn't."

"I said it right at the beginning."

"Then I didn't hear you, Alison."

She held her hand to her neck, Cleopatra bitten by an asp. "What am I going to do?" Her voice was about to break. "What am I going to tell my cousins?"

It was preposterous; she had come to Brooklyn to seduce me, and now Alison was mortified by the small, sanguine badge of our abandon. I said I was sorry.

"'Sorry' isn't going to take it away."

"What about this," I said, turning to show her the marks I could feel scored into my back.

"Oh, great," she said. "Let's compare war wounds." She bent down and scooped up her white dress; it lay on the floor like a monstrous corsage. "You men," she said bitterly.

Forgive me, I was flattered. Placed at last in a class from which I'd felt barred.

I lit a cigarette, watching as she stood before the window and dragged a brush through her hair, the strokes punishing, relentless, and I began to see that Alison was angry at herself for the rapacious nature of her needs, and that her future, overpopulated with lonely men, would be one long, unresolved argument between ardor and regret. Or was I seeing my own fate in her?

An icy sky dimmed above the city. Alison shook her head at an offer of dinner. Her face, framed by sheaths of yellow hair, was pinched with the reflex to flee. "So," she sighed. She slipped into her shoes, stared through me and toward the door. "Give me a call someday." Her tone was clipped and bitter. Standing in my bathrobe, at a loss for what to say, I touched her shoulder, and she shrugged me away, managing a weak and fleeting smile before she shut the door behind her.

When I turned around, I saw that night had veiled the Brooklyn skyline. I tried not to think how far I was from home. Touching was futile: men or women, what did it matter? I crawled back into bed--the residue of Alison's odor rose from the pillow like a puff of dust--and fell into a dreamless sleep.

It would be a long time before I had sex again. I told myself, with a sad resolve, that lovemaking was not one of my natural skills; all mixed up when it came to desire, I'd have to depend on something other than sex for satisfaction. Somewhere I'd read that Picasso spent a lifetime channeling his libido into painting (this explained his prodigious output), and I secretly hoped that my erotic energy would be sublimated into art. Deprivation for the sake of art--the idea made me feel noble. It's no coincidence that during this period my class projects became huge and ornate, and although I hadn't the slghtest understanding of, say, the mathematical principles behind my three-dimensional model of the Golden Rectangle, my efforts were often singled out for discussion by instructors impressed with the obsessive detail that had begun to characterize my work. One night, after too much to drink, this obsessiveness led me to paint my dorm room cobalt blue and to glue dozens of Styrofoam cups to the ceiling, thinking they looked like stalactites. It took three coats of white latex to rectify the situation. Woozy from fumes, I began to understand sublimation's wild, excessive underside. Soon after that night, restless and homesick, I transferred to art school in California, where I met Bia.

Bia was still a virgin when we made our plans to sleep together, a fact I took into account when I clipped my toenails, conditioned my public hair with cream rinse, and practically baptized myself with Brut before I walked into her room. My ablutions were not in vain; our sex was greedy, sweet-smelling teamwork. Spent as we were in the aftermath, we radiated fresh contentment. I rested my head on Bia's breast, grateful for my good luck and the buttery light. That afternoon we began to live together; devotion, a knot we'd tied with our bodies.

As for our homosexual yearnings, once we became a couple, we didn't bring them up again out of affection and deference; like the foundation of a house, they remained present but unseen; the trust that prompted such confidences was the basis of our relationship. Both of us, I think, wanted to believe that we were embarking on the grand adventure of heterosexuality, and that the fear of ostracism with which we had lived for so much of our lives could be shucked off at last like a pair of tight shoes. We were relieved, those first few years of living together, to see our love reflected back at us from movies and billboards and books. Never taking for granted the privilege of public touching, we kissed in cars and markets and parks. But there persisted for me this unavoidable fact: regardless of how gratifying I found sex with Bia, I wanted to have a man.

"Knock, knock. Is anybody there?" joked Dr. Sward. "I was asking what's new."

In the first few seconds of every session, consciousness was something I tried on for size like a huge droopy hat. Then I'd blurt a forbidden thought. The Armenian who works the steampress machine at the dry cleaners was wearing a T-shirt, and I swear I could feel the fur on his forearms from across the room. Usually, Dr. Sward greeted my disclosures with a bromide. Once, I told him that every masturbatory fantasy I'd ever had involved a man, and that I'd gotten to the point where I frankly didn't see how psychotherapy, no matter how probing, enhanced by drugs or not, could alter an impulse etched into my brain by years of unrelenting lust. Dr. Sward laughed his hearty laugh. I thought I heard him lean forward in his chair. He suggested I substitute the image of a woman for the image of a man the second before I ejaculated. I considered telling him that if I had to concentrate on his advice I'd never be able to come, but his casual tone made change seem so easy, like using a giant vaudeville hook to yank an awful act off the stage.

Despite the fact that his advice was often facile, I continued to visit Dr. Sward once a week. He was sincere in his efforts to change me; I was the ambivalent party, tired of grappling with secret lust yet riveted by the bodies of men. I blamed myself for the inability to reform, chalking it up to a failure of will, and would have tried just about anything that promised relief from confusion and shame. Determined to spend my life with Bia--she was my ally in art; there was no one with whom I had more fun--I thought it might be worth enduring my frustrations with therapy in order to ensure the longevity of our relationship. Perhaps there would come a point when my sexual impulses would be simplified, a straight line where there once had been all the twists and turns of a french curve. I knew few gay men, and to some extent still believed that homosexuals were doomed to a life of unhappiness; I never entirely exorcised the images of homosexuality that figured into the rumors and hearsay of my childhood, images of gloomy, clandestine encounters, with trench coats and candy as the recurrent motifs. I suppose I understood that no behavioral modification, no psychological revelation, was going to take away my desire for men, but in the end I went back to Dr. Sward's office because--this is the hardest confession of all--because I wanted to hear the light.

The terrible power of that sound. When I tried to describe it to Bia, I resorted to the phrase "The Music of the Spheres." How lazy and inadequate! The universe seemed to be shuddering, seized by a vast, empathic spasm, crying out in a tremulous voice. I don't mean only visible stuff--chairs and cars and buildings and trees--but microcosmic tremblings too-pollen and protons and cosmic dust. The sum of matter was like a tuning fork that had been struck, and one vital, cacophonous chord issued from a light-bulb screwed into the ceiling of a room where I lay on a padded table and tried to revise my life. Compared to that sound, all the doctor's concern, all my apprehension, all the rules governing who touches whom were muffled to a feeble squeak. The glory of it left me breathless.

Now, I would never claim that the sound was a panacea, but it became an extremely beneficial aspect of therapy, given the way it trivialized my problems with its big aural blast. Dr. Sward believed that my desire for men could be broken down into a set of constituent griefs: lack of paternal love, envy toward other men for their sexual certainty, a need for identification confused with a drive for physical contact. And then, one day, the blare of the light still ringing in my ears, I asked the doctor if heterosexual desire wasn't also a muddled, complex matter, fraught with the very same helplessness and hurt he attributed to my particular case. Didn't he, for example, ever seek his wife's maternal attentions, or envy her sexual receptivity, or yearn to burrow into her flesh, his nerves alert and bordering on anguish? Without a dose of desperation, or the aches and pains left over from one's past, what would sex between two people be? A pat on the back?

All the things I believed to be true pushed from behind like a harried crowd; it was the sodium pentothal talking. The silence that followed embarrassed us both. Worried that my challenge to his authority had upset him, I backpedaled a bit. "I'm just thinking out loud, you know, trying to fit the pieces together."

"Of course," said Dr. Sward. "Of course. But after all, we're not here to talk about me."

I saw Dr. Sward for another six months before I announced, emboldened by an especially heady dose of serum, that I felt it was time for me to terminate therapy. He offered no argument for my staying. In fact, he was surprisingly willing to see me leave, and I couldn't help but think my visits had become for him a source of professional, if not personal, disappointment. For the past year Dr. Sward had insisted that, since I lived with a woman and enjoyed with her a passionate sex life, I was, ipso facto, heterosexual. During our final sessions, however, Dr. Sward seemed resigned to my conflict, more respectful of the obstinate, wayward power of human want.

"Would you say," he asked rather pensively at the end of our final session, "that the nature of your homosexual fantasies has changed at all during the course of our working together?"

"They've changed a little," I said, to placate him. I meant that they occurred with even greater frequency.

"Will you attempt a hetero- or a homosexual life after you leave this office?"

"Don't know," I lied, sliding off the table and shaking his hand. We sighed and wished each other luck.

What I did know was that, as far as the outcome of sodium pentathol therapy was concerned, the one truth that mattered to me now was the electrifying strength of lust. Still, I made no effort to leave Bia for months after I quit seeing Dr. Sward. I was frightened of uncertainty, of exile to a shapeless fate, and the closer I came to a life without her, the more her company soothed me.

When I finally did tell her I wanted to move out and test my feelings for men, we were sitting side by side at Kennedy Airport, waiting to board a plane back to Los Angeles after a vacation in New York City. Destinations echoed over the loudspeaker. Travelers checked their boarding passes, gathered at gates. All that rush and flux, all those strangers embarking on journeys, made urgent and keen my sense of departure. I turned to Bia and, before I knew what I was doing, mumbled that there was something I had to say. I kept protesting my affection, my helplessness. I wanted desperately to take her hand, to hold her to me, but fought it as a hypocritical impulse. She stared at me, uncomprehending, as though I were pleading in a foreign language. Then the dawning of fury and hurt as she understood.

Once we were on the plane, our steady, defeated weeping was disguised by the roar of the engines. Every time I turned to face her, at a loss for what to say, I glimpsed our reflections in the airplane window, vague and straying above the earth.

It wasn't until long after I'd moved out, after Bia found a woman and I found a man, that I mustered the courage to tell her what had happened in New York. We'd spent an afternoon at opposite ends of Manhattan, she uptown, having lunch with a friend, and me in Soho, visiting galleries. Walking back to our midtown hotel, I cut through the West Village. It was hot and humid and overcast, the dark air charged with impending rain. Men congregated on the sidewalk or shared tables at outdoor cafes, their sleeves rolled up, shirts unbuttoned, talk and gestures intent. A few of them turned to watch me pass. Self-conscious as I was, I actually believed for a moment that they were straight men who thought I was gay, and I regretted wearing the gauzy Indian shirt I'd bought at an import shop, and that now felt as insubstantial as lingerie. I began to walk faster, as though I might outstrip the realization of what and where I was.

A salvo of thunder, a blanching flash of light, and there began a heavy, tepid rain. People ran for cover in doorways, gathered under awnings drummed by the rain. My shirt was drenched in seconds; patches of my bare skin seeped through the fabric like stains. I kept tugging the cloth away from my body, but the wet shirt clung and flesh bloomed through. Dressed yet exposed in the middle of the city, arms folded across my chest, I froze as though in an anxious dream. Then I dashed into the nearest doorway, where another man stood, waiting out the rain. He had a round, guileless face and brown hair beaded with drops of water. "You're positively soaked," he said. We eyed each other nervously, then peered up at the sluggish clouds. He was neither especially handsome nor especially interesting, but his small talk--he knew where I could buy an umbrella, hoped he had closed his apartment windows--calmed me. His weathered neck, encircled by a gold chain, made me wonder how old he was and whether he spent long hours in the sun on a balcony somewhere in the city, with friends perhaps, or the man with whom he lived, and I glimpsed, as if through the window of his skin, a life more solid and settled than my own. He was, I decided, a man who'd adapted to his own desires; I envied him his sexual certainty, and thus bore out, although in reverse, one of Dr. Sward's theories. I would have had sex with that talkative, innocuous stranger in an instant, would have gladly given him the burden of releasing me from ambivalence. And just when it occurred to me that it might be possible to seduce him, just as I wrestled with a proposition, the rain let up, he wished me luck, and he dashed down the street.

I walked aimlessly, for hours, till the pale sun made my shirt opaque.

That night, when Bia reached out in her sleep to touch me, she touched a man on the edge of action, shedding the skin of his former life. I tossed and turned. The hotel bed felt hard and unfamiliar. I didn't know then that Bia and I would remain lifelong friends, or that by never again falling in love with someone of the opposite sex we'd preserve the anomaly of who we once were. I knew only that impatience outweighed my remorse. Over and over, I replayed my encounter with the man in the doorway; in fantasy I lived on my own, and when he asked me if I had a place, I told him yes, I had a place.
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Title Annotation:psychotherapy narrative
Author:Cooper, Bernard
Publication:Harper's Magazine
Date:Apr 1, 1994
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