David Flusfeder's most recent novel is The Pagan House, published by Fourth Estate.

A clam risotto short of punching the analyst

Psychoanalysts seldom make good hosts. During one awful Christmas a couple of decades ago, my then-girlfriend's psychoanalyst parents, in a misguided deference to my Jewish background, organized a showing of Fiddler on the Roof. After it was over I had to drink mulled wine and listen to them discussing the meanings of the Diaspora and bear witness to their tears and their sympathy for what the 20th century had done to the Jews.

A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I spent a weekend in Rome, where we wandered around churches and galleries and looked at ruins and crypts and accepted the dinner invitation of a former boyfriend of my wife's (with whom she went out at almost exactly the same period I was with the daughter of the overbearing Semitophiles). Paolo, the ex, is a psychoanalyst, recently converted to neo-Darwinian theories of mind, who specializes in the treatment of adolescents.

We arrived unRomanly early, at about 9pm, well before the other guests. Paolo shook my hand and hung up my wife's coat and offered her a glass of wine. We sat down and he and my wife talked about the fates of some mutual friends; and he and I sparred in the amiably competitive way of strangers who have slept with the same woman.

He seemed friendly, and interesting, and my raincoat is an old one and I didn't especially mind it lying crumpled on the sofa. Nor was I thirsty so it didn't bother me that much not to have anything to drink. But there seemed to be some kind of point to it: Paolo kept drinking glass after glass of mineral water, and scrupulously refilled my wife's wine glass, and I couldn't work out if this silent hostility of unproviding was conscious or not on his part, or if it was just what it seemed to be, a deliberate tactic to diminish me in his house and, therefore, my marriage.

Paolo was drinking only water because he had recently given up alcohol, along with some other things: his one-time revolutionary Leftism, for instance, replaced by a cynically clear-eyed admiration for Silvio Berlusconi; as well as parts of his right leg and urethra, the results of the continuing operations he has had to endure ever since his motorcycle accident, which happened a few months after he and my wife split up. He didn't want to talk about the accident or his hospital treatments, but he did talk, with some degree of charm, and suffering, about the pains of living alone, just around the corner from his aged, declining parents.

Finally, other guests arrived. Opposite me at the dinner table were Bernardo and Carol. Bernardo had trained as an architect but never practised, instead had become a wine-maker, who was now selling his vineyards. He was short and dark and thickset, and was one of those people who are entirely comfortable in their own skin. As was his wife, Carol, an Australian psychologist, who worked with psychotic children in London. On my right was Laura, Bernardo's sister, as blonde as he was dark, who had been brought up in Rome, but now lived in Bali.

It wasn't entirely clear what the lines of intimacy were at the table. Carol and Laura seemed to be best friends, reunited after a year's absence. Bernardo and Paolo had a relaxed, humorously combative way of being with each other. And Laura seemed to have some kind of relationship, in the past or maybe the future, with Paolo, because she exercised a few chatelaine rights, such as being the first to offer me something to drink.

The subject got on to pets and Laura told me, "Only foreigners keep dogs in Bali. The Balinese think dogs are the reincarnation of thieves and adulterous women."

This was an interesting remark, and I was curious about the moral or karmic equation the Balinese make between thieves and adulterous women, but I couldn't find a response because the first course had arrived and Paolo had given out bowls of clam risotto to everyone at the table, apart from me. My wife, who is not slow to notice things, told our host that he had forgotten to give me a bowl while she passed me her own. Paolo made a little shrug of the shoulders and spooned out a fresh bowl for her.

This could not be unconscious, could it? A pattern was revealing itself here. And it happened again with the main course. Everyone received a bowl of fish soup, except for me, of course, and Paolo and I sat looking at each other while he got to work at the huge portion he had awarded himself, his bowl stacked upon an empty one, as he ate with gusto while staring at me with sad eyes.

"David doesn't have any!" Laura said. And Paolo looked a little surprised and stared at my wife and then at me and shook his head as if to force something out or maybe something back in and quickly gave me his immense portion and ladled out a smaller one for himself.

The conversation died down, the guests looked at each other, but avoided looking at me or at our host, and then the talk slowly picked up again, as if nothing really remarkable was going on here. Conversation turned to the unspeakably high cost of living in London, Bernardo's vineyards, some of the more troubled of Carol's patients, the pleasures of life in Bali. Laura gathered up the soup bowls and Paolo brought in tubs of ice cream for dessert, and it happened again: everyone had received some, apart from me, and Paolo sat staring at me while shakily lifting ice cream to his face. He looked distracted and bored and forlorn, separate from the company, from his own apartment, from himself; and I was certain now that it was an entirely unconscious process on his part, as if by this forgetting to feed me, other things could be forgotten too, his motorcycle accident, his declining parents, his loneliness, his damaged urethra, the last twenty years.



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