Sleeping with Freud

by Susan Davis

Mary Ellen had been sleeping with Freud for weeks, and no one noticed. At first she thought one of her housemates would detect the sticky sweet odor of cigars in her hair--she smelled of it as she washed her face every morning. Almost at once, as a precaution, she asked her night visitor--politely, for she feared offending him--not to smoke in bed. It made her nervous. "Certainly, my dear," he told her, and from then on, he carried around his unlit cigars in the manner of Groucho Marx, cradled between two fingers or tucked into the far corner of his mouth. "Oral-tactile fixation," he explained.

Mary Ellen thought Russell or Lynette, the two people she lived with, would surely comment on the threads of broken blood vessels that laced her bleary eyes in the morning. "Bad night?" they might ask. Or "Something bothering you, keeping you up?" But every day before they left for work, the three of them shuffled against one another in the tiny kitchen, no one murmured the slightest word. Lynette stabbed Parkay onto her toast with a crooked fork from her collection of junk store utensils. Russell, like always, smeared a thin sheet of ketchup across his underpoached egg. Mary Ellen drank black coffee from a chipped mug she kept for sentimental reasons, totally amazed that neither of the human beings she had come to look on as her best and closest friends had any notion that something unusual was going on in her bedroom.

The night he first arrived "for a little chat," as he put it, he simply strolled out of Mary Ellen's closet like he'd made a trip to the bathroom to arrange his smoking jacket. She recognized him immediately.

"My dear," he told her in an accent she knew must be Viennese, but which sounded something like vintage Woody Allen, "I've been concerned for some time with the overriding sadness you have for life. I wish to help you to the best of my abilities as a doctor--and more importantly, as a man, a fellow member of the human race--and to the extent that my knowledge of the English language should allow me to communicate with you in the proper manner."

By the time he finished this little speech he was parked next to Mary Ellen on the end of her bed with his hand firmly planted on her knee. Mary Ellen, who was sitting cross-legged in an old Penn State tee-shirt and cotton bikini underpants, clipping her toenails, took one last poke at a nasty ingrown spot on her right foot.

"Ah, if you don't mind my asking, who are you? I mean, are you who I think you are? What were you doing in my closet anyway?" She pointed the nail clippers accusingly.

He looked pleased at first that she recognized him, then offended at her hostility.

"I have told you, Miss Mary Ellen--by the way, you have a lovely name, very beautiful on the tongue--I have told you I have come to help you in your great sadness."

"What abut the closet? This is really weird, you know." Mary Ellen picked up the hand, now quite familiar with her knee, and returned it to its owner's lap.

"The closet is irrelevant to our discussion."

"What sadness? I'm not sad, I'm getting ready for bed."

"Precisely my point. You are repressing, Liebchen."

That's how the Nobel laureate and father of modern psychology wormed his way into Mary Ellen's life, and, more precisely, into her bed. For on many occasions, there was no little chat at all, no discussion of dreams or repression or hysteria. He simply pulled back the covers and crawled into bed, snuggled against her ample behind--sans smoking jacket, she couldn't help noticing, and often with an incredible erection--and cupped his stubby fingers comfortably under the delicate curve of her left breast as she dropped off to sleep.

Mary Ellen couldn't figure out the sadness part. What was she supposed to be sad about? Compared to Lynette and Russell, she thought she had things pretty much under control. Their lives were a mess, as they informed her quite often, usually as she scraped milk-yellow scum off dishes they'd left in the sink for a few days.

Lynette was trying to decide on the right graduate school to go to. One week it had to be on the West Coast, which she felt was more attuned to right-brain creativity; the next week she lit on the Midwest because she needed some old-fashioned middle-class stability in her life. As Lynette was gradually moving east, Mary Ellen supposed she would eventually go Ivy League, which was what her parents wanted to pay for anyway. Lynette's problems were exacerbated by her complete indecision about which program to study. Early on, there was a law school phase, a public policy phase, a brief flirtation with creative writing, and presently--if Mary Ellen could remember correctly--library science. An MBA was inevitable, but it might take a while to get there.

"What difference does it make?" Mary Ellen asked her roommate. "It all leads to the same thing -- you quit your job and drop out of society for a couple years. Isn't that the idea?"

"We're talking about my life here. I'm making a very serious decision at this juncture in my career. 'Two roads converged in a yellow wood,'" Lynette pouted. "Listen, Mary Ellen, I don't think you have the right attitude. We just can't talk anymore like we used to."

It was true. Ever since she'd begun sleeping with Freud, Mary Ellen hadn't been able to muster the infinitely generous sympathy that had endeared her to her friends. It was even worse with Russell, whose problems were serious, it seemed. Deciding your sexual preference was no small matter.

A couple of times a week, Russell would come in from his aerobics class, knock softly on Mary Ellen's door and, at her invitation, stretch across her bed, covering himself with her pillows to hide his face from the world.

"It's not every day your best friend at work, your colleague, your coworker, your comrade, your best buddy, comes out of the closet before your very eyes."

Mary Ellen looked guiltily at her own.

"It sort of makes you think, you know, about yourself. You can't help it." His breath rippled the flowery cotton pillowcase Mary Ellen's mother had given her.

"Doesn't it scare you, though? I mean, diseases and everything?" She tried to be delicate.

"This isn't about sex, Mary Ellen, it's about lifestyle."


Mary Ellen didn't know what to say. It was not a question she could get a real grip on like Lynette's. So she usually tried to change the subject, like with the little joke she'd picked up from watching the perky, athletic women who jumped around on TV exercise shows.

"So how was your class today, huh? Did you say hello to your glutes?"

"Mary Ellen!" Russell's pillow sailed across the room and poofed against her dresser, onto the floor. His stare was indignant. "I think this is an issue that goes beyond glutes. I thought I could at least count on you."

The problem was, Mary Ellen had maintained a low-grade crush on Russell ever since she came to interview for the vacant room. Lynette, who occupied the large bedroom upstairs, did most of the talking. Did Mary Ellen smoke? (No.) Was she a slob? (No.) Was she responsible about buying her own paper products? (Yes.)

Russell, who had lived in the house for years, in the dark basement neither of the women would ever visit, sipped iced tea and chewed on a sprig of mint. "Organic" was the only thing he said, levelling at Mary Ellen muddy brown eyes that reminded her of the water at Rock Creek. She was smitten. She found out later he was stoned.

So she decided to tackle two problems at once. Since she was hopelessly lost about how to respond to Russell's cries for help and since she didn't have anything to say when Freud persisted in discussing what he called her "immensely debilitating sorrow," she thought she might as well turn Russell's problem over to a professional.

"Piffle," the great man replied, strutting in front of Mary Ellen's dresser, glancing sideways at his mirrored reflection. He caught himself mid-giggle and straightened his jaw to a more scholarly position. "An interesting word, I must say, piffle. Don't you agree? With a tiny hint of urinary excretions and a bit of silliness on the end. Wunderbar."

"You're changing the subject again."

"I apologize most sincerely. It is one of the drawbacks of my esteemed profession."

"I've noticed."

A pained look came to Freud's face. He turned his back to his patient and sniffled towards the light fixture over his head. Mary Ellen's hyperactive guilt complex responded immediately and sat like a prickly insect at the bottom of her stomach. What had come over her? She had never said anything like that to anyone before.

"Hey," she said, "I didn't mean it."

Freud cast a long look over his brocaded shoulder, then gracefully pivoted on the balls of his feet.

"I can tell you that there is one thing and only one thing wrong with Mr. Russell, about whom you are so concerned, my sweet." He had begun to move toward her and stopped, wriggling his eyebrows meaningfully.

Mary Ellen tried to suppress the tingley twinge she felt in her private parts and began to laugh.

"You okay in there?" she heard Lynette call from the bathroom. "What's going on?" The words bubbled, all full of toothpaste.

"I'm fine," Mary Ellen answered across Freud's more-than-fatherly embrace, "I'm just fine."

Of course she was fine temporarily. But more and more, Mary Ellen had begun to feel that her life was split in two, like an ear of shucked corn that could never reattach the yellow inner kernels to its silk or tough outer skin. During the day, at her job, she was downright morose. She stopped going to lunch with her officemates and slouched behind the burlap-covered walls of her cubicle whenever she could get away with it. As she answered the complaint letters from magazine subscribers that made up the bulk of her work, she had to restrain herself from saying what she really thought. "So, you think you have problems?" appeared on the green background of her word processor one day, and she quickly zapped it before anyone else might see. Somehow her work was no longer as fulfilling as it once was.

At home things were getting really difficult. It seemed Lynette and Russell made constant demands on her, as they filled up the white squares of her Garfield engagement book by the phone: Would she meet Russell after work for a beer? Would she go shopping with Lynette, who needed a new wardrobe for her future career as an educational administrator? But her recent popularity only made Mary Ellen more angry and confused. She avoided Russell and cultivated an automatic nod for Lynette. She began to go to bed earlier.

In her room at night she was different -- not happy exactly, but easy and relaxed. Freud read novels in bed beside her -- "Sweet Savage Love" was his favorite so far. Or he asked her questions, not about her thoughts and feelings, which she still couldn't answer, but about the outside world, the revolution for women's rights, as he called it, nuclear proliferation, Phil Donahue and Oprah Winfrey. What mattered was he was interested in what she had to say. And many times he would simply gather her in his arms, stroke her hair, and whisper, "Liebchen, Liebchen," until she went to sleep.

Mary Ellen did meet Russell after work for a beer. He persisted, and she felt too drained--all soft and spongy inside like a fresh mold--to come up with a good excuse not to. They met at Pinkey's, a fern bar near their subway stop, but neither of them had much to say. A waitress in a skinny tie and with a velvet bow at the back of her head delivered their half-price drafts. Russell fingered a piece of soggy eggroll.

"No respectable female past the age of twelve ought to wear one of those," Mary Ellen said, to make conversation.

"One of what?"

"That bow. She had this huge bow in her hair."

"I wasn't paying attention. Are you all right, Mary Ellen? I mean, it's not like you to be sarcastic."

"I know. It just sort of came out. I'm sorry."

"Hey, it's okay--actually, I like it."

Mary Ellen wasn't listening; she was trying to make all the new meanness she felt go away. She put her hands across her mouth and bit her knuckles so she couldn't say anything, and she wondered what Freud would think of it, of a grown woman dressing like a man and a little girl at the same time, and what he would say about the smart-alecky remark she just made. She almost missed it when Russell reached across the table and brushed her arm lightly with his fingertips.

"I want to tell you something."

Mary Ellen waited. This was it. He would get it out and they could go home to their respective bedrooms.

"I've decided."

She knew what was coming, and she felt so bad now that she didn't think she cared anymore.

But he didn't say anything else, he just mooned at her a while and called for the check.

Now Mary Ellen was really confused. That night she at last confided in her bedfellow.

"I feel like a cracked egg, with all my yoke running out."

"Mmm," Freud said. "Raw or cooked?"

"Raw. I don't know what's going on anymore."


"What do you think?"

"The image you use is very revealing, ja?"

"My life is an egg?"

"It is a feminine object, is it not?"

"I guess so. I hadn't really thought about it."

"And you feel the sadness, ja?"

Mary Ellen nodded. "But I don't get it."

"You will, I think, in time. You have much intelligence in you. The important element we must recognize is that you are depressed. This is progress."

Mary Ellen's eyes filled up with tears.

"But sometimes I think I don't ever want to leave this room. I think I might possibly be in love with you a little bit. How can that have happened? What a horrible mess."

Freud stroked his beard ominously. "Ah," he said.

No doubt his tenuous admission was what caused Mary Ellen to begin to live in a kind of desperate fear. Her nerves buzzed like a bunch of crossed telephone connections. It was only a matter of time, she knew, before Russell would arrive for one of his talks and discover Freud in her bed. What might happen, she couldn't imagine, if this great secret of hers were revealed.

Of course, the dreaded event happened. Fretting, as usual, Mary Ellen peeled back her covers. In one ear, she heard a knock at her bedroom door, in the other, a rustling in the closet. Russell opened the door a crack and slipped his head in.


Mary Ellen shoved her bedside table discreetly in front of the closet door and steadied the lamp in its place. There was more rustling as she tucked herself into bed like a child.

"Are you okay? I mean, are you sick or anything?" Russell asked, concerned.

"Oh, I'm surviving, really. I just seem to need a lot of sleep these days. But what about you? Further developments on the gender front?"

Mary Ellen noticed his flinch, though he tried to cover it with a smile--one that, possibly, she wondered, was meant to charm her? She reprimanded herself for her insensitivity. Why couldn't she say nice things any more?

"Could we talk?" Russell sat the corner of her bed, playing with the tops of his shoes at the loose tassels of the bedspread that dragged along the floor. Mary Ellen mentally untied the laces and slipped the shoes off his cool, muscley feet, then made herself quit before it was too late.


"Not about me. About you."

"What about me?" More rustling. "You know, I've started to see those roaches again--the big ones that fly. And I think we have mice. Do you think we should get some traps? Or a cat, maybe a cat would be better, oh, but our lease says no pets, right? Maybe some mousetraps, that would be better, that would be the best thing."

Russell looked up. "Huh?"

"Mousetraps. You know, cheese, spring, slam, squished mice."

"What do mousetraps have to do with your fight with Lynette this afternoon?"

"Oh." She had forgotten.

Mary Ellen had come back from work to find college application materials and course catalogs placed in strategic points all over the living room--on the rug inside the front door, on each of the sofa cushions, on chair arms and backs, balanced on the top of a lampshade, inside the stereo cover. She guessed if she went upstairs to the bathroom, which she desperately needed to do, there would be another one -- Stanford, Teaching English as a Second Language -- sitting precariously atop the toilet seat.

"Okay, now," Lynette said, "listen to my application and tell me what I should do with my life."

She bounced over to the lampshade pile, pulled out a piece of crinkled paper, and began to read in the cheery voice of cereal commercials.

"I want to get my MBA because I look great in a pinstripe suit and not so hot in overalls..."

Mary Ellen was not sympathetic. She said the F-word, burst into tears, and went to her room. Of course, the encounter wouldn't just evaporate as she had hoped, and now she dreaded dealing with this new problem, one she had created all by herself and for no good reason in this world, as far as she could figure.

"Mary Ellen, I know you --" Russell began, turning his muddy gaze on her. He looked up at the ceiling, shook his head, visibly switching gears. "You know your name is really very pretty in a coming-from-left-field sort of way." He leaned forward and took her hand, which she held primly in her lap and which was rather damp from all the melting she'd been doing. She no longer worried about the closet.

"But that isn't what I meant to say. I meant to say I understand how you feel. All right?"

"All right." She nodded and watched the way his arms tensed as he got up to leave.

"How do I feel?" she asked, before he could get away.

It worked. He turned.

"I guess you're the one who has to decide that," he said, and closed the door behind him, slipping away like a ghost, like a scrap of imagination, like a fantasy.

Mary Ellen caught her breath. Freud marched out of the closet and shook out his smoking jacket.

"Flying roaches, mousetraps, indeed! I wonder what it is you wish to catch?"

Mary Ellen smiled at Freud impishly. "I had a dream about mice," she said to distract him.

"At last!" he exclaimed, and clapped his hands together. "And in the dream where there are mice, there is a bit of cheese, and what is cheese but temptation? Now tell me this dream, my little butterkase."

So Mary Ellen happily made up a dream about mice and they had a wonderful evening dissecting it into opposites -- not mice but cats, not a house full of them but a lone predator in an open landscape, not a threat but a harbinger of happiness.

Much later, months maybe, or perhaps less so, when Russell lay with his hand curved comfortably under her left breast, Mary Ellen would think of Freud's last words, spoken wistfully that night, and, she thought, as if they and he existed out of time.

"I will miss you, Liebchen. You are much resembling a patient to me of oh so many years ago, and I have missed her for decades. But it is the profession, little one -- we must always be left behind by the cured and the happy and the strong, we who seek to make better and uplift and wrestle with the dark demons. It is the way for us to go on missing and missing, always. For life, my Mary Ellen, when there is love in it, is, of course, very sad."

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