Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Lucid: Chapter Ten

Shortly before 9 a.m. on Friday morning, Professor Elicott sat alone in the university’s faculty lounge, a comfortable and uncrowded space – perhaps because students had been so rigorously prohibited from ever entering its confines – that contained an array of sturdily built armchairs and glass-topped chrome tables.  On the lime green walls were hung landscape paintings by a former instructor of abnormal psychology who had ended his days in confinement at Bellevue.  The images were all of dimly lit jungle habitats overgrown with tendrils and vines in whose shadows half-seen predators lurked.
While Elicott waited for Reicha to join him, he read through a series of papers written by his freshmen students for the Introduction to Psychology course he taught twice a week.  The material was all very basic and the professor found he needed to devote little more than half his attention to grading the assignments.
When Reicha finally arrived, he appeared tired and in a bad humor.  He clutched a paper cup in his hand.  Without saying a word, he threw himself down in a plush leather chair opposite Elicott’s own and directed a peevish glance at his colleague.  “You certainly look well rested, Professor.  I don’t know how you always manage to appear so wide awake so early in the day.  By the time I’m able to get myself going, it’s already past lunchtime.”
“I simply keep regular hours and go to bed at a reasonable time.  There isn’t anything more to it than that.”  There was a hint of reproach in Elicott’s voice as he returned the other’s gaze.  “You should try it yourself sometime.”
“Please,” said Reicha as he held up his hand in front of him.  “The last thing I need now is a lecture.  If that’s what I wanted, I could telephone my mother in Oregon.”
Elicott had no desire to antagonize his associate and adopted a more sympathetic tone.  “What’s the matter, Doctor?  Is your ex-wife causing you more problems?  I would have thought the divorce had been finalized by now.”
“Don’t mention that woman to me.  She’s the bane of my existence.  Would you believe she’s asking the court to force me to put her new lover’s child through college?  As if I didn’t have enough trouble paying child support for my own offspring.”
Elicott, who knew Reicha’s stormy marriage had finally broken up over an affair he had conducted rather too openly with a resident nurse at a nearby hospital, tried to be tactful.  “At least she’s attempting to establish a life of her own.  That’s what you claimed you’d always wanted, isn’t it?”
“I implore you not to throw my own words back at me,” the psychiatrist responded.  “At least not until I’m in a better state of mind.”
“If it would help, you’re always welcome to join Eloise and me for dinner one evening.   We’d love to have you over.”
“That’s very kind, Professor.  I don’t want to impose on you and your wife though.  There’s no reason why either of you should waste an evening listening to my problems.  Especially as they’re no more original than any other man’s – just the usual complaints of a middle aged curmudgeon who once again has to accustom himself to living as a bachelor.  It’s a fairly idiotic situation.  And that’s exactly what makes it so tiresome.”
Elicott smiled politely.  “As long as you know you’re welcome.”
“I appreciate that.  I really do.  For the time being, though, I’m probably better off driving out to Montauk on weekends and spending a few hours surfing the waves or else sitting alone on the beach.”  With that, Reicha at last roused himself to some semblance of professionalism and turned to the matter at hand.  “Why was it you wanted to meet this morning?  Something to do with the project I suppose.”
Elicott broached the subject cautiously.  “Things have generally been going well, but the actions of a few participants have given me cause for concern.”
“In what way?  I’ve spoken to several of them and they’ve generally come across as a pretty tame bunch, at least as far as I can determine.  Have any of them been acting out?” 
“One of my concerns is with this Connor fellow,” said Elicott.  “What do you think of him?”  Without giving the psychiatrist any opportunity to respond, he continued, “To be frank, he seems pretty high strung to me.  That’s why I sent him to you the other day.”
Reicha shrugged.  “Borderline personality problem.  He suffers from low level depression that’s aggravated by his current unemployment.  I don’t see any reason to worry.  Once he’s able to find himself a job and a girlfriend, he’ll be fine.”
“Do you think so?  He always seems so intense when I speak to him.  He acts as though the project were the only thing in his life.  It’s unnerving at times.”
“Exactly.  The project is all he has.  Connor’s self-esteem is so low right now that he needs to be successful here just to keep himself going.  Personally, I think it’s a good thing that he’s so committed to what we’re doing.  It keeps him focused.”
“I told you how upset he was over that missing version of Hamlet he imagined he’d seen.  Doesn’t that strike you as odd in any way?”
Reicha took a sip of coffee – cream, no sugar – from the paper cup he held in his hand and then put it down on the table beside him.  “The coffee they serve here in the cafeteria is wretched, isn’t it?  Total swill.”
“I never drink it myself.”  Elicott glanced briefly at the bottle of mineral water he had placed on the table beside him.  “But I was talking about Connor’s attitude,” he resumed.  “I’m no psychiatrist, of course, but the fact that he was so perturbed when his dream content failed to match reality would seem to indicate he has difficulty distinguishing between the two.”
“I wouldn’t fret too much about that myself.  It’s always disconcerting to discover one’s memory is at fault.  I’ve had my own lapses from time to time.”
“It’s happened to me on occasion as well,” the professor admitted.  “And yes, such experiences can definitely be upsetting, sometimes deeply so.”
“When we consider who we are, it’s really our memories that determine our identities.  If the memories themselves are false, then we’re literally different people than those we think ourselves to be.  In the end, it becomes an almost existential dilemma.”
“That’s too theoretical an argument to be worth pursuing at this point,” said Elicott who was obviously feeling somewhat frustrated by the direction the conversation had taken.  “Let’s put aside the matter of Connor for the time being, shall we?  I’m actually more worried right now with the status of another subject, Marguerite Zilander.  She seems to be experiencing genuine distress in her dreams.”
For the first time, Reicha’s expression grew perturbed.  “Yes, she’s spoken to me about it several times herself.  She’s very insistent and actually interrupted a conversation I was having with Connor because she wanted to discuss the problem in more detail.  From what I can gather, she seems to think there are presences all about her whenever she has a dream, lucid or not.  What’s interesting is that she claims never to have experienced anything like this before joining the project.”
“Is that what she calls them?  ‘Presences’?  That’s a pretty vague term.  Couldn’t she be any more specific?”
“She hasn’t actually seen anyone, or anything, threatening her.  She only senses these entities skulking in the background.  According to her, they’re always careful not to show themselves.  All she can tell me about them for certain is that they mean her no good.”
“What do you make of it?”  Elicott picked up his bottle of mineral water, noticed it was empty and put it back down again.
The psychologist shook his head.  “I’m not sure, at least not at this point.  Marguerite’s dreams aren’t nightmares.  Most of them, if not pleasant, are not particularly frightening either.  At least not as she describes them.  According to her, these beings she feels all about her aren’t really part of the dreams themselves but rather outsiders who’ve intruded within them.  She has no idea why they are there or what they are planning to do.”
“What bothers me is her intimation that supernatural forces are at work,” said Elicott.  He frowned.  “I don’t care for that line of thinking at all.  It’s bad enough as it is that there still exist in our society superstitious minds that would like nothing better than to impute occult overtones to any discussion of dreams.  We don’t want to encourage their delusions.”
“I don’t think we have to worry ourselves over such unfortunates.  These are the same individuals who imagine they’ve been abducted by aliens or that Atlantis is set once again to rise from the bottom of the sea.  I don’t believe anyone takes these people seriously, least of all now in the twenty-first century.  They’re for the most part harmless fantasists seeking to escape into an imaginary world of UFO conspiracies and doomsday scenarios.  They have no way of coping with a world in which they feel they have no place other than to posit the existence of alternative realities.”
“There are many more such individuals than you might imagine,” objected Elicott.  “And the real problem is that media pander to them shamelessly.  If there were even the slightest suggestion that our experiment involved supernatural forces, the tabloids would descend upon us en masse.  I shudder to think of the ridiculous stories they would fabricate.”
“You may be overdoing your concern on this point.  I don’t think we need bother ourselves over whatever sensationalist stories a desperate reporter might fabricate.”
“I wish I could be as sanguine about the matter as you are.  I can’t help but think of the damage such shoddy journalism could cause us.”
“It comes with the territory.  These sorts of stories are part and parcel of every scientific venture.  When CERN’s Large Hadron Collider first went online there were those who worried it would create a black hole that would swallow the planet.  The press ran with the story because it was much easier to do so than to explain to readers the real goal of the project – the search for the Higgs boson.  Few journalists, at least those without a degree in physics, are competent to offer an understandable explanation of subatomic particles.”
“I suppose you’re right,” Elicott admitted, “but that doesn’t bring us any closer to discovering the real cause of Marguerite Zilander’s fears.  There must be some rational basis for them.”
“It may well be that at some point in her life she suffered some devastating trauma, the very memory of which she’s successfully repressed all these years.  It’s only now that she’s experiencing these dreams that the problem is once again rising to the surface of her consciousness.”
“Marguerite never struck me as unbalanced,” Elicott protested.  “In the personality tests we gave during the screening process, she scored highly as a well adjusted and fairly happy young woman.”
“That’s how she appeared to me also,” said Reicha. “The problem is that I can’t really get to the bottom of this until Marguerite herself furnishes me with more information.”
“Perhaps it’s just a temporary phase and will resolve itself on its own.”  There was a hopeful note in Elicott’s voice as he said this.
“Let’s hope so,” answered Reicha.  “That would be the best possible outcome for everyone.  On the other hand, if her condition were to worsen and she were to descend into psychosis, it would have a disastrous effect not only on her own well being but on the status of the project itself.”

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