The alarm clock shrieked. Sunlight pierced the drapes to throw weak shadows across the walls. Odera had set the alarm for work. Following lunch at her grandmother’s house, we had another Brinkman session. Hair tickled my nose. With her knees drawn partway to her chest, her face peaceful and serene, she slept on. Her ribcage rose and fell in a steady rhythm, seemingly unaffected by the short noise burst. When my electronic prison cell door had opened at 7:00 a.m., I was long out of bed. I had maintained my light sleeping habit and the ability to wake instantly.
Beginning at her calf, I worked my hand upward, gliding it along the crest of a silk pyjama-covered outer thigh, dipping from hip to the valley of her waist, before rising to slide up over her ribcage and then her shoulder. When my fingertips skimmed her collarbone, she snuggled closer. Employing the pressure of a hummingbird suckling nectar, my index finger brushed across a cheek to trace the slope of her neck. A sleepy moan issued. I imagined her brainwave patterns had altered, now caught between alpha waves that dominated waking hours and the delta waves of deep sleep. I recalled reading that people were receptive to suggestions during this period.
“Odera, upon awakening, you will feel a compelling urge to cook. You will not remember why. Afterwards, you will make the bed,” I whispered.
Trancelike, a wispy voice replied, “I…will…cook.”
A grin spread across my face.
Life was good.
And then it was not.
“That was lame. It’s your turn to cook.” She flipped over so her head rested on my shoulder. “Do that thing with your hand again.”
“Don’t you feel an urge to cook building?”
“Something else maybe.” She slid a leg between mine. “You’ll try anything to wiggle out of cooking.”
Fingernails raked over my stomach.
“You are so much better at it than I am.”
“Thanks. Flattery won’t work either.”
“Then I’m out of ideas,” I admitted and brushed a tangle of hair from her cheek.
“I may have one.” She pressed my hand around her delta. “Just hold me there. All this must seem like a terrible tease.”
“Benefits keep me sane.”
“Then you don’t feel the need to distance yourself?” Odera asked taking my hand to hug it close to her chest. “That was a little better.”
“Conversations like these spark that feeling. Even now, as I’m telling you this, I thought about making an excuse to go for a jog. Maybe Churchill, Manitoba, needs a polar bear barber.”
“Grams said that some men find action easier than to express feelings. I have to get ready for work and you owe breakfast.” As she padded for the shower, I headed downstairs. “Hey, you. Who’s going to wash my back?”
“Brinkman’s exercises have ruined you.”
“Doctor’s orders that you have become my slave.” Odera started the water. “He said you should allow me as much access to your body as I want. And right now, I crave to feel your soapy hands, if it’s not too much of a sacrifice.”
“Even slaves revolt. Remember Spartacus?”
“If you wash mine, I’ll wash yours.”
“The sacrifices that men must make,” I said to her and noted the pleasure she derived from the littlest things.
“Go slow. I love the way you linger over my shoulders. This almost makes up for this morning’s stunt. Did you actually think you could brainwash me?”
“Influence. Perhaps. I have a proposal. Equal time here, for how long it takes you to prepare breakfast. Unless you’d rather I stopped?”
“Bribery is such a harsh term.”
Layering her neck with suds, I traded cloth for hands and worked her shoulders and neck, plying each muscle group until I felt them relax. Odera sighed and leaned back. I nuzzled an earlobe.
“I prefer to think of it as an equitable trade.”
“Whatever. Just keep working. You can be cruel.”
“How else would you differentiate pain from pleasure?” I pushed her hair aside and stroked the area beneath her ear. The fourth pass made her shiver. “The cruel to be kind cliché appears valid. Now, about the bed.”
“Fine. But you’re going to pay for this. Didn’t your father teach you not to take advantage of women?”
“I’ll stop if you feel that you are being coerced.” At the end of my statement, I ran one finger bent at the knuckle up the length of her back and whispered into her ear when she shivered again, “It’s your call. I’ll stop any time you want. Just say the words.”
“Oh God, you’re melting me. I never should have let you explore my body. You are way too observant.” Odera turned and hugged herself to me. Scraping my teeth across her earlobe provoked another shiver. She said, “It takes me five minutes to make the bed. I want double time now and a back massage later, but you’re still going to pay. You’ve just declared kitchen warfare. Consider yourself served. And there’s no Geneva Convention to save you.”
Although I had no doubt that she would exact retribution, I had skipped out of breakfast- and bed-making duties. And she had doubled my time to enjoy her body. Brinkman may call this therapy, but it felt a whole lot like foreplay to me.
* * * * * * *
Dr. Brinkman laughed when Odera recounted her not-so-close encounter with hypnosis. If I had been offered the choice between another therapeutic session and joining the Niagara Falls barrel-racing league, it would be a coin toss. While Odera and I took turns describing the past two days, Brinkman scribbled a note or two. Once or twice his eyebrows arched and his mouth twitched, but this was his first out and out belly laugh. Odera laughed with him. Not for a moment did I believe that he had not considered hypnotizing his wife and kids at one time or another.
“Forgive me, Bruce,” he apologized removing his glasses to wipe them with a small cloth that he took from his shirt pocket. “Now, I’m encouraged how literally the two of you have followed my instructions. Bruce, I have a specific exercise for you.”
“If you’re able, self-disclose. Open your thoughts.” Dr. Brinkman turned to Odera. “Make an effort not to judge what he says, or to pry deeper when Bruce cannot elaborate.”
“Can I ask questions?”
“Clarify and paraphrase wherever you need to. We’ve spoken about this before. Don’t hurry Bruce’s disclosure.” Turning to me, he added, “Invite questions. If you feel apprehensive, say so, but don’t avoid the matter. Describe what you’re thinking and feeling in whatever terms you can.”
“Sounds easy enough.”
“You may be surprised to learn otherwise. You’ve tended to lump your responses into broad categories, whereas most people separate feelings into many different shades. I have but Odera’s descriptions of you and only the benefit of two sessions, but I’ll offer some clinical insight if you think it might be helpful. Keep or discard what you will.”
When I nodded for him to continue, he said, “You hold the world at arm’s-length. Patriotism, duty and a shared honour code are effective tools to reconcile conflicts the conscience experiences while performing duties counter to a soldier’s personal values. I imagine that you refined that skill to cope with the brutality inherent to prisons. Few people are capable of killing or harming others or even witnessing ongoing serious harm, without experiencing emotional consequences. Repeated exposure to violence can inoculate a person to one degree or another, but always at a cost. This emotional numbing performs an insular role that protects the psyche. Unfortunately, it is seldom one hundred percent effective. Equally important, you may have recognized prison’s institutionalization process in progress, which made it imperative to shield yourself from it as much as possible. You are presently experiencing the whiplash of that truth. All of the emotional reactions deferred over the years to the numbing process are being unravelled.
“It seems to be a struggle for you to accept what others say without wondering at ulterior motives. It’s somewhat ironic that you demonstrate a well-developed analytical ability, yet you find difficultly affirming genuine feelings. Living alone for long periods can instil a diminished desire to bond with others and the intellect may take over when a person no longer trusts their emotions or has repressed them for long periods. Which is just another way to attain emotional numbing.
“That you have weathered Odera’s efforts to form the bond you share indicates you are successfully reversing prison’s detrimental influences. I don’t have to tell you each time you gain insight or institute change, your perspective and thinking alter as well. Change in one part of your life instigates a domino effect upon the whole being. Change upsets the emotional and spiritual balance we all strive to maintain. The greatest rewards often arrive only after we reacquire a new equilibrium. Developing your relationship with Odera must be a constant trial.”
Dr. Brinkman performed a smudge check on his eyeglasses before placing them on his nose. Odera moved closer and took my arm through hers. Despite my efforts to stay open, I had just about closed my ears to his words. I missed Gunsmoke days when there was not a problem unless you admitted to one.
“For years,” Brinkman continued, “you may have denied most feelings and lumped others under anger and what you thought was happiness, but which was probably just the absence of unhappiness. But it isn’t all grim. Anything learned can be unlearned. Use discomfort and frustration as a guide. Look upon each as a compass. When emotional agitation or the need for flight arrives, rest assured that you are heading in the right direction. Lean into discomfort, not away from it.”
“I had no idea, Bruce,” Odera comforted. “No wonder you needed distance after the lake.”
“I don’t want sympathy. Brinkman’s right. It can be unlearned. Fear is an irrational emotion.”
Brinkman said, “You’ll have trouble unthinking a feeling. While fear is irrational, the stimulus behind it is mired in physiology. Here’s a bit of brain science that may assist you. The amygdala, the brain’s fear centre, resides an inch or so in from the temple. The amygdala’s fear response is an evolutionary inheritance from earlier days that safeguarded us against certain threats. It’s hard-wired from birth with an aversion to sudden loud noises, snakes, spiders and height. It also drives our fight, flight or freeze responses. Evolution doesn’t trust a species that misplaces car keys on a monthly basis, so it programmed the amygdala with genetically inherited fears. By the time we are old enough to learn to avoid poisonous snakes and spiders, we could be dead, so evolution found a way to help ensure our continuation.
“Unlike sudden loud noises, which will always invoke a startled reaction, anything the amygdala has learned to fear can be unlearned. The amygdala is easily imprinted with what may cause harm to the individual and it doesn’t forget. Ever. Unfortunately, that trait also makes it difficult to reconcile an event once the amygdala has been imprinted. Only by repeatedly experiencing fear-evoking stimulus without a negative outcome may we reprogram it. It’s ironic that we must experience what frightens us to relinquish it. Rather than deny what you feel, let the emotion and all of its shades play out. Each replay will be weaker than the last, not unlike the ripples in a pond diminish as they leave the epicentre of the disturbance.
“I don’t have additional suggestions except for this one piece of encouragement for both of you to take away. Go slowly but take intimacy to the next level. Introduce your gains into normal daily life, not just when alone together. Bring feelings into play. You both make a strong effort to introduce fun and play into the exercises. Keep those elements present, but don’t rely on them to carry you through.” Turning to Odera, he queried, “Do you want to add something?”
“Not anymore.”“Very well. If you don’t have an objection, I’ll see you both Friday.”