It didn’t matter that he had given away every last penny of an enormous inheritance—fifty-thousand here, ten-thousand there. He was homeless, but that didn’t matter either, only that he missed not being able to help others, as he had once done. I found this out when a stranger called me and said Kenny had given him fifteen hundred dollars and told him to see me “for as many therapy sessions as that amount would cover.” I remember thinking at the time: Inheriting a fortune is everyone’s ultimate fantasy, and Kenny just handed it out like cupcakes at a birthday party!
So, Kenny must have gotten the windfall from his Aunt Molly, who had never married and had no other family, as I remember. I met her once when we went to stay at her place on Martha’s Vineyard. And what a place it was! I guess he gave that away too.
“Wait, now, let me get this straight,” I said to the caller. “Kenny is broke and homeless, and you are using his last $1500 to get help from me?”
“Oh…well, yeah…I guess… I mean, he said you’d be able to help me. I wasn’t sleepin nights since my dad died, and a lot of other things happened too—lost my job, that kinda thing. Kenny said you would help me, and I believe him. He gave me the money before he was homeless though.”
“Then that makes all the difference,” I snapped, trying not to laugh out loud, or cry. I felt bad that I had been sarcastic, but I don’t think he noticed. “Let’s see what I’ve got here,” I said looking at my calendar. “Next Tuesday at 2 p.m., is that good for you?”
“Sure thing, Doc.”
I jotted down his contact info and said, “Okay, see you next week.” After we hung up, I was sorry I hadn’t asked at least a couple of the million questions I had already formulated in those few minutes—some of the same ones I’ve had since I last saw Kenny. I knew it would be kind of odd asking my new client questions when we met for the first time the following week. He was the one looking for answers, but I figured I would get at least some of them answered over time. That is, if he even showed up.
Not that I didn’t want to help the caller; Sam was his name. That’s what I do. I am a therapist, and a pretty good one at that, but I already resented him in a way for taking Kenny’s last dime. I was looking forward to finding out what had happened to my lost friend—lost in every way it seemed. We hadn’t seen each other in a few years, and we didn't part on good terms. It was all getting a little too bizarre and complicated to deal with—even for me.
I told him he needed therapy, but I wasn’t going to be the one to help him sort his life out. That’s when he said, “There’s nothing to sort out, so fuck off.”
That was the last time I saw Kenny. I left in a huff never wanting to see him again. When things had simmered down, I tried to get in touch with him again (and again) over the next few months—texting, calling, emailing, and even writing a good old-fashioned letter—no response. Then I got up enough nerve to go to see him; I really wanted to see him, but he had moved. The city is a big place, but it was incredible to me that a person could not be found, even if he didn’t want to be found. He obviously did not want to be found.
So, Sam did show up at the appointed time. We shook hands, and I invited him into my inner sanctum—a quiet room with big cozy chairs, muted colors, the right amount of diffused light coming in the windows in the day time, and warm, soft lighting at night. I wanted to create a place where my clients would feel comfortable and safe (I despise those words, “comfortable” and “safe.”), so they would tell me their life stories, or at least the part of the story before the turning point, or after it, as the case might be.
“Hey, Sam, before you tell me about yourself, I’d like to ask something about Kenny. Do you mind?”
“No, Doc, no, I don’t mind at all. Whada ya wanna know?”
“Well, you said Kenny gave you money before he was homeless, but how do you know he is homeless now?”
“‘Cause I saw him a few days after I was at his place the night he gave me the money. Boy, was I surprised when he did that, but I wasn’t surprised to see him on the streets.”
“Really, why is that?”
“Well, 'cause I didn’t even know he had any money.”
“No, no, I mean why weren’t you surprised to see him homeless? You were friends, then, right?”
“Not really good friends or anything, but he hung out with us at the shelter downtown, so we all knew ‘im, and he was always so nice to everyone. But when I saw his place, it was a mess, and I kinda felt I was in better shape than he was, and he didn’t look good."
“So, you are homeless too, Sam?”
“Oh, no, no, just kinda down on my luck these days. I have a place, but went to the shelter for meals sometimes after I lost my job, and that’s where I met Kenny. He invited me to his place that one night—probably on the worst night of my life, after I told him my sob story, and that’s when he gave me the fifteen hundred and told me to call you. Then I went back to his place to thank him again a couple a days later, and they told me he was gone. I saw him on the street then, and he told me he was homeless. He really gave me two thousand dollars cash, but I used five-hundred of it for my rent. I asked him to take the rest of the money back cause he needed it more than me, but he wouldn’t. That’s when he told me he inherited all this money and then gave it all away. He said he only wished he had more to give. He said he didn’t need it.”
“Why didn’t you keep the money and not come here?” I asked, sort of wondering out loud.
With an almost child-like innocence, Sam said simply, “Well, Kenny told me to come to you; that’s why he gave me the money. He said you would help me.”
“I will certainly do my best.” I said, and we began the session.
I offered to charge only half the amount for the sessions, so that Sam could go beyond the fifteen weeks it would cover at my regular rate, but he wouldn't hear of it. As the weeks went by, I didn’t learn more about Kenny, but I learned a whole lot more about Sam. He was a simple soul and honorable. I felt strange knowing I was taking Kenny’s money for my services. I would keep Sam on when the money ran out and hoped he would agree if he felt he needed more time. He was making progress and had found a job to keep him afloat, so he didn’t have to go to the shelter for meals. He did say he stopped by there from time to time to see the old gang, but there was no sign of Kenny, and apparently no one else had seen him either.
“He just disappeared.” Sam said.
“Yeah, I get that.” That’s what he did with me too—just disappeared.
Kenny and I met when we were at Columbia, finishing up our degrees—his in philosophy and mine in clinical psychology. He was intriguing, quirky, quiet mostly—not the small-talk type, but I liked that. I thought later, if I had wanted “normal” I would have looked for “normal.” No such thing anyway; still, everything came crashing down around us, but I am getting ahead of myself.
It was love at first sight you could say. His hair was dark, curly, and his eyes were kind, a soft, misty brown. His skin was clear and smooth, like a boy's, but it was his hands that really got to me. They were perfection—a monk’s hands was my impression—made for writing on parchment with a feather pen dipped into a pale blue glass ink well. His handwriting really did resemble the writing on those illuminated manuscripts too. And he did a lot of writing— everything by hand. He wrote on various, obscure and abstract subjects—sometimes critiques on philosophers, theologians and saints lives—sometimes his original thoughts and imaginations, all expressed in such beautiful images, precise analogies, lofty metaphors and clear logic.
I was amazed to realize there was such a thing as love at first sight— unexplainable—that kind of attraction. Who cared if it was only hormones or pheromones? It was real, and I knew he felt it too. I don’t know how he would have described me, or what part of my body he thought was perfection, if any, but the attraction was mutual, passionate, intense, but ultimately doomed. Looking back, there must have been a genetic code for disaster in the nature of our relationship, despite the attraction. We were too different, and he gradually ascended, or descended, depending on the way you looked at it, into an unreachable place, intent on becoming a saint himself it seemed.
It was becoming more obvious that the relationship wasn’t going to work. His mind was like a black hole—sucking everything into it—and nothing could escape—all the facts, knowledge, ideas, probabilities and possibilities. Maybe because mine was more like a sieve, holding only what I needed to get through each day—the rest sifted through. Anyway that’s the way I came to think of “us.”
“You know what your trouble is, Kenny?” I said during one of our increasingly heated arguments. “Despite your knowledge of philosophy and religion, you don’t really believe in anything, do you?”
We were sitting on his bed in the little room he was living in then, piled high with books, empty wine bottles in every corner, half-written papers on his desk, and ashtrays everywhere crammed with cigarette butts. He stood up, bare-legged in his white boxer shorts. I was already sorry I said anything, and wished we were still in the bed together, so I could put my fingers through that dark matted hair. He put his hands on his hips, made a half turn away, then back again, glaring at me with those eyes, always shining with an unearthly—maybe even heavenly look. Quietly, almost in a whisper, as if he just had a revelation, he said, “It’s not that I don’t believe in anything. I believe in everything!”
It was hard to have a saint for a boyfriend, as it must have been hard for him to have me, a born therapist, analyzing him in a way no therapist would do if she wanted to keep her clients. But I wasn’t his therapist; I was his lover, and his anchor—I believed that. I had this weird thought that I was him trying to get out, and he was me trying to get in. I needed his ability to soar above it all—to what he might have called the “world of ideas” which encompassed the whole of creation--the only reality to speak of, according to Saint Kenny.
If he needed me at all, maybe it was for my ability to focus on one thing at a time, to plan and to follow through. Kenny said we complimented each other. He said I thought inductively— from the specific to the general, and he thought deductively—from the general to the specific. Boy, was he deep, which I guess made me shallow. And, I guess I was shallow in my ambition for my own practice and to make a good living, shallow in my wish to own a piece of real estate in some remarkable location, shallow for my need to take a vacation now and then. My desire for and my pleasure in material things, and all the rest of it, was in direct opposition to all that Kenny stood for.
Like I said, we were doomed.
That became clear after those few days at his Aunt Molly’s. To me, it was paradise—all of it, the island in the sea, the blue sky above, brilliant sun pouring through that dream house. I guess I made a big fuss about it. I told Kenny I could see us living a life there. I was like a mystic in ecstasy, but not the kind Kenny read about in his Medieval texts. I knew he could have been just as happy in one of those remote, monastic beehive huts on Skellig Michael, off the coast of Ireland —happier most likely.
I snuggled up to Kenny on our first night there. The ocean breeze was cool, the full moon over the ocean—visible from our bed. The fragrance of beach roses and hedge wafting in, and our bodies were warm together. I put my head on his chest—which I also thought was pretty perfect.
“What do you say, Ken? Let’s live here. I quit work and set up my practice. You could write here too, maybe finish a book in the quiet of this place—that book you’ve been working on.”
“It isn’t a book; it’s my theories and my musings.”
“You’ve just been musing all these years, really? Didn’t you ever think of sharing what you’ve learned, what you know?” This was something I’d been wondering about for a while, along with a lot of other things I didn’t dare mention.
“No, I haven’t thought of that. I am happy doing what I’m doing, and I don’t want to leave the city. I like the noise and the grit of it and the people—all of them coming and going, even the ones lying on the subway grates. I’ve been thinking about doing something else too, instead of living only for myself. There is so much need out there.”
“You mean like I do—live for myself.” I thought I knew where this was going.
“No, I didn't mean that; you do help people, and that’s a good thing. I wanna do that too.”
“I didn’t know you thought of me as helping anyone. I mean, I certainly try.” I was touched by his comment, as if he needed me for an example of “good,” as he called it. “But, I don’t think I am the greatest example of doing good, that’s for sure.” I reminded him, “You’ve read, and know so well, the best of the best for inspiration on that score: Socrates, Plato, Augustine, Aquinas, I mean…”
“Well... I have their ideas, yes, and now I feel like I need to do something with them.”
I silently agreed.
When we got back to the city, at first he continued to live in that dark room, thinking and writing. He did some work in a library, earned enough to subsist—subsidized by me, which I didn’t mind. I admired his ideals, and I loved him, which meant I made sure we could both live the life I wanted—dinners, plays, weekend getaways—none of which really mattered much to Kenny.
Then he took to walking the streets at night encountering all sorts of people who needed help. Sometimes he would bring back a bag lady or a wino, which is when I started to question his judgment. He may have fed them or given them a coat to wear, but was he effecting any real change in their lives? I had to ask him that.
“It didn’t matter if they changed their lives,” he almost shouted. “That’s your goal, not mine. I’m happy to help in small ways in a moment of need. You manipulate people and want them to live as you do.”
“You said I did good, and I thought you meant it. Why are you being so hostile now?“ That’s when I said he needed a therapist—the last thing I ever said to him. That was a long time ago. We parted ways, and that, as they say, was that. I eventually came to accept it was for the best. Kenny was right; I did want him to live as I did, because, I didn't want to…couldn’t live as he did.
Exactly on the fifteenth week of the sessions with Sam, he told me it would be his last one. It kind of took me by surprise, but I had to agree he was in a good place. “Well, you let me know, Sam, if you need to come in, and remember what I said—no charge, okay?”
“Yeah, yeah, sure thing, Doc,” he said in his usual matter of fact way.
I had come to look forward to our sessions. I liked Sam. He had a natural kind of wisdom about him, and it didn’t take much to get him to think about things in another way and then act on that new knowledge. He had been in a rut, but was easily budged out of it. I would miss him, and realized that having him around made me feel close to Kenny—strange.
“Okay, Sam, you take care, now." Then he pulled an envelope out of his pocket and handed it to me. “What’s this?”
“I dunno, but Kenny said to give it to you when we had our last meeting, so here it is.”
I didn’t even remember Sam leaving the office. I stared down at the envelope in my trembling hand, and fell into one of those cozy chairs to open it. So much time had passed, but no love lost on my side. Was it a suicide note? A check for a million dollars? I found myself thinking all sorts of crazy stuff the moment before I opened it, desperately hoping it was the impossible—an invitation to meet him somewhere, anywhere. I wanted to look into those eyes one more time. All those old feelings and memories had been stirred up over the past weeks—swirling around and blaring full blast in my head and heart.
That was two years ago, now. I am settled into my new practice on Martha’s Vineyard. That letter from the law firm was a shocker: Kenny willed me Aunt Molly’s house! When I met with the attorney, he said he had only met Kenny once, and didn’t really know that much about him, except that he had been sick, even before the inheritance from his aunt. That explained his giving it all away, but why will the house to me, after all that time?
I may never know, but, I was, and still am, hoping to find some clues here among his papers, all left in the room we slept in overlooking the sea: the desk piled with his writing in that beautiful script of his—and shelves full of books and boxes full his papers—all there for me to live with.
Today, I did find that letter I had written to him. When I unfolded it, a small piece of parchment fell out. On it Kenny had written:
I cannot live with you
It would be life,
And life is over there
Behind the shelf.
Wasn’t that the truth! But it wasn’t really a clue; it was just a confirmation of what I already knew.
Now I can’t get that thing out of my head.
“I cannot live with you…” - excerpt from Emily Dickinson