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کتاب: زندگی در چند بخش / فصل 22

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Hypnotist

I met Michelle (Mickey) Middleton at the Daytona Playhouse. She was pretty, kind, talented, a couple of years older than me. I don’t recall asking her out on a date, really. We were just part of a crew of theater rats who hung out together from the moment I walked into the playhouse. We all spent long nights working out scenes, and we shared pitchers of beer and oysters at the local bar, and we played in backgammon tournaments around Daytona. Backgammon was the craze.

We also stared into the blank slate of the future, nursing fantasies about what our lives would be like when we were real actors. We shared our hopes and goals. We were friends, and then more. I looked up one day and I had a girlfriend.

My cousin Freddie had learned hypnosis to try to help his mother cope with breast cancer, and he taught me some basic techniques. Not everyone is susceptible to hypnosis. If you’re an open, emotional person, it’s more apt to work on you. If you’re guarded, not so much. I was hard to hypnotize; despite my effort and desire, I couldn’t shut down my racing mind. But Mickey? A few seconds and sweet Mickey was gone. Lights out, Daytona Beach.

I became the hypnotizer and she was the hypnotee. We developed a visual cue and a verbal cue. The visual one was that I’d hold my hand in front of her and collapse my fingers into my palm to make a fist. By the time my fingers were in a fist, she’d be out. The verbal cue was that I’d count from the date of my birthday (the seventh) to hers (the twelfth). Seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve. By the time I said twelve, bye-bye.

Mickey was so susceptible that I had to be careful not to include our cues in casual conversation, and when I put her under, I made sure she was protected and out of harm’s way.

Freddie taught me how to install positive suggestions in Mickey’s psyche. If she was nervous about an audition, I would hypnotize her beforehand and plant affirmations. If she was worried about a family member’s health, I would assuage her fears.

We also planted harmless and fun suggestions. Every time you hear Freddie’s name, you must touch him. Sure enough, when she came out of hypnosis, each time she’d hear his name, she’d find some rationale to grasp Freddie’s hand or wipe lint off his shoulder, having no idea why. Or, for example, we’d plant: When you hear the word sandy, you clap. And sure enough, when someone said, “The floor is sandy,” Mickey would find some justification to clap her hands.

Clap. “Now where did I put the broom?”

Skeptics always said, “No, no, it’s an act.” But believe me, it wasn’t an act. It wasn’t a gag. I’d see Mickey go under, deep, and it was real and it was wild. If I remember correctly, there are seven stages of depth in hypnosis. Freddie and I practiced to see how far we could make Mickey go. Occasionally I would get nervous. She’s at level six! I feared we couldn’t get her back. But that never came to pass.

Hypnosis was a kind of an intimacy, I guess, a trust. And Mickey was a good girlfriend. But we were primarily a couple because Mickey wanted us to be a couple. That is not a knock on her, but a comment on who I was at the time. Even though I’d gained a nascent sense of what I wanted to do professionally, I was still immature.

The Daytona Summer Music Theater’s season ended in August, and Ed and I resolved to head back to Los Angeles. We’d been on the road for two years, and it was time to go home. We had both decided. Law enforcement was not our path. We were both going to be actors. A few weeks before the journey west, I was trying to tell Mickey, I hope I see you sometime—vague, distant future talk. But she interrupted: I want to come with you. She was emphatic. I couldn’t think of a good reason to say no. She also wanted to try to make it in show business. Who was I to say Los Angeles was off-limits?

Sure, I said. Come along.

Off we went. The three of us, Mickey on the back of my bike. We took six weeks and really saw the country on our return trip. We made it as far north as the beautiful, desolate Badlands of South Dakota and marveled at Mount Rushmore before arcing down in a southwesterly direction. Little goblins and ghosts dotted the streets on the day we arrived in Los Angeles. Halloween.

• • •

Mickey and I settled into a two-bedroom apartment in Van Nuys. My main focus was building my life as an actor. Mickey’s suddenly was marriage, a house, a baby. She had incredibly precise domestic dreams and notions. There was a church choir component. She came from a Southern Baptist clan so tight-knit that when we moved west, Mickey’s dad, who had been the president of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, asked to move his president’s office to Embry-Riddle in Prescott, Arizona, to be closer to us.

After a couple of years together, Mickey wanted to get married. I wasn’t self-aware or courageous enough to say whoa. Instead I said: You want to get married? Okay. Sounds good to me.

I don’t remember what I was thinking as I watched her walk down the aisle. I know Mickey looked happy. I know I was nervous. But that’s about all I can conjure up. I must have been a stranger to myself. I was just a kid, twenty-three years old, dressed in a very 1970s tuxedo, standing at the makeshift altar at her parents’ house in Prescott, Arizona, a little town in Yavapai County, saying “I do” when what I really felt like saying was “I don’t know.”

Though I’d officiated other people’s weddings, I don’t think I grasped the depth and the consequence of the commitment I was making. The vows I spoke weren’t empty. I cared about her. I even loved her. But in the end, I wasn’t ready.

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