My first thought was that she had made a mistake.
She walked into my office at 9:30 on a Tuesday morning but she was dressed for a Saturday night. Her hair was bleachy blonde, chin length and messy in that cultivated way that takes time and effort. She was the second client I’d had in the last month who was dressed all in black: black tights, black mini-skirt, black low-heel pumps; a black waistcoat cut in a fancifully military style (complete with epaulettes) that parted to reveal a black top with black sequins across the top. It was a real accomplishment matching that much black clothing, especially in a way that withstood the unforgiving light of morning. Even more impressive, her top was satin and so far as I could see, without a single wrinkle.
Many believe that the basic unit of detective work is being able to observe a person and make deductions about their character based on what they are wearing or how they behave. There is no question that this is a valuable skill. Sometimes, though, it is more useful to ignore appearances because they reveal nothing of value. Like beauty, style and fashion can be great deceivers. They are too easily seen to be truly observed.
Sometimes, the first clue we come across only makes sense later on, when we have more information. So, just as the best way to remember a word or name we have failed to call to mind during conversation is to continue talking until, through the natural channels of speech and thought, it quietly returns to us, the best practice with a clue that commands too much attention without yielding insight is to ignore it until other clues arrive to provide context.
As it turned out, however, this wasn’t a case of lacking the information to understand an important clue. Instead, I had made the equally common mistake of assigning too much importance to the first clue I happened to come across. In fact, once she explained her case, I realized it had been a mistake to attach any importance at all to her hair, clothes, and make-up.
“I want you to find the perfect word to describe this feeling I’ve been having,” she said once she had settled into the chair opposite my desk.
I sat back and thought for awhile.
“This poses an interesting challenge,” I said, “since first you’ll have to describe to me how you feel . . .”
“Totally,” she said, drawing out the middle of the word so it became a groan.
“Let’s start by trying to set some parameters for what sort of word you’re hoping I’ll find.”
“Okay,” she said, nodding.
“First off, do you want an English word or would something from another language work as well?”
“Well, I’d love it if you could find an English word. Even a phrase would be fine. But I’m guessing it will have to be a foreign word or phrase.”
“German is probably our best bet, then,” I said, making a note.
“Maybe,” she said slowly, tilting her head to follow her eyebrows in a leftward gesture of skepticism.
“German,” I ventured, “is a language that seems to specialize in words meant to describe highly specific feelings and mental states.’
“Oh, totally,” she said nodding so vigorously that the sequins on her dress gave a couple sparkly ripples. “I’m just skeptical because I’ve spent a ton of time looking at German words for just that reason.”
“So you’ve already been researching this for awhile?”
“At least a year.”
“Any language will do,” I said absently as I made a note.
“Well, I’d like to steer clear of Klingon,” she said.
The joke took a second to register before I laughed.
“Fair enough,” I said as I added several new sheets of paper to my clipboard and leaned back in my chair. “So: tell me about this feeling . . .”
“I don’t feel this way all the time,” she said, “but it is a very specific state of mind that I experience on a regular basis — maybe two or three days out of every week?”
I nodded, made another note.
“For the most part I am not really an upbeat sort of person. Even when I was a little girl I’d have extended periods of sadness, or just feel this sort of mild hopelessness all the time. My doctor says I’m probably dysthymic but I’m not medicated or anything. I haven’t even gone to a psychiatrist.”
She paused and I wrote some more, making my best guess at how to spell dysthymic.
“But for the last two years I’ve had these bursts of feeling that are totally different from my usual range of moods. Nothing super-weird . . . Just different and unexpected.”
“And how would you characterize this feeling?”
She paused, sighed, then gave a little closed-mouth chuckle.
“I’ve tried to describe this so many times. To friends. To family. In emails. In my diary. I keep hoping I’ll stumble across the perfect word but . . .” she paused, took a meditative breath, then went on: “For days, even weeks, at a time I will go along feeling as though I am on the verge of something new—like I’m standing at a door with my fingers twisting the doorknob until I can feel the . . . the . . .” she frowned and rolled her eyes, turning an imaginary knob with her fingers as she searched for the right word, “the . . . tumbler gives way. Is that right: tumbler?”
“I think you mean latch,” I said, “the part that retracts. Locks have tumblers.”
“Okay: like I’m at a door, and I’ve twisted the knob until the latch is completely retracted and I can feel the door hanging free in the doorway and the only thing keeping it closed is me — not by choice, only because in that final instant of turning the knob to open the door I am actually holding it closed. Do you know what I mean? Like it’s one of those loose old doors that creaks open unless it’s all the way closed with the latch snapped in place —but once you twist the knob the only reason the door stays closed is because you’re still holding the knob. Like it’s floating there on hinges held in place by your hand. Does that make sense?”
It did, so I nodded and said, “Would you describe this as a positive feeling?”
“Yes, definitely,” and her sequins rippled some more, “My feelings about what’s on the other side of the door are really positive. Anticipation doesn’t quite cover it. I have this feeling of hope, even euphoria—or maybe bliss is a better word. My feelings tend to shift.”
“A little, sometimes. But this is where the door analogy kind of breaks down. I’m totally aware that I can’t control when the door opens.”
She frowned again and scrunched up her nose. She tugged at her waistcoat.
“That’s not right either,” she said, “I know I can’t control when the moment is right to open the door . . . I guess it’s like when you’re standing in front of an elevator door and you know the elevator is there but you just have to wait a second or two longer until the doors actually open.”
She thought for a moment, then smiled and said, “I like that. If you can find a word for when someone is just waiting for the doors to an elevator that has already arrived to open, that would work for me.”
I tugged at my ear and nodded.
She said, “But that part about turning the doorknob is still important. The door is there and I can hear what’s coming on the other side, maybe even see some light coming through the cracks and gaps, but it hasn’t arrived yet, so even though I can turn the knob and . . . and feel the freedom of the door, there’s just no way to open it until the other side is ready.”
Feeling the freedom of the door. I knew that freedom—or a detective’s version of it: that feeling that I was on the edge of some vital new clue that would deepen not only my understanding of whatever small mystery I was working on, but also the larger mystery that permeates everything. Sometimes I was convinced such moments were what I loved most about being a detective. Those instants before a key piece of information arrives, when the next clue could be anything . . .
“Anyway,” she said, “I don’t want to get fixated on this door analogy. People do that, you know: get hung up on analogies because they help us think through problems that feel too abstract —or that we just don’t understand well enough. The problem is we get stuck on the particulars of the analogy; like some sort of fetish. Which is why I want a word for this feeling of mine.”
“One could argue that words are just a sort of analogy,” I said.
“Yes, I’ve thought of that,” she nodded quickly, “but words become less particular the more we use them. That’s what a cliche is, if you think about it: an analogy that works so well people start using it like a word. There are even some words that are basically just cliches, analogies we don’t even notice anymore. Even the word metaphor: it comes from the Greek word for transport. The idea is that we transport a word or phrase from one context to another but no one thinks about transport when they talk about metaphors — except maybe in Greece where the word metaphor is on the side of moving trucks.”
“So, what,” I asked, “do you hope to accomplish by finding a word for this feeling you’ve described? Do you hope that the word will help you control the feeling or diminish it in some way? Do you hope knowing the word will help make that elevator arrive a little faster?”
“Oh, no, nothing like that. That all sounds really superstitious to me. I’m just trying to be practical. I want to express what I’m feeling as precisely as possible, even if it sends people to the dictionary.”
“In other words, you’d like to be able to shorten the length of conversations like this one?”