The next time the psychologist and Zara met, Zara said that she had actually found a hobby. She had started to go to “viewings of middle-class apartments.” She said it was exciting because a lot of the apartments looked like the people who lived there did the cleaning themselves. The psychologist tried to explain that this wasn’t quite what she’d had in mind by “getting involved in a charity,” but Zara retorted that at one of the viewings there had been “a man who was thinking of renovating it himself, with his own hands, the same hands he eats with, so don’t try to tell me I’m not doing all I can to fraternize with the most unfortunate members of society!” The psychologist had no idea how to even begin to answer that, but Zara noted her arched eyebrows and hanging jaw and snorted: “Have I upset you now? Christ, it’s impossible not to upset people like you the moment you start to say anything at all.”
The psychologist nodded patiently and immediately regretted the question she asked next: “Can you give me an example of when people like me have been upset by you without your meaning it?”
Zara shrugged, then told the story of how she had been called “prejudiced” when she interviewed a young man for a job at the bank, just because she had looked at him when he entered the room and exclaimed: “Oh! I would have expected you to apply for a job in the IT department instead, your sort tend to be good with computers!”
Zara spent a long time explaining to the psychologist that it was actually a compliment. Does giving someone a compliment mean you’re prejudiced these days, too?
The psychologist tried to 1nd a way to talk about it without actually talking about it, so she said: “You seem to get caught up in a lot of disagreements, Zara.
One technique I’d recommend is to ask yourself three questions before you Aare up. One: Are the actions of the person in question intended to harm you personally? Two: Do you possess all the information about the situation? Three: Do you have anything to gain from a conAict?”
Zara tilted her head so far that her neck creaked. She understood all the words, but the way they were put together made as much sense as if they’d been pulled at random from a hat.
“Why would I need help to stop getting into conAicts? ConAicts are good. Only weak people believe in harmony, and as a reward they get to Aoat through life with a feeling of moral superiority while the rest of us get on with other things.”
“Like what?” the psychologist wondered. “Winning.”
“And that’s important?”
“You can’t achieve anything if you don’t win, sweetie. No one ends up at the head of a boardroom table by accident.”
The psychologist tried to 1nd her way back to her original question, whatever it had been.
“And… winners earn a lot of money, which is also important, I assume? What do you do with yours?”
“I buy distance from other people.”
The psychologist had never heard that response before. “How do you mean?”
“Expensive restaurants have bigger gaps between the tables. First class on airplanes has no middle seats. Exclusive hotels have separate entrances for guests staying in suites. The most expensive thing you can buy in the most densely populated places on the planet is distance.”
The psychologist leaned back in her chair. It wasn’t hard to 1nd textbook examples of Zara’s personality: she avoided eye contact, didn’t want to shake hands, was—to put it mildly—empathetically challenged, and had perhaps as a result chosen to work with numbers. And she couldn’t help compulsively straightening the photograph on the bookcase every time the psychologist moved it out of position on purpose before each session. It was hard to ask
someone like Zara about that sort of thing directly, so the psychologist asked instead: “Why do you like your job?”
“Because I’m an analyst. Most people who do the same job as me are economists,” Zara replied immediately.
“What’s the diPerence?”
“Economists only approach problems head-on. That’s why economists never predict stock market crashes.”
“And you’re saying that analysts do?”
“Analysts ex9ect crashes. Economists only earn money when things go well for the bank’s customers, whereas analysts earn money all the time.”
“Does that make you feel guilty?” the psychologist asked, mostly to see if Zara thought that word was a feeling or something to do with gold plating.
“Is it the croupier’s fault if you lose your money at the casino?” Zara asked. “I’m not sure that’s a fair comparison.”
“Because you use words like ‘stock market crash,’ but it’s never the stock market or the banks that crash. Only people do that.”
“There’s a very logical explanation for why you think that.” “Really?”
“It’s because you think the world owes you something. It doesn’t.”
“You still haven’t answered my question. I asked why you like your job. All you’ve done is tell me why you’re good at it.”
“Only weak people like their jobs.” “I don’t think that’s true.”
“That’s because you like your job.”
“You say that as if there’s something wrong with that.”
“Are you upset now? People like you really do seem to get upset an awful lot, and do you know why?”
“Because you’re wrong. If you stopped being wrong the whole time you wouldn’t be so upset.”
The psychologist looked at the clock on her desk. She still believed that Zara’s biggest problem was her loneliness, but perhaps there’s a diPerence between
loneliness and friendlessness. But instead of saying that, the psychologist murmured in a tone of resignation: “Do you know what… I think this might be a good place for us to stop.”
Unconcerned, Zara nodded and stood up. She tucked the chair back under the table very precisely. She was half facing away when she said, “Do you think there are bad people?” It sounded as if she hadn’t really meant to let the words out.
The psychologist did her best not to look surprised. She managed to reply: “Are you asking me as a psychologist, or from a purely philosophical perspective?”
Zara looked like she was talking to a toaster again.
“Did you have a dictionary shoved up your backside as a child, or did you end up like this of your own volition? Just answer the question: Do you think there are bad people?”
The psychologist shuAed on her seat so much that she very nearly turned her pants inside out.
“I’d probably have to say… yes. I think there are bad people.” “Do you think they know it?”
“What do you mean?”
Zara’s gaze fell upon the picture of the woman on the bridge.
“In my experience there are plenty of people who are real pigs. Emotionally cold, thoughtless people. But even we don’t want to believe that we’re bad.”
The psychologist considered her response for a long time before she replied: “Yes. If I’m being honest, I think that almost all of us have a need to tell ourselves that we’re helping to make the world better. Or at least that we’re not making it worse. That we’re on the right side. That even if… I don’t know… that maybe even our very worst actions serve some sort of higher purpose. Because practically everyone distinguishes between good and bad, so if we breach our own moral code, we have to come up with an excuse for ourselves. I think that’s known as neutralizing techniques in criminology. It could be religious or political conviction, or the belief that we had no choice, but we need something to justify our bad deeds. Because I honestly believe that there are very few people who could live with knowing that they are… bad.”
Zara said nothing, just clutched her far too large handbag a little too tightly and, for just a fraction of a second, looked like she was about to admit something. Her hand was halfway to the letter. She even allowed herself, very Aeetingly, to entertain the possibility of confessing that she had lied about her hobby. She hadn’t only just started going to apartment viewings, she’d been going to them for ten years. It wasn’t a hobby, it was an obsession.
But none of the words slipped out. She closed her bag, the door slid shut behind her, and the room fell silent. The psychologist remained seated at her desk, bemused at how bemused she felt. She tried to make some notes for their next encounter, but found herself instead opening her laptop and looking at the details of apartments for sale. She tried to 1gure out which of them Zara was thinking of looking at next. Which was obviously impossible, but it could have been simple if only Zara had explained that all the apartments she looked at had to have balconies, and that all the balconies had to have a view that stretched all the way to the bridge.
In the meantime Zara was standing in the elevator. Halfway down she pressed the emergency stop button so she could cry in peace. The letter in her handbag was still unopened, Zara had never dared read it, because she knew the psychologist was right. Zara was one of the people who deep down wouldn’t be able to live with knowing that about herself.