Thursdays Are for Therapy
Thursday, October 19th
“Good morning, Sophie,” Karen says. Her blood red lips and charcoal gray skirt suit are a dramatic contrast to her creamy skin and pale blond hair.
“Good morning, Karen,” I say.
The walls of Karen’s office are the color of coffee with too much cream. The room is a small rectangle on the third story of an old brick building in downtown Portland. I can see Otto’s Pizza down the street, through the tall Georgian style window.
When I want to tune Karen out, I fantasize about what kind of pizza I would like to order — maybe ricotta basil, or mashed potato, bacon, scallion — but Nikki always talks me out of it.
Pizza is for fatties, stupid, she reminds me, whenever I get tempted.
“You look tired. Are you feeling all right?” Karen asks, her voice laced with faux concern–or who knows, maybe it’s genuine.
I had tried to pinch some color into my cheeks before leaving my apartment this morning, but my face remained stubbornly pale. I braided my muddy brown hair loosely off to the side, to feign some semblance of put-togetherness–but my eyes, dull from lack of sleep, or malnutrition maybe, always give me away.
My body could disappear in the baggy ripped jeans and oversized flannel that aren’t mine. I should have changed, but I’m addicted to their smell–a faint mixture of marijuana, the vanilla bourbon flavor of his e-cigarette, and something else I can’t name.
“Please, have a seat, Sophie,” Karen says.
This is our ritual. I linger in the doorway until Karen invites me to sit down.
Once I’m seated, she starts in with a procession of “checking-in questions.”
Today she starts with,”How’s the new job?”
“I make overpriced coffee drinks for Barbie dolls and soccer moms,” I say, my voice thick with contempt.
“What about your co-workers?” she asks, scratching words on her notepad.
I tug at the edge of the flannel I’m wearing. “What about them?”
“Are they nice? Do you all get along with one another?”
I shrug. I hate every single one of them snobby little bitches, but I certainly can’t tell Karen that.
Changing the subject, she asks, “So how are things with . . . Jonah, isn’t it?”
Acid butterflies flutter in my stomach at the mention of his name. I’m balanced on the edge of Karen’s moss green sofa. If I sit back any further, it will swallow me whole.
“Good,” I say.
Please, I think, not now, just go away.
“Just good?” Karen asks.
“Nice, it’s been really nice.”
God, you are so delusional, Nikki says, her voice echoing between my eardrums.
On the far wall, just above Karen’s head is a poster featuring a single word in large, sloping letters–breathe. I close my eyes and inhale for five seconds, then exhale for another five–like Karen taught me.
When I open them, she is smiling. “What do you like about him?” she asks.
I take a moment to consider. I could tell her about how handsome he is, how soft his lips feel when he kisses me, how everything he says sounds so smart, how he smiles at me like for some crazy reason he thinks I’m a whole lot more special than I actually am–but I don’t feel like telling Karen any of that. So I say simply, “I like his voice.”
Nikki snorts. You’re pathetic. Honestly. You’re out of your mind if you think he actually likes you.
I do my best to ignore her and repeat my mantra: I am calm, I am composed, and I am in control.
“What kinds of things do you talk about?” Karen asks.
“Just the usual getting to know you stuff,” I say.
“Are you two official yet?” Her smile is too wide, too tight.
“We haven’t had that conversation,” I admit. “I think he just wants to keep it casual.”
Jesus, you’re dumb. Do I have to spell it out for you? You’re just another sex toy to him. Easily disposed of. Easily replaced.
I am calm, I am composed, I am in control.
“How long have you been seeing him?”
I shrug and say, “A few weeks,” like I don’t know for sure exactly–like I don’t remember the precise day and time we met–twenty-two days ago on a Tuesday at 1:15 in the afternoon.
“That’s long enough to ask someone about the nature of your relationship, don’t you think?” She’s staring at me with her large, brown doe-eyes, her eyebrows raised–as though this is a pivotal question, as though my answer will tell her something of consequence.
“I don’t know. Maybe, I guess.”
“I don’t see how it could hurt to ask,” she says.
Nikki purrs. She knows.
“Okay. I will,” I say to satisfy Karen.
The room goes quiet. I start to fiddle with one of the buttons on Jonah’s flannel.
“Sophie?” Karen is giving me a look that lets me know the “checking-in questions” portion of the session is over.
I press my clammy palms into my thighs, take a deep breath, and repeat my mantra once more–I am calm, I am composed, I am in control.
“I’d like to talk about your mom today,” Karen says.
I dig my fingers into the flesh of my thighs through the holes in Jonah’s jeans. “I wouldn’t.”
“We can’t avoid the subject forever.”
“Why not?” I say, anger blooming in red hot splotches across my face.
Karen gazes at me, her expression thoughtful.
When my resolve doesn’t waver, she frowns and adds another note to her notepad. She must have an entire drawer in her filing cabinet dedicated to me by now.
For amusement, I like to dictate her notes in my head as she writes. At the moment, I imagine she is scrawling: patient B-37 is being particularly difficult today. Her responses are vague. Much prodding is required to extract even the smallest amount of information. She has once again refused to talk about her mother.
Karen looks up from her notes. Her expression thoughtful again, she leans forward and asks, “Have you been talking to Nikki lately?”
“No,” I say, too quickly.
“Has she been talking to you?”
I look down, then away–towards the window. Menacing gray clouds are gathering. The sky, deep purple and mustard yellow around the edges, looks like an enormous bruise.
About a year ago — when I first started coming to see Karen — at the start of one session, she handed me a blank sheet of paper and some drawing pencils. She asked me to draw Nikki. I wasn’t sure what she was getting at, but I did it anyway.
I drew a woman with black, shoulder length hair. I made her eyes a dark, piercing brown. I imagined they would be the kind of eyes that could see straight through you–just one glance and they would know all of your dreams and fears. One look and they would be able to divine exactly the right words to say in order to hurt you most.
When I was finished, Karen asked me if my drawing looked like anyone I knew. I hadn’t made the connection before she asked, but as I looked down at the old woman I’d sketched — a near perfect replica of the witch from my childhood nightmares — a tiny key turned in my mind, unlocking a door that contained all the things I’d spent spent years trying to forget.
I recoiled from the drawing, pushed it away from me across the table.
“No,” I said. “No, no, no, no, no, no,” I repeated over and over, as I rocked back and forth, my knees squeezed tightly to my chest.
Thursday, November 2nd
I walk into Karen’s office with the slow, labored movements of someone trying to walk through water.
Karen glances up at me from behind her desk, and our delicate ritual skips a beat.
Instead of her usual, “Good morning, Sophie,” her mouth opens into a perfect lowercase o.
I glare at her, daring her to say something.
She doesn’t. Karen is well-versed in the language of fucked up. My appearance, she would say, is a cry for help, or attention. To acknowledge it, is to give it power–but no. Karen sees right through me.
“Please, have a seat,” she says pleasantly, recomposing her features.
I plop down on the sofa, my nose wrinkling as the ripeness of my body becomes even more pungent in the warm, stale air of Karen’s office. I haven’t showered in days. I dug the sweatpants and stained T-shirt I’m wearing out from under a pile of dirty laundry mildewing on my bedroom floor.
“I missed you last week,” Karen says, giving no indication that she’s noticed the putrid odors emanating from my direction.
“Sorry, I wasn’t feeling well.”
Could you be any more pathetic?
“No matter, you’re here now.”
I busy myself picking the dirt out from underneath my fingernails.
“Did you talk to Jonah?”
My hands freeze.
“Yes,” I whisper.
“What’d he say?”
“He said he wasn’t looking for a relationship.” My throat tightens, but I continue, wanting to get it all out–as though it were poison. “I told him that was fine. I said I wasn’t really looking for one either, that I liked just hanging out with him. But then he told me that it probably wasn’t a good idea for us to keep seeing each other. His exact words were–I don’t want you to get feelings for me that I can’t reciprocate.”
“I’m so sorry, Sophie,” she says, the pity plain on her face.
“Karen,” I say, my voice cracking. “What’s wrong with me?”
Everything’s wrong with you, Nikki says matter of factly, as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world.
Thursday, November 9th
“I’d like to try something new this week,” Karen says, barely giving me time to situate myself on the sofa.
I stare back at her, my expression wary. I’m wearing mostly clean clothes today, and I started showering again–but only because my boss told me I had to if I wanted to keep my job.
“Aren’t you at all curious?” she asks.
“Honestly?” I say.
“Would you do me a favor and give it a try anyway?”
Even though I don’t feel like I owe Karen any favors, I sigh and say, “Fine.”
“Good. I want you to close your eyes. Let your mind settle. Relax your body.”
I do as I’m told.
What a good little pet you are, Nikki says.
I clench my fists in my lap.
“Whatever you’re feeling, just take a deep breath, and on the exhale, let it go.” Karen’s voice drifts across the room, transforming into a soothing lull. “When you’re ready, I want you to think of a time when you were a child and your mother wasn’t there for you when you needed her.”
I bite my lip to stop myself from laughing bitterly.
“I realize that your mother was absent a lot during your childhood, but for the purpose of the exercise, try to pick a specific memory,” she says.
Flickers of grainy memory pass through the sieve of my mind. My mom on the phone in the kitchen. The long curly cord wrapped around her bony body–still dressed in the pajamas she came home in the day before. Her trembling skeletal fingers clutched the telephone in my grandmother’s kitchen, like a bird’s talons wrapped around the body of its prey.
Little me tugging at the thin, papery fabric of her pants. Her turning away, refusing to look at me. Her voice on the phone — hoarse from years of smoking cigarettes — even more urgent. “Please,” she said. “I can’t do this. I can’t be here.”
The ambulance pulling into the driveway. Little me standing on the porch, begging her not to leave. The desperate, aching emptiness when she left anyway.
My grandmother standing on the porch next to me–her cold, dry hand clamped to the back of my neck. She watched indifferent as they took her daughter away.
I have a childhood full of memories to choose from, but this is the one I keep coming back to, the one I keep turning over in my mind–picking at like a scab from an old wound I don’t know how to let heal.
“Do you have a specific memory in mind?” Karen asks. Her voice sounds strange and far away.
“Yes,” I say.
“Good. For this next part of the exercise, I want you to visualize yourself, you with all of your grown-up understanding, going back in time and giving your younger self the emotional support she needs.” Karen pauses, waiting I assume for questions or protest.
When I have none, she continues, “Take your time. Really try and picture all the details. I’ll be here if you need me.”
The scene effortlessly recreates itself. The dilapidated porch. The overgrown lawn. The old white house with the peeling paint and black shutters. Little me stands in the middle of it all. Chestnut brown hair cut in a short bob–wearing Old Navy overalls with a pale pink T-shirt underneath. Her feet are bare and covered in dirt, her cheeks red and wet with tears.
For dramatic effect, I imagine that a portal opens in the memory, and twenty-two-year-old me steps through. I’ve dressed up for the occasion in a long, pale blue dress patterned with yellow lilies. My hair is curled in soft waves.
Four-year-old me looks up, startled by the sight of a stranger stepping through a sphere of swirling light.
“Wh-who are you?” she asks, her voice small and trembling.
“I’m you, all grown up,” I tell her.
I smile brightly, to ease her uncertainty. “I sure am.”
“What are you doing here?” she sniffles.
“I’m here to make sure you’re okay.”
Fresh tears brim around the edges of her eyes. “I’m not okay. My mommy just got home from the hospital yesterday, and now she’s gone again. I don’t understand why she keeps leaving me.”
“I know, baby girl, I know.” I fight hard to keep my own tears back as I scoop her up into my arms.
She wraps herself around me without hesitation, burying her face in my chest. Her small body trembles in my arms, as she asks, voice muffled, “Doesn’t she want to be with me? Doesn’t she love me?”
I hold on to her tightly, as though she might vanish if I don’t. “Of course she loves you and wants to be with you. She just has a sickness in her head that makes it hard for her to be a good mother, but she does love you, very much. You know that, don’t you?”
She nods slowly, as though she doesn’t quite believe me. She looks towards the empty driveway for a moment. When she turns back, her eyes are wide and terrified. “Is it my fault?”
“Is what your fault?” I ask, confused.
“That Mommy’s sick.”
“Of course not!” I say, more harshly than I intend to.
Her small body recoils from mine.
I pull her head to my chest, and stroke her hair to soothe her. More softly, I add, “What would make you say that?”
She tilts her head to look up at me. “Sometimes when Grammy gets mad at me, she says that Mommy wasn’t sick before I was born, that I made her sick.”
An icy chill, like the fingers of death himself, creeps up my spine.
“That’s not true,” I say. “Her illness has nothing to do with you. Do you understand?”
Her wide blue eyes look back at me, unconvinced.
“Sophie,” I say, my eyes focused intensely on hers. “I need you to listen to me, okay?”
She nods, wiping the tears from her cheeks with her tiny fists.
“You have to promise me that you won’t listen to a word that witch tells you, not now and not ever. Can you do that for me?”
Her lips curve up into a small, tentative smile. “Witch,” she whispers, trying out the word.
“That’s right, baby,” I say. “Grammy is a witch.”
“Grammy is a witch! Grammy is a witch!” she giggles as she claps her chubby little hands.
“Sophie, is everything all right?” Karen’s voice breaks through the fabricated memory.
I squeeze little me to my chest — not ready to let her go — but she vanishes from my arms. The porch and the old house and the overgrown yard crumble before me. I open my eyes. Blink, disoriented–as Karen’s office comes into focus.
Her eyes, curious and kind, search mine.
“Well?” she asks. “How do you feel?”
I search for the appropriate words–I can’t find them.
Karen is looking at me expectantly, eager for more details, but my mind is drifting.
There’s something I need to know. Nikki? I think.
Nikki? I try again.
I dig my nails into the palms of my hands. My blood pulses through my veins like an electric current.
I try once more. Gram?