The closest I ever get is warmth. Body warmth. Some people reach out with warm fingers, warm bodies, warm kisses… but my fingers stay clenched by my sides, and I reach out with my warmth. Sometimes, I pretend that, as we sit close together, our warmth intermingles, wrapping us in a cocoon of everything I feel for you. I pretend, because otherwise, I have to face the knowledge that I’ll never be truly close to you. That I’ll never feel your hand against my face, your lips against mine. We both know that such contact would be agony, my ears burning with the screams of the dead.
The man who sits across from me sits like a woman, his legs crossed at the knee as he leans back in his plush chair, jotting down notes. He looks through small, black-rimmed glasses down a long, rather large nose. His voice is a dark purr, however. Definitely masculine. Somehow, this mixture makes me feel more comfortable. I wonder if that’s the reason I chose him.
I smooth down my black skirt and blue blouse. Black and blue, like a bruise.
“How are you doing today, Rebecca?” he asks. This is only my second appointment, and already I know that this is how all of them will begin. It’s a loaded question, and I face it head on.
“I still can’t touch people,” I say bluntly, and he nods, smiling a little at my brazen way of tackling this issue. I’ve already examined my approach, and I believe that I handle it bluntly because when you bring evil things to the surface, into the daylight, that’s supposed to make them burst into flame and disappear. But the evils of the mind aren’t like the evils in the movies, and bringing it to the surface hasn’t helped me rid myself of it. Nothing has.
“You know, Rebecca…”
I wonder if saying my name repeatedly is purposeful. It must be.
“…I think that we might as well jump feet first into this. I usually work people-“ Other crazy people. “-up to the hardest issues at a slower pace. This usually takes weeks, sometimes months or years. But judging by the way you handle yourself, and what we talked about in our first session, I’m beginning to think you’d rather tackle this beast head on.” I nod. “Good. You let me know if this gets too intense, alright?”
He won’t hypnotize me. I’ve read that psychologists stopped using that technique a while ago due to the ideas that could be implanted in a person’s head. The only people you can get to do it nowadays aren’t professionals, and I don’t want anyone unprofessional rooting around in my head. There’s enough filth in there without their muddy hands, thank you.
“Let’s talk about the screams.”
A slow breath in and out, and I make sure my hands are folded gently, not clenching, in my lap. Research shows that most people reveal themselves through their leg movements. Mine are crossed at the ankle. Controlled.
“They’re my dead sister’s screams,” I say.
“How do you know?” he asks, taking notes, despite already having this information from the last time we spoke. I wonder briefly if he’s forgotten.
“I know my sister’s voice.” Obviously.
“Of course. How old were you when she died?”
“Ten. She was sixteen. We lived with my father on the east coast at the time.”
“Just your father?” More notes.
“My mother died of acute liver failure when I was four. That’s what the medical reports say. Tylenol overdose.”
“Are you aware of any substance abuse prior to this?”
The family medical background. Ways of rooting out any possible psychological problems in parents or grandparents. But I don’t have any good information for him. I’ve considered the possibility of her popping a bottle full of Tylenol to cause the effect, and I’ve considered the idea that she may have been addicted to pain killers. Thus far, Dr. Dryburgh isn’t helping me any more than I’ve helped myself, which isn’t much.
“I don’t know. I was four, and Dad doesn’t talk about it,” I say steadily, keeping the growing irritation out of my voice. If this man can’t help, this is a waste of my time. The last session, then. I look at my watch. Thirty minutes left.
“But you hear your sister’s screams, and not your mother’s.”
A heavy sigh, “I doubt she screamed when she died. So drugged by that point that she probably wasn’t feeling a thing.” Again, obvious.
“So you were with your sister when she died?”
“No, doctor, please look at your notes. I’ve already told you. I was at a friend’s sleepover.” Another glance at my watch. Two minutes have passed. The couch is beginning to grow uncomfortable from the stiff way I’m sitting. If I could only relax, press myself back against the back, it would swallow me into a world of comfort. This couch seems designed for that. Swallowing patients. But that would require me to lie back against it, and the taut muscles in my belly refuse to allow such a disgraceful position.
“Of course, I’m aware of that,” he smiles. “I only meant that you couldn’t know if your sister screamed, either.”
“Then please just say that,” I say, resenting this game. Perhaps I’ll walk out early. But that would be rude, and I’m already paying for the entire session. Already wasting my money.
“Did someone tell you your sister screamed?” he asked.
“No, but she must have. She fell a long way. She must have screamed.”
“Are you sure?”
“No, I’m not,” I snap, frowning. Deep breaths. My leg is twitching, and I command it to stop. Inwardly, of course. I’m not so crazy as to be talking aloud to myself in public. “But she must have. She fell.”
“How did she fall?” he probes, and again, I get the feeling that he’s already formed his own conclusion, and is merely leading me along the pathway behind him. I don’t like the idea of tagging along behind him, picking up scraps as he tosses them back. It makes me feel powerless.
“The police report says it was a suicide. She jumped.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” he says, but I can tell he already knew, and he’s not sorry at all. He knew that my mother must have killed herself, and that my sister followed that same strain. Then he also knows that psychological illness must run in my family, and that I might have a chemical impairment that causes my problem. But I’ve tried chemicals. They don’t silence the screaming. They only numb it as they numb my other senses. If I can’t feel, she won’t scream. But I’m not ready to get rid of my feelings just yet.
He uncrosses his legs, leaning forward, appearing concerned, “I’m just going to come out and say it, as you requested. I believe that the screams you hear may have nothing whatsoever to do with your sister’s death.”
I stare at him, popped from my own ideas by the suddenness of his confession.
“What do you mean,” I hear myself say, and I hate myself for it. Powerless. That’s how I sound. Confused. Helpless. The good doctor probably meant to cause this reaction. He probably doesn’t like powerful women. Misogynist. Every sentence picked to bring me down a notch. To make me feel stupid.
“I believe the screaming, your anxiety, your control issues… I believe they’re all somehow connected. I’m sure that your sister’s death was a catalyst, springing all of these feelings into action, but I believe that the cause runs deeper.”
“That stupid,” I breathe, smiling at the absurdity of it. My leg is twitching again. Stupid leg. I cross my legs the other way, hoping to pin it into complacence. To the doctor’s credit, he makes no facial expression to this accusation of mine. No upraised eyebrows. No parting of his mouth. He’s good. Practiced. Not better than me, though.
“Why is that stupid?” he asks, his voice calmer than it was a moment ago. Slower. It irritates me, and I hear my own voice quickening to combat it.
“Because if there were something else, I would remember it. I have a fantastic memory. I remember Easter from just before my second birthday,” I spit out, chin up, daring him to challenge me. He does not. He leans back in his chair, looking down at his notepad, although he doesn’t write anything. Good. I think if he were to scribble something about me now, I’d leave. No, he just wanted an excuse to look away. To break eye contact. Eye contact, after all, is a display of dominance. So, he’s intimidated. This knowledge calms me, and I readjust myself in the seat cushion, smoothing out my skirt. Ten minutes left of this. I can take it.
“Tell me about your father,” he asks, changing the subject. Good. His idea was stupid anyway, although this is a pitiful choice of topics. Cliché, even. Psychologists in the movies always refer back to the father, as if all evil must spring from this single person.
“He was a good man. He worked hard. He didn’t complain about having to take care of my sister and me when my mother died.”
“Do you love him?” he asks, and he’s jotting down notes again. I want to read what he’s writing. I wonder if that’s my right as a patient, or if he’d deny me. I can’t risk it. It would be too embarrassing for him to issue a polite denial. I’m sorry, Rebecca. I’m not allowed to show this. But you’re welcome to see my report, when I write it up. It would be a lie, but I’d have no basis to argue.
“What? Oh, I guess. He was a good man,” I repeat, as if this answers everything. What a strange question. I guess I love him. He took care of us. He never hit us, and even his yelling was bearable. He didn’t drink. Hardly ever swore. He was a good guy.
“You guess?” Dr. Dryburgh uncrosses and crosses his legs again. I wonder if he knows that people unconsciously release emotion through their legs. If he isn’t doing it intentionally, I wonder what this says about his mental state. Is my answer somehow intriguing to him?
“I guess,” I repeat, suddenly realizing how strange this sounds. But I don’t like men much. I’m not ashamed to say it. Not to myself, anyway. I guess is probably the closest I’ll ever come to loving a man.
“I see,” he murmurs slowly as he writes, this small pairing of words working their way out of his mouth while his mind is occupied elsewhere. He’s writing a lot. I look at my watch. Two minutes. Time flies. If he hypnotized me, I’d never even know. I could’ve been telling him all sorts of things without my knowledge. He could be writing the answer to my problem right now.
But I already know the answer. My sister’s death.
My chest, which has been unexplainably squeezing tighter and tighter as the session goes on, releases me with this final thought. I take a deep breath. Yes, my sister’s death. As sad as it is, it’s definitely the cause. I brought it to the surface years ago. I’m comfortable with it. I just need to learn to deal with it.
I’m comfortable with it.
This notion gives me pause. My forefinger works its way under the nail of its neighboring hand, picking the nail clean. What a strange choice of phrasing. Comfort. For me to be comfortable with it, that must mean that I’m uncomfortable with something else. And from the tightness building in my chest during the session, we were undoubtedly picking at it.
The squeezing returns, and I inspect it.
One minute left, and he’s still writing. I swallow, thinking about the final topic. My father. All evils arise from the father. I did possibly love my father, however, and I don’t have any overwhelmingly negative memories associated with him.
But the squeezing doesn’t stop.
“I’m sorry,” Dr. Dryburgh says, sliding his pen beneath the clip on his clipboard. “I’m afraid we’ll have to stop for today. I think we made quite some progress, however.”
“Yes,” I smile, and for the first time since I first walked into this small, hypercomfortable room, I mean it.
“I’ll see you next week,” he smiles and stands, holding out a hand that’s so warm and soft, I never want to let it go. But in a matter of seconds, what starts out as gentle ringing in my ears becomes a shrill whistle, and then a high pitched, blood curdling cry that never breathes, and I rip my hand from his grasp, goose bumps rising on my flesh.
I nod, shaking and struggling to regain my sense of self. “Next week it is.”