a little stern

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He is a free therapist. The kind you’re assigned, like those lawyers who represent criminals who can’t pay. He’s like that. His name was picked out of a hat. His ball was spun in a plastic tumbler. It was a lottery. He lost. I won. The Free Therapist is a graduate student at my school, studying for his Ph.D. He’s one year in and shows it. There’s a ton of nodding, some sympathetic squinting. He says,

“That must be very painful for you…You must be very angry…I understand that’s very upsetting….”

Sometimes he sounds like the textbooks he studies from; once in a while he looks things up. Occasionally, he gets confused, says,”Ummm, I don’t know how to answer that.”

And scribbles a note on a technical looking sheet of Ph.D. paper. These things don’t bother me, give me no pause, because the Free Therapist pays attention to me, sees me when I’m speaking. That’s what’s important.

His office is off-campus and I take the University bus. A bunch of us get off at the same stop. We reach our destination flustered, arching and bending over ourselves. Grabbing at any spare threads of inconspicuousness. The mechanical doors open to the maroon and gray sign announcing what each of us are here for: Psychological Services. The bus sighs, lowers, lets us out single file. A parking lot the length of a city block separates us from the single storey beige building and we stagger our pace so we’re not all walking in unison. Usually I’m the first one to the front door. I speed walk, head down, hands in pockets, drawing out the last inhales of cigarette smoke from the filter. On occasion, I’ll hold the door open for everyone, look into their faces as they file past me muttering their thank yous. It’s not an act of kindness. I do it because I’m not nice. I say, “have a good session.” Reminding them they are patients makes them uncomfortable.

Sometimes I hang around afterwards, lean against a car, smoke cigarettes and feel mad. I imagine the Free Therapist watching me after I leave: stealing away to the window, peering out from behind the curtain, pulling it slightly to the side, watching me simmer in all my anger. Sometimes I see him on campus, walking across the lawn with a colleague, a professor. Our eyes never meet, we don’t acknowledge the presence of the other, but the hair on my arms shiver, my chest opens like a drawer when he passes, and I want to fold him up, close him in. I know he sees me; he knows I’ve seen him and I love that we share those moments with no one else in the world.

There’s not much about me he doesn’t know but there’s a cave of him I haven’t a clue of. I know which car is his, which days he’s off. I know his phone number and the street he lives on. I think about breaking into his house, seeing what’s inside, who lives with him. I want to look at the cards and pictures on his mantle, the crayon drawings from his niece on the fridge. I imagine he lives alone, with a couple of cats, a dog, that he is unloved by women and men alike because he is not attractive. I suppose he’s unfortunate looking, with the harelip and stumpy eyebrows, but I don’t care, I could love him. It’s not his face I’m after.

I dream about living with him, me on the pullout couch, him in the bed. In the mornings he cooks me breakfast, readies a brown paper bag with my lunch. We drive to campus together and he kisses my forehead before I leap out of the car. Dinner is on the table when I come home and we eat together like a regular family. Afterwards, while the dishwasher runs, I do my homework at the dining room table while he goes over case files and listens to NPR.

It doesn’t occur to me that he has other patients. I’m not a moron, I know the facts of the thing, but I never give it a thought. I am his alone. That’s how it feels, that’s how it should be. The waiting room doesn’t feel like a bus stop – it’s always just me waiting for him. On Tuesday I wait for him, flip through People magazine. Soon it’s five minutes late and I skim Entertainment Weekly, The New Yorker. Then he’s ten, twelve, fifteen, seventeen minutes late and I’m starting to think something happened to him. What if he got hit by a car, knifed by a patient? What if he was shot in a hold-up, walking around with amnesia in the emergency room? How would I know? How would I find out? What would I do if the Free Therapist died? I start alternating between mad and worried. I stagger between the two: ready to blow, call the hospital, throw a fit, check in with reception, make a scene, go to his house. It’s twenty minutes late and I am about to get up, go to the front desk, make sure the receptionist intercomed him upon my arrival, when I hear his office door open down the hall. There are two people talking, he and a girl. I hear him say,

“I will see you next week.”

And they walk down the hall together toward the waiting room. He stops under the doorframe and I see then, his hand on her shoulder. She is my age, hip, fucked up, in various stages of undress. She looks like a punk, a junky. She looks like me. She turns, gives me a slow steady smirk. As she walks away, she lifts her arm, raises her hand as if to wave, but instead hikes up her middle finger, shoots me the bird, while the rest of her body erases from behind the wall. Her finger stays, lingers on casually for half a second, then disappears into never. The Free Therapist doesn’t see any of it, he faces me, smiles, says,

“Come on in.”

There are plants, books. The couch I never sit on has a paper towel covering the head pillow. There are two overgrown leather chairs that face each other. He sits on the one near the desk. Behind his chair is a black box tape recorder. All our conversations are chronicled. He plays them for his supervisor; they discuss me anonymously in class. Perhaps they pause, replay parts of conversations, say,

“And what could you have done differently here?”

I am an experiment, a research project, a test. But I find solace in those tapes, knowing that somewhere in this world together, he and I are immortalized. That we will outlive ourselves. Maybe one day I can listen to them, lull myself to sleep nights to the lift and drop of our conversations.

Sometimes I hate the box, stare at the box when I’m angry. There are moments I want to kick it, rip it open and scratch at the thin magnetic strip. I stare at the box today, but I don’t sit down. I pace, making him nervous. I am silent, making him do all the work. My mind is burning itself dry. Several variations of bludgeoning the girl flash in and out, blurry then focused. There are sidewalks, hydrants, mailboxes that I smash her head into repeatedly. That’ll show her. Who the hell does she think she is, giving me the finger? Me! Of all people. He cut into my hour by twenty minutes with her and now he owes me. They both owe me. Could it be that he likes her more than me? That he thinks she is more fucked up than I am? Is she going to be his big case, his big break, his dissertation? I am fuming, foaming at the mouth, but I don’t talk. I just pace. Back and forth, forth and back until he says,

“Tell me what’s on your mind.”

“What’s on my mind is that you are an asshole,” I tell him.

“I see. And what makes me an asshole?”

But, I can’t say it. As much as I am angry, I don’t want to hurt his feelings. I don’t want him to think I am jealous of that girl, but I am. I am jealous and threatened and I hate her. I am afraid that if I bring her up, if I talk about her, she’ll have all the power, he’ll love her more than me.

“Can you tell me? Can you tell me what makes me an asshole?”

“No,” I say and plop down on the chair.

“What’s going on? What are you thinking about?” he asks.

“You were late,” I say.

“Yes, I was. I’m sorry. Does that make you angry?”

“Why were you late?”

“I was with a patient.”

“So? That’s never made you late before.”

“No, it hasn’t. I apologize and I hope it doesn’t happen again.”

I stand up, offended.

“That’s it? That’s all you have to say on the matter? That’s fucking bullshit. You’re bullshit.”

I walk over to the window, peek out from behind the opening in the curtains. The parking lot is gray, filled with gray cars under a gray sky in a gray city in a gray world, and there leaning against a gray Saab, is the girl, the middle finger girl, exhaling gray smoke and waiting for her gray life to fill black with remorse and resign. Before this place, this bad age of twenty, my life was wide, unlike the sky here, closed in on itself like me when mad. I turn before she can see me. I turn and face him, the Free Therapist, and say,

“You’re nothing.”

“I’m nothing what?” he asks.

“That’s it,” I say. “You’re just nothing. We’re all nothing.”

But I don’t think he’s nothing at all. He’s the whole universe. He is the one that can save me. I am waiting for him to grab me by the scruff of my neck, toss me into his life like a stray.

“Do you think you are nothing?”

“I know I’m nothing,” I say.

“And what makes you know that?” he asks.

“I am not important.”

“Important to whom?” he asks.

“To anyone.”

“You think you’re not important to me?”

“I know I’m not.”

“How do you know?”

I want to tell him why, that he was late, that he was twenty minutes late because of her, but I can’t. I feel foolish for this. I feel as if he has betrayed me, cheated on me by having another patient, by having another me as a patient. I thought I was the only me he had, but I was wrong. There are more of me, and perhaps even more than I think. I thought I was special, unique. But I feel like a type, a mold. I am just another shape for a cookie cutter. A Christmas tree, a horseshoe, a dog. I wonder why I’ve never seen her before, if she’s a transfer student. I wonder what her name is, what her problem is. I wonder if she’s cooler than I am, more fucked up, tougher than me, stronger. I wonder if she lives in a dorm or off-campus. I wonder if she is as bullshit as I think she is. She is nothing, a plastic disposable key chain.

I sit back down in the chair and stare at him. He looks at me, expectantly as if I am going to tell him the very thing he wants to hear. But I decide not to say a word. If I am not enough for him, if he needs another girl like me then I’m not telling him another thing. My life is private. My feelings are for me. He can go to hell.

“Why do you think you’re not important to me?” he asks tenderly, sweetly and it makes me want to take it all back, rewind and record over all my words.

“I don’t know.”

“Ahhh, what’s our rule? There are no ‘I don’t knows’ in here.”

“You were late.”

“And that makes you angry.”


“That makes you feel like you’re not important.”


“How can I make it up to you? How can I let you know that you are important to me?”

“I don’t know,” I say. But I do know.

“What’s the rule?”

I smile against my better judgment.

“Are you jealous of that girl?”

“No!” I defend too fast.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes I’m sure,” I say. I take a studied pause before I ask what I really want to know,

“What’s her problem anyway?”

“You know I can’t tell you that.”

“Tell me anyway. Does she have dumb boy problems, or is she like, a junky?”

“Do you think boy problems are dumb?”


“Do you have boy problems?”


“Are you a junky?”


“So, then, let’s talk about you. Why don’t we leave her business alone?”

But I couldn’t leave her business alone. I don’t intend to follow her, it just happens. It always seems that once you don’t want to run into someone, they’re everywhere. I see her in the cafeteria, the Student Union, the University Bookstore. She is always alone; she never looks up. I don’t have a solid plan, I just want to scare her, let her know she screwed with the wrong girl. I’m going to give her more than the finger.

I trail her to a lecture on string theory one Saturday afternoon and watch her as she sits in the back row, eyes closed, smiling, nodding through the whole thing. I think she is riding a fix, laying back after chasing the dragon, but when the lecture is over, she claps and stands, and I can tell from her expression, the urgency behind her eyes, that she is present and conscious, and understood it all: from quarks to quantum mechanics.

She speeds across the winding cobblestone path; arms wrapped around her chest like a straitjacket. Her Bauhaus tee shirt is vintage, ten or so years old and ripped, held together by safety pins. Her skirt is too long, twigs and leaves become ensnarled in the tassels and a mini forest drags behind her like a bridal train as she walks. She is gothic punk, but her bad taste splays on her like psoriasis. A belt with thick silver studs hangs as an ornament low on her waist. She stops to light a cigarette, turns her body forty-five degrees away from the wind.

I follow her all the way down to the lake, into the woods. She pauses at the lake, grabs at the gravel on the ground and tosses pebbles, disrupting the sleeping lake. She is good at skipping them. One hops and skims almost the entire length of the lake. I consider pushing her in.

In the woods she sits on a rock, bends over her bag real low. She pulls something out, then something else. I figure she’s gonna tie off a vein, shoot up, cook some heroin in a burnt spoon in these woods, but she stays hunched over, still as wax, giving a blessing, saying a prayer. White patches of breath rise above her head. She sits up from time to time, takes a drag off a cigarette, looks around. I duck down real low behind a tree and feel somewhat like a pervert. She bends down again, begins rocking back and forth, side to side like a cradle. Smoke loops up and behind her, sucked off to heaven with the wind.

I imagine throwing rocks at her, pulling out a switchblade, showing her what I’m made of, but I don’t have a knife and the only rocks around are pebbles. I stay crouched, waiting for the right moment to pounce. Soon she hikes up her skirt and I see dark stains the size and shape of eyeballs tracked down the length of her leg. I think, what the hell are those? But then I see. She is burning herself up, scarring stories into her skin with the cherry of her cigarette. I am caught in the moment of not wanting to be there and not wanting to leave.

Each wound is deliberate, plotted. She holds the burnt end of the cigarette to her skin, closes her eyes while it lances, cringes until she can’t bear any more. Each time though, she holds out a little longer, endures a little more pain. She takes a drag, burns a hole, takes a drag, burns a hole. Guilt expands in me like the gritty sound from a white noise machine and I close my eyes, trying to erase it, erase her.

I don’t know how many cigarettes she goes through that day, or what else she brings out of her bag, but I feel sad for her because I understand this, what she’s doing. Before she can see me, I turn and leave, staying low and slow, taking the edge off the crunch of leaves. I trail through campus the long way. There are initials carved into trees, cigarette filters driven into the earth and I think, we’re not so different from the bark, so different from the dirt.

There is a film on me then and for a few days after. Something like a coating I feel but can’t see. It’s as if I read about myself in someone else’s journal, witnessed something that wasn’t mine to see, like another couple having sex, my father getting out of the shower, my roommate masturbating. It’s funny how sometimes you think you want to know something about a girl, but it’s not that girl you learn about.

Excerpted from the novel The Long Haul by Amanda Stern; published by Soft Skull Press, 2003

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