This room has lived a life. The walls were white once, and I’m sure the carpet would be lighter if it were clean. There’s a smell in the air, the kind you can only get over time. It’s not just one smell, but several. It’s the smell of years; the smell of coffee breaks and clandestine cigarettes, of peppermints that sat in a jar on the counter once, and a thousand perfumes and deodorants that came through and left again. It’s a smell of people. It’s a memory. This room has a memory.
The woman has lived a life too. Her hair is grey, but she dyes it brown. I know this because she hasn’t bothered to get her roots done for some time. God, I hate that. Her teeth were probably beautiful in her glory days. I imagine them white and straight back when her hair was naturally the color she pretends it is, but now her body has succumb to years of coffee and cigarettes, of negligence and indulgence. She is dressed like a young woman. Her loose collared blouse, bright colored skirt, and wide belt distract from the excess pounds on her middle. These clothes help her, they keep her current, but her teeth and her hair give her away. This woman is just like this room. She’s not new.
She asks me to call her Nancy. I tell her I will call her Dr. Brockman because that is her last name, and she is a doctor. Calling her Nancy is just weird. We’re not out for coffee, we’re performing triage on my damaged psyche. She’s not my pal or my girlfriend. We’re not going shopping later. We won’t giggle and talk about boys or get tipsy watching Grey’s Anatomy. She is a medical professional and I am her patient. She is Dr. Brockman.
Dr. Brockman is talking to me in a slow, regulated tone and quite frankly I haven’t been listening. I was looking at this stain on the ceiling, and I was wagering bets with myself as to what it is. A water stain? Urine? Paint? Something dark yellow, but I can’t quite place it. How would it even get up there? How does anything get on a ceiling? Then I remember the spray of dried blood on my ceiling, and how it got there. I decide to stop thinking about the stain and give Dr. Brockman the courtesy of listening to what she has to say, but she has stopped speaking. She’s tapping her pen on her crossed legs as she sits in her chair, staring me down. Her expression is one of feigned patience. Maybe she wants to yell at me, but smiling and expressing an inviting tolerance is her vocational obligation.
I apologize, because I figure I’ve missed something, and she tells me there is no need to say I’m sorry. She tells me that our minds wander for a reason. They help us process our subconscious thoughts, or some nonsense like that. Then she asks me the question I missed again. She asks me what I can tell her about that day, the day my mother died.
I tell her that it’s hard for me to remember much. This is a lie. I remember that day like it happened 5 minutes ago. I can still feel the shaking in my body. I smell the blood and taste my tears. I remember everything. I just don’t want to. Remembering that day would mean going back to that day, and I don’t want to go back there with her right now. I don’t want to go back there ever again, but I know I have to. It’s the reason I’m here. It’s the only way to get out of this clinic and on with my life. She asks me if there is anything at all that I can remember, even if it’s small.
So I tell her about the shoes.
“His shoes.” I don’t look at her. It’s difficult to look at someone when you do not want them to see you. Talking about my mother is like being truly naked. I don’t want to be naked. I just want to be free of my thoughts, and this woman insists on hearing them. I don’t look at her, because I can’t look at her. I talk to the stain on the ceiling instead. She can pretend I am telling her this, but really, I’m telling the stain. This little splatter of piss has earned more of my secrets than she has.
“He wore these shoes.” My voice comes out in cracks. I have to force the words out. For a moment, I wonder if they came out at all.
“Who?” She asks as if she doesn’t know. Playing dumb is part of her job.
“Braxton. My boyfriend, Braxton. He wore these shoes. They were yellow Converse All Star’s, ugly as hell. He wore them everywhere, and I hated his shoes. They didn’t belong on a grown man. They belonged on a kid. Who the hell picks yellow?” She makes a note. I clear my throat, she does it too. Mirroring is another part of her skill set.
“That’s what I remember. I remember his shoes.”
Dr. Brockman adjusts herself in her chair. She’s hoping this is going somewhere, but I hadn’t really thought beyond the word “shoes.”
“I was on the floor, with mama, and Braxton was standing there and all I could see of him were those shoes, inches from my face. There was so much I could think about right then, but all I could think was God, I hate those stupid shoes.”
“Interesting.” She says, but that’s all she says. I wonder if it’s actually interesting to her or if that’s just a word she uses to fill silences when she thinks the person she’s talking to is fully certifiable. I feel certifiable, here, in this place. “Why do you think that is, Cassidy? Why do you think you have focused so much of your memory of that day on his shoes?”
I’m not sure what this question is. Does she know the answer? Is the question deeper than she’s letting on? Is it a trick? Finally, I just give her the only answer I can think of. “I’d rather not think about the rest, I guess.”
She nods. I’m not sure if it’s the right answer or not. I feel like I’m open on an operating table and she is trying to do surgery on me while I’m wide awake. I’m that Operation guy, the one from the board game with the big red nose. I’m all open and showing my little parts and she’s trying to dissect them with a tiny pair of tweezers without disturbing me. The whole time all I can do is lie awake and watch, wondering if she’s getting all the bad parts out, or if I’m a lost cause.
“Tell me about him,” she says. She adjusts her posture.
“Braxton?” I ask, like I really don’t know what she means. She nods again. She does a lot of nodding, this woman. She reminds me of one of those cartoon toys people keep on their dash. I’m pouring myself out to her and here she is, bobbling.
I don’t want to say anything more. I don’t want to tell her how about the way he used to look at me with his blue eyes and his sandy blonde hair and suddenly I was at a beach, far away from everything. He was my safe haven and my rock, the only person who knew who I truly was. Braxton would have done anything for me, and he proved it.
This woman hasn’t earned that truth from me, she doesn’t deserve to know about that love. It’s mine, and I can’t share it. I talk to the ugly yellow stain. “He was my best friend.” In my peripheral vision, I see Dr. Bobble Head, bobbling away. I don’t look at her. I let the silence go on too long. She’s uncomfortable. I’m not.
She clears her throat a bit. “Do you feel betrayed by Braxton?” She asks.
I think about my answer. It’s loaded, that question. It’s a weapon and she knows it. It’s her way of trying to unravel me and while I desperately want to be unraveled, I want secrets too. I’m entitled to them, everyone is. So I feel the need to lie. Because I don’t feel betrayed by Braxton. I feel loved by Braxton. I feel more loved than I ever have. “Yeah, I guess so. A little.”
She says I should “own that feeling”, as if feelings are something you buy at a garage sale and keep on a shelf. I need to “acknowledge that I am entitled to that feeling” and “allow myself to be vulnerable enough to embrace it.” I wonder if there is a special dictionary somewhere of ridiculous phrases that psychiatrists are required to use. That would explain a lot.
She’s quiet for a moment. I think I am supposed to be talking, but I’m really not sure what I should be talking about. There are so many lulls in this conversation. They are awkward lulls, with painful unspoken words in them. I feel the pressure to keep talking, but I just don’t want to. She’s drawing blood from me, and I do not want to give it.
“Braxton Peterson stabbed your mother seventeen times with a kitchen knife. Does that sound like he was your friend?” Her voice is intense and matter of fact. I sense resentment, and she doesn’t even bother to mask it. She is trying something new now. She’s trying to intentionally trigger me. Score one for team Bobble Head. The memories come to me in giant waves. I see Braxton with the knife, plunging it into my mother. I smell him, and I smell her. I smell death. I am there, in that place I never wanted to go back to.
I can no longer talk to the ceiling. I’m angry at her. At Nancy Brockman, who wanted to be “just Nancy” and act like we’re friends. I’m angry at her for making me remember. I want to leap from this couch and grab her by the throat.
I stop myself. I tell myself that is not who I am. I cannot let that be who I am. “Yes. I know what happened! I was FUCKING THERE!”
The words burst out of me the otherwise silent room. They echo off those not-so-white walls and come back to me. For a moment, I think I see her smile. She knows she got to me. She waits for me to settle.
“I think you would benefit from accepting this and opening up more about what happened.”
I say nothing.
She makes a few notes in her notebook and I feel like she is expecting me to speak, so I do.
“There was blood everywhere.” I’m talking to her now, not the stain. She’s earned it now. “There was so much blood.”
Dr. Bobble Head takes a sip of water, and I continue.
“There’s this sound, when someone is dead. People don’t talk about it really, because it’s not really a sound, but more of an absence of it. It’s like you suddenly realize that the person is not breathing anymore and it is deafening how quiet it is. In that silence, it was like she was really gone.”
I’m crying now, and I’m kind of laughing too. I really wish I were a person with better control over my emotions. I wish I were someone who’s emotions could lie. This works for me right now though. Dr. Brockman wanted to see me feel something. People respond to stress in different ways. She doesn’t need to know why. She doesn’t need to know that I’m relieved.
She doesn’t need to know that my mother convinced me that college was a bad idea and forced me to stay with her and hold two retail jobs instead. She doesn’t need to know how my sweet, ailing mother strapped me to my bed some nights to make sure I didn’t sneak out. She doesn’t need to know that the “poor sick woman” was actually perfectly well, faking illness to keep me from moving out and on with life. She doesn’t know how many times she tortured me when I had no defense against her. She doesn’t need to know how many times I wished my mother dead, or that her voice still follows me everywhere I go, convincing me how horrible I am. Some things she’s just better off not knowing.
“We will end here today.” Dr. Brockman says.
I thank her for her time and she thanks me for mine. I’m happy to be escorted away from this room. I know I have to come back, that I need to keep coming back until I convince Dr. Bobble Head that I am healed and happy and ready to return to the world. Still, I’m happy to leave that room and return to my own, windowless room. I don’t like going to therapy.
I don’t like thinking about that day, the day I suffocated my mother. Her body flailed and struggled, and she screamed underneath the pillow. I don’t like thinking about how Braxton brutalized her afterwards, but I know that he was doing it for me. He was covering up what I had done, so I could be free. Still, it meant that I sacrificed a life with him in it for a life without my mother. What he did for me changed my life, even if I’m still not free in my head. I love you, Braxton, but I still hate your shoes.