When I typed the number for Counseling and Psychological Services into my phone, I discovered that it had already been saved to my contacts. In truth, it was a relic from orientation week, when overly exuberant upperclassmen had recited the numbers to us from a stage in Irvine Auditorium and I had diligently entered them into my phone, like the ever-prepared Ivy League student I had recently become. Still, as I pressed the formidable green circle to dial, a small voice taunted me. “See,” it sneered, “everyone knew you were crazy. Told you so.”
Exhaling, I waited as the phone rang on the other end. I sat perched atop my too-tall dorm bed, which I never figured out how to lower. That semester, my sophomore fall, I had gone to great lengths to make my single dorm room as cozy as possible. Truthfully, it was a vain attempt to try to reconcile the fact that a four-walled, cinderblock box was the closest thing I had to a home. The paisley sheets on my bed contrasted well with a dark purple tapestry, a trick I had learned in an art class. Across from my bed was a desk and a small mountain of library books and coffee mugs.
The phone kept ringing and my free hand flitted in indecision between my shirt collar and my hair. Finally, the receiver clicked and a voice answered.
“Hi, thank you for calling Counseling and Psychological Services, how can we help you today?”
I couldn’t help wanting to laugh. It was incredible how much a receptionist at a mental health center sounded like a drive-through employee. One happy brain and a side of functional family dynamic, please, oh and a milkshake. I told the anonymous voice that I was looking to set up an appointment with a counselor, anyone really. From there, the call was very logical, as he took inventory of all the things that had or had not lead me to call for help. Age? 20. Student? Full time. Ethnicity? White. Eating disorder? No. Issues making friends? Not that I’m aware of. Problems in class? It’s fine, just too expensive. Issues at home? A deep breath. Yes. With your parents? Yes. Abuse?
This was, after all, the reason I had called. To be honest about what had happened, to have someone listen, to tell the truth. My tongue curled behind my teeth, waiting to say no, the answer it had been trained to deliver. In my moment of indecision, I noticed that I had been clutching the comforter of my bed, morphing the soft fabric into a sweaty ball, suffocating the pastel blue and purple that swirled across it. Like lifting a wrecked car off a child trapped beneath, I forced my tongue out from behind my teeth and propelled it forward.
Yes, I answered.
I heard the receptionist pause and shuffle some papers around. A new line of questioning began, asking the particulars of events I had only recently seen as unusual. Had I been sexually abused? No. Had I been physically abused? A few times. Verbal abuse? I paused again.
I released my grip on the comforter.
“Thank you for your honesty”, he replied, his voice soft and calm.
The conversation moved forward to appointment scheduling and an explanation of services offered, but my mind hovered on his gratitude for my sad story. Why would he be grateful? It was his job, I supposed, to care. Still, in all the times I had spoken candidly about my parents, which I could count on one hand, no one had ever thanked me. Maybe, I thought with equal parts fear and hope, this was what therapy felt like.
Izzy López is originally from Boston, Massachusetts and is currently a creative writing student at the University of Pennsylvania. This is her first publication.
Jackie’s present to Brooke from two weeks before, Richard Scarry’s Mother Goose, was going for two dollars. The baby shoes she bought Brooke were on offer for a pittance as well. “Yard sale! Moving today! Last chance!” clamored the sign.
The screen door hung off its hinge. “Deirdre!” Jackie called softly to her daughter. The only sound was the baby crying. Deirdre’s baby, and Tonio’s. Not yours, Deirdre said last time. Jackie’s ideas about child-rearing were antiquated, Deirdre complained, her gifts well-meaning but off. The pink baby shoes were kidskin — but they were raising Brooke vegan. Mother Goose was sexist.
When she heard they were moving to Tempe, Arizona, to be near Tonio’s people, Jackie said, “I’ll never get to see Brooke.”
Deirdre said she could come visit. She didn’t mention how hard it was for Jackie to travel – how she’d forget her tickets, or her house keys, or even where she was going. Jackie had gone to the library and looked up the city they were moving to, tried to figure out exactly how far it was from Clifton, New Jersey, but couldn’t even find it on the map. An hour later she realized she was looking for Temple, Arizona – a place that didn’t even exist – when the place they were moving was Tempe. She was too embarrassed to tell Deirdre about her mistake, or even what she had learned from her research, which was that Tempe, Arizona was named after the Vale of Tempe in Greece, where in ancient times there was a temple to Apollo. Somehow she knew Deirdre wouldn’t be interested, or at least not interested in hearing this from her.
But she wasn’t there for that. She came to say good-bye to them, and to the baby.
Minutes passed. Then Tonio appeared. He was small and wiry and no match for her Deirdre, who was 5’9” with large, jutting hip bones. “Brooke dozed off before I could feed her,” he said wearily. “At least she stopped crying.”
“Isn’t Deirdre home?” Jackie asked.
“At the gym.” Then he left, too, to gas-up the U-Haul.
Brooke lay on her back in her crib, awake, violet eyes blinking, forehead wrinkled in puzzlement. Jackie wanted to say “I’ll make it up to you,” but knew it was a lie. Your parents are your destiny, not your brain-addled Grandma.
Instead Jackie chanted the one rhyme she could remember by heart: “Pussycat, pussycat where have you been? I’ve been to London to visit the Queen. Pussycat, pussycat, what did you there? I frightened a little mouse under her chair.”
The baby watched her. She kicked her bare feet and moved her small hands like birds, as if she recognized Jackie was her grandmother, as if she knew this was special, like a visitation from an angel.
Little mouse, Jackie crooned, lifting her in her arms.
In the taxi Jackie called to speed her and Brooke to the station, she untied the shoes’ ribbon laces, stroked the soft pink kidskin, and fitted them on.
Nancy Ludmerer‘s fiction and essays have appeared in Kenyon Review, Hospital Drive, Litro, Amsterdam Quarterly, Green Mountains Review, Cimarron Review, and Literal Latte, among other fine journals. Her flash fiction has been published in Vestal Review, North American Review, KYSO Flash, Grain, Night Train, and Blue Monday Review and her flash “First Night” (a prizewinner in River Styx) also appeared in Best Small Fictions 2016. She lives in New York City with her husband Malcolm and their cat Sandy, a brave survivor of Superstorm Sandy.
She and Sam were waiting for the bus when he started to get upset. She knew not to speak to him when this happened: he did not like her voice. He preferred other sounds: nonsensical sounds, and he made them now: ticks, and grunts, and shrieks. He crouched in the bus shelter and rocked back and forth, making noises and hitting his head. Everyone stared.
Why can’t you be normal? she thought, and then immediately hated herself.
Outside, there was a discarded coffee cup, and maybe this upset him. The bus stop was usually very clean. She picked up the cup, flattened and smeared with a muddy boot-print, and discarded it into the bin at the corner. Please calm down, she prayed. She did not have money for a cab, and Sam’s therapy session was the only hour where she got some peace. Where she could close her eyes for just a minute, and not worry about an outburst.
The bus approached and Sam had calmed significantly, but a man in a coat was annoyed. She could tell he was hesitating, which people sometimes did. They debated whether to wait for the next bus, rather than ride with her son.
Sam held her hand, but did not look at her. They stepped onto the bus and she paid the fare, and the man got on behind them.
They took the bus at this hour because it wasn’t crowded: the first seats were usually available, where Sam liked to sit. He sat there now and looked at his fingers.
“HOW OLD?” boomed the man behind her.
“Six,” she glared.
“He shouldn’t sit in the disabled seats!”
Now she was angry. Wasn’t it clear that her son was disabled?
No, she would not apologize for Sam. The man shuffled past, muttering under his breath. As the bus pulled away she fought back tears. She was tired. She needed a hug, but Sam hated that: hated to be touched. A hug would set off an episode, so she would have to do without. Isn’t that what children were for? To give hugs? She turned away, and looked out the window, hiding her tears.
Leah Jane Esau is an award-winning playwright and fiction writer. Her fiction has appeared in PANK, Bodega Magazine, Monkeybicycle, The New Quarterly, Grain, The Dalhousie Review and upcoming in the South Dakota Review. Her short story “Dream Interpretation” was a finalist for the Writer’s Trust of Canada’s Bronwen Wallace Award.
I held his toe in my hand. The toe had become disengaged from its disinterred paw. I hadn’t meant to dig up the body. In my mania for replanting I excavated an empty spot in the garden, completely forgetting what I’d buried there.
I could have had Nick cremated and tossed his ashes, the way I did with half of Mama. But I couldn’t do that to a creature I loved. A body should be returned to the earth in its original state, even if it’s stiff with rigor mortis and bled out.
Nick was diabetic and I gave him insulin shots for years. Not a people-friendly cat, he preferred the other felines, particularly Maxwell who tolerated being sodomized. I’d find them in the basement on a shelf near the towels, Nick on Max’s back happily humping away, and Max wearing a stoic expression. A vet in New Orleans rescued Maxwell, who, in turn, my mother rescued. Mama was kind to strays.
I brought Max and another cat I’d rescued, Miss Mouse, with me when I moved to New York. Nick was a Yankee cat I adopted from an upper west side Manhattan rescue. My husband and I called him “Baby” the first year we got him. Not long afterwards I got pregnant with our first child, a son.
I reburied Nick’s toe with the azalea. His skull I tossed off into the woods. I found it later, after I’d replanted the shrub. I buried the other half of Mama’s ashes with the corpse of a beloved dog named Comus. Nick wouldn’t have minded. Like my mother, he didn’t have truck with boundaries. Mama wouldn’t have minded either. She loved dogs more than anything.
Lucinda Kempe has had work published Jellyfish Review, Summerset Review, Matter Press’s Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, decomP, and Corium. She won the Joseph Kelly Prize for Creative Writing in 2015 and is an M.F.A. candidate in writing and creative literature at Stony Brook University.