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And Then I Cried
Author's note: The idea for this story actually came from a dream. I dreamed about a girl who couldn't talk and who used music to overcome her psychological issues.
The car door slams. I trail behind my mother and father as we walk toward my school. I want to duck behind one of the columns and stay there forever, let my parents keep walking, so they can do this. Not me.
But my father turns back just as this thought occurs to me and tells me to hurry up. I quicken my pace and stare at the ground, wishing I would never stop walking, never get where we're going. My parents pause and turn to go inside. I dilly-dally for a moment, counting the rugged stones on the floor. But then my mother clears her throat, and I follow them in.
Too soon, we're sitting in plastic chairs in a small waiting room, in a section of the school I rarely visit. There is silence, and then my mother speaks.
"Everybody has strengths and weaknesses," she says. "For example, I've never been a fast reader." I keep my eyes on my lap, my fingers clutching the edge of the chair. "Paul, what's something you're not great at?"
My father is quiet for a second. "I have a hard time with number games like Sudoku," he says. Something inside me vibrates, laughing. This has absolutely nothing to do with Sudoku.
"You see?" my mother asks. I neither nod nor shake my head. I’m not going to go along with this, and she doesn’t need an answer. I just keep clenching the chair, staring at it.
The door in front of us opens, and a lady comes out. She is stiff in her manner and her dress, wears a stupid name tag on her chest that says “Sarah Jackson” and “school counselor”. She smiles at me, a fake smile, but I don't let her catch my eye. I clench the seat tighter. I hate this. “Paul and Amy Samson?” she asks. My parents nod. "I’m the one who spoke to you on the phone.” They smile in a way that tells her they wish she’d get on with things.
She glances at me, then looks back at them. “Would any of you like something to drink?”
“I’d love some coffee,” my father says. “Do you have decaf?”
She nods. “You can go on in," she says. "I'll be right there." She leaves through another door, to my left. My mother gets up and drags my father and me into the room the lady just came from.
As I sit down, my mother reaches out and puts her hand on the edge of my shoulder. I don't move, even though every molecule in my body is telling me to shrug her hand off.
"Anna?" I look up at her. "Don't make this so hard."
My eyes can't stay there, can't let her look into them. I move my gaze to the desk in front of us, an empty place to stare at. Nothing in the simple brown wood tries to mess with my thoughts, get into my head. Change me.
My mother opens the magazine she's brought and pretends to read an article about furnishing houses so they feel larger than they actually are, when I know she’s watching the door and waiting for the lady to come back. I wish I'd brought a book, just so I could have something to busy myself with, something for a reason not to stare into everyone's eyes. A few quiet moments pass.
My father keeps checking his phone, wanting someone to message him and get him out of this. My mother glares at him every time he does it, peering up from her magazine and pulling her glasses down so she can see him in the eyes. He looks ashamed and starts whistling a Bob Dylan song.
I look around. The desk reminds me of my mother's—organized, neat, empty. There is a picture frame displayed in the front. A younger version of the lady smiles, sitting next to a small boy at a piano. There is music on the stand, and the boy's smile is slightly faltered, perhaps in a yearning to return to the piece. This lady is teaching her son how to play the piano.
My parents made me take piano lessons for three years, starting when I turned seven. They bought a cheap keyboard on eBay and stuck it in our living room next to all the antiques. They seemed to think that my learning to play would make me smarter, more interesting. And I went along with it, too, banging out rhythms with Sue-Ellen, the teacher they hired. I'd sit on the piano bench every Tuesday and play along, mostly stupid old tunes like "Mary Had a Little Lamb" and "We Wish You a Merry Christmas." It was easy, tiresome. I never got around to learning to sight-read, but I’d always had a good ear for music and could replicate songs she played and pretend I was memorizing the mnemonics about good boys and cars, fat cats and baloney.
Finally, my old, stronger self told them I wasn't going to do it anymore, and Sue-Ellen packed up her piano books, climbed into her Prius, and never darkened our doorstep again.
My parents refused to do away with our keyboard, though. It stays in the living room, reminding me of the woes of never-ending songs. My little sister Nicole survived her seventh year without a word about music lessons. I never said anything, even though I knew it was unfair. And then when she turned nine, she decided she wanted to learn to play the trumpet. She's the musician of the house now, puffing out wedding marches day on end. She's really good, too, first chair in the band at school.
I can’t tell you if the keyboard is still there. It disappeared over the years, its keys covered by old magazines and school papers tossed carelessly onto it, and it could just as well have been put in the attic and replaced by a plastic table and no one would know. The music, scattered with notes that I could never read, was thrown away the day of Sue-Ellen’s departure. I’m sure my parents saw them in the garbage but chose not to pick a fight. Not then, not ever.
The door opens, and the lady comes in. I stare back at the desk and let her introduce herself (again). My parents stand up and shake her hand. She gives my father coffee in a mud-colored cup. I don't move.
"Anna," my father calls from a distance. I look up, focus my attention on him, let my eyes fly right by Sarah Jackson. "Introduce yourself."
I look back down at the desk. Mrs. Jackson is watching me. She says something to my father in a quiet tone. I close my ears, don’t let myself hear it. He turns away from her and looks back at me. I stay standing there, lips sealed shut, and I can’t stand it.
The pressure is making me want to scream. I try to open my mouth, to get my voice to come, but it won't. Why would it now, if it never does?
My father checks his phone again. My mother sits back down, pulls the edge of his coat so he will, too.
The lady sits at the desk and smiles at me. I look back at the picture.
I didn't touch a piano again until years later, the first day of ninth grade. I'd spent the entire day with my stomach tight, ears open, in constant alert mode.
At the end of the day, I decided to go outside through a back exit, and I passed a piano on my way to the other side of the school. It was an old one, but not unused. Music sat on its stand, and someone had forgotten to cover the keys. I pulled out the bench, a sturdy one. Knowing my father would be about twenty minutes late picking me up, I sat and began to play.
Something about playing on a real piano, or perhaps not having Sue-Ellen looking over my shoulder, made it come easier now. Notes poured out of me, cloudy, minor ones. I played for what felt like an hour and rambled on in different keys, lacking refrain.
I finally got up regretfully and proceeded out the way I'd been planning to. As I'd expected, my father had just arrived. He rattled off apologies, but I just nodded. I didn't care.
I can tell my mother does not like the seating arrangement. She keeps chancing looks at me as Mrs. Jackson speaks, something about confidentiality. She wants to be between my father and me, so she can take turns pinching us if we’re screwing up.
When Mrs. Jackson is done talking bullshit about why Mr. Forrester was supposed to tell, she turns to me, eyes soft. Then, with no pause, no second of thought, she gives me a meaningful look and asks me to pull my sleeve back and show them, ruins it all.
I want to say no, that this is stupid, that I shouldn’t even be here. But my mouth will not open and my father reaches over the table and rips my left sleeve to my elbow. And then there they are, white slivers and magenta scabs painted criss-cross on my forearm, crystal-clear in the bright florescent light. My mother covers her gasp with her right hand, still holding that stupid magazine. But Sarah Jackson doesn’t look away.
That piano became a refuge for me. I went every day after school and played, helplessly tried to push those thoughts away, the ones that pressed out from inside my skull all through classes. They’re watching you, they said. They’re judging you. Sometimes I even went during class, left like I was going to the bathroom and just didn’t come back.
My meandering melodies slowly carved into songs, patterns that I remembered but never named. I played them over and over in my head at home, told myself to go to school another day just to get those minutes at the piano. I always had time after school because my father had a busy schedule, and picking me up at three on the nose was just too hard for him.
At the quarter break, my parents weren’t happy with my grades. “Two D’s?” my mother said. “I just don’t understand.” It was the same as always: disappointment/wish you were more like Nicole, wishyouweremorelikeNicole. There were parent-teacher conferences that ended with complicated plans for my achievement (tutoring and grade checks) that each fizzled out after a couple weeks. They sent me to one of the guidance counselors once, but I refused to speak, just like always. She told my parents that I was being stubborn, that this was just a phase.
And I told them that was true, that if they left me alone I might stop. I lied and lied and lied, but they listened, didn’t bug me anymore about my bad grades, or my mouth being glued shut at the grocery store, or house parties, or my sister’s concert. They even let me stay home once or twice.
Mrs. Jackson traces the lines on my arm, doesn’t speak just yet. My mom and dad can’t look at the cuts. They try to hide their disgust, but I see my mother’s hands stiffen, my father check his phone again, this time more urgently.
“I think we should talk about what’s been going on,” Mrs. Jackson says.
My mother turns her head and looks at me in the eyes, dares my father to keep looking at his phone screen.
My fingers are clammy, still glued to the chair. My eyes stay on the edge of the desk.
My breath comes, shaky. But I can’t get this mouth to open, to scream how ridiculous the whole thing is. I shake my head.
Another few seconds pass. “Anna, this isn’t funny. Open your goddamn mouth and talk.” My father’s fingers are clutching his phone tighter now. His eyes don’t blink, just keep staring at my arm. He needs to get this meeting over with so he can get back to work. He has two meetings and three people to fire before the day ends, and I have already ruined his schedule.
I hear Sarah Jackson’s earrings tingle as she shakes her head. “Don’t push this.”
He sits back on his chair, glaring now at her.
“Anna? Would you rather have this conversation in private?” I close my eyes and nod my head. I hear my parents get up and leave. The door slams. I open them again.
Sarah Jackson looks into my eyes. A trickle of shame slips down my throat. “Mr. Forrester said you might be… angry. About him telling me what’s going on.” No shit, I want to say. “Are you?”
I nod slowly. I can’t stop seeing his face in my head. I want to slap myself for opening up.
“Anna? Can you tell me about what’s going on?”
I shake my head, pull my sleeve back down and hide the cuts. I watch the second-hand make a 360° turn. Sarah Jackson is watching my eyes.
“Why not?” I shrug. How could I explain? She wouldn’t understand, anyway. Nobody would. “Can I ask you something else, then?” She doesn’t wait for an answer. “You haven’t said anything since I’ve met you.” That’s not a question. “Do you not like…talking?”
I don’t say anything, just let my hand slip to my forearm and press on the cuts, hard. Pain drifts up my arm. Breathe.
“Because whenever someone tries to get you to talk, you seem to become shy, like talking makes you anxious.”
My eyes shoot back to the clock. I have a science report due tomorrow that I haven’t started yet, and it’s 4:47.
Sarah Jackson is looking at me like she’s just told me a secret. Are all counselors like this, I wonder, reading people’s faces and learning more about them in five minutes than their parents can in five months?
My eyes slip into a trance. She’s watching my lips, now. “Anna, do you want to write it down?” Want to? No. The cramps in my stomach feel like the ones I get during my period, except higher, halfway to my chest, and sharper. She hands me a pen, the back of a used sheet of paper.
I take it and uncap the pen. I slowly write three letters, all caps. YES. She nods, and I wait for her to say, “I told you so.”
“Is that anxiety part of what’s going on?” she asks. I underline the word. “Could we discuss that a little bit?” My stomach throbs. I take the pen in my hand again. I don’t want to talk about it. She nods. “That’s okay.” My fingers are slipping off the chair. I hate that she notices it, hate that I have to watch her eyes come back up to my face, pretend she didn’t. We sit like that for a while, and I want to get out of the suffocation of this room, her gaze.
Mr. Forrester found me in that sun-shine hallway, my hands slipping over keys because that was the only thing I could ever do anymore. He came up behind me, said, “You’re very talented.” I turned around, startled, and there he was. I’d seen him before, passionately directing the choir for the open house in slacks and a tie. He was wearing jeans, now.
My eyes flickered to the keys on the piano, and my mouth was shut. “Did you write that?” he asked. My stomach was killing me. With as little movement as I could manage, I nodded. Maybe he would leave me alone. “Nice,” he said. “Listen, the choir needs an accompanist. Would you be interested?” There was a small pause.
I was counting to ten in my head, trying to make my stomach stop squirming. One two three four five six seven eight nine ten. Onetwothreefourfivesixseveneightnineten.
He was watching me. I clenched my teeth tighter and shook my head again. Me, perform in front of people? What if I messed up? Or what if they didn’t like the way I was playing the song, or what I’d worn? And being an accompanist meant rehearsals, chitchat/howareyou’s/talkingtalking.
He didn’t shrug, though, or act like it wasn’t a big deal that I didn’t want to talk or be the accompanist. Instead, he stayed and waited for a better answer. He stood next to me on the bench and yawned. I remember thinking why is he so close to me? And then he asked me if I had any experience with music. I knew that if I said yes, he’d ask what, so I just shook my head again. I needed to get out of there.
“Really?” he asked. “Not even piano lessons?” He was going nowhere with me. Hadn’t he heard, through teachers’ whispered conversations about students that everyone knew they did have, that I didn’t talk, that I was lazy, and not-all-that-bright, and anti-social? Hadn’t he heard that I was not-the-kind-of-kid-for-extra-curriculars, no sirree, and that if you wanted any of that, you should just wait for myperfectsister, who was to be shipped here in four years?
I shook my head and gingerly covered the piano, ready to leave. But he reached out and pulled the cover up. He played something short, and then said, “Can you play that back?” I slipped a couple inches away from him on the bench, moving to a higher key. A repeat of the notes he’d played twinkled out of the piano quietly. “Very good,” he said. And then he stood up.
He was finally leaving. Thank the Lord. But then he stuck his hand out. “I’m Mr. Forrester, the choir director and music teacher. You’re Anna, right?” My first thought was, how does he know my name? Then I focused on the fact that he was expecting me to shake his hand, and that was so not going to happen. The butterflies in my stomach were swarming now, and I needed to get to the bathroom to put cold water on my face.
He shrugged and dropped his hand. And then he gave up, smiled and said, “Well, if you change your mind, I’d love to have you play for us. You have a good afternoon.” And he was walking away, and the butterflies were calming down. But they left behind an ache in my chest that wasn’t made better by the cool water I put on my neck and the time I sat with my head on my thighs on a toilet.
My father was too happy about another big promotion that he didn’t notice anything different when I got in the car.
“We need to find another way for you to cope with what you’re feeling,” Sarah Jackson says. I clench me teeth. Not going to happen. But from too many students pouring into her office year after year, she knows what I want to say, what’s behind the anger, and the denial, and the fingers on my hands grasping the chair. I can’t stop.
Sarah Jackson finally calls to my parents that they can come in now. When they resume their seats (my mother has moved to her preferred position), she says she thinks I should see a therapist. I don’t hear what comes next because I’m in shock. The cramps are gone and my mouth is dry and breath is not coming into my lungs. A therapist. I’m mouthing it deep in my throat, but my mind can’t wrap itself around the idea.
“There are definitely underlying issues going on besides the self-harm,” she says. This is science language now, and I’d be best to close my ears. But this is about me. “Anxiety, and possibly depression.”
My parents are serious now. Therapy is the real deal, especially coupled with phrases like “anxiety” and “depression.” My father’s phone is finally safe in his pocket, and he suddenly wants to stay.
My mother speaks first. “What kind of anxiety?” she asks.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see Sarah Jackson’s eyes flash to me and back to my mom. But she decides my confidentiality is not important in the eyes of my mother. “Social anxiety,” she says. “Issues with talking.”
I want to hide myself. This is so stupid. I’m fine, I want to say. I don’t need therapy. I don’t need anything. But my mouth can’t seem to form the words, won’t even open for me. Sarah Jackson is eyeing me again.
But my parents are nodding. This all makes sense to them. I don’t have an attitude problem; I have a mind problem.
“Of course,” Sarah Jackson says, “The therapist will probably want to talk to her before making any diagnoses. But that’s my best guess, from what I talked to Anna about.”
I hate hearing people say my name. I’m standing right next to them, and I still feel as if I’m eavesdropping.
“Do you have any suggestions of a therapist who would work well with her?” My mother asks.
Please don’t do this to me, I silently plea. This is just one time, I want to say. One offense. I’ll stop cutting hide them from you better, cut on my stomach and thighs where you can’t see.
I reach over to my arm and dig my nails into it, try not to show how much better it makes me feel. Sarah Jackson is listing phone numbers now, though, and names and specialties, MDs and Psy. D’s and PhD’s. They can’t see me. And my hands go limp and I can no longer think, have let the cloud settle over my head like all those days in choir, the storm thundering in my stomach and the deep weight on my chest. There are just blurry images, whisperwhisper voices, and I am not noticed in the flurry for treatment, and grade-revival, and future teacher-conferences. My father’s phone is away and they are standing up. Game over. We all fall down.
When my alarm rings the next morning (five thirty, time to wake up), I open my eyes and shut it off. Why should I go to choir? My parents mother is pissed when I don’t come down for breakfast until seven thirty, though. She’s sitting at the counter, drinking a cup of highly sweetened coffee when I finally come down, and she is surprised.
“Anna? Why didn’t’ you wake up early to go to choir?” I slept great, Mom, thanks for asking. But I don’t say that, just shrug and get a day-old muffin sitting on the counter and a hard-boiled egg. She scowls at me. “Just because Mr. Forrester told the guidance counselor abou—” I hear Nicole coming down the stairs.
“Just—stop,” I say, quietly. It shuts her up because I never talk, and when I do it’s a real treat. Nicole is too crusty-eyed to notice anything. She puts a piece of bread into the toaster and takes the jam I am about to spread on my muffin. It’s not worth it to tell her how rude that is.
My father is long gone, halfway to Salem by now. I take a bite of the muffin while my mother reminds my sister to bring her trumpet to school. It tastes like sugar-less pie crust.
I get up, throw it away and un-shell my egg over the garbage. Then I take my bag from the hook next to the door and leave, and I’m already on the sidewalk when my mom yells goodbye.
I know my teachers have been given my secrets because their eyes are soft and they keep looking at me during class. I can feel the treadmills in their minds turning, thinking should I talk to her? Should I show my support? Is she okay?
At lunch, I can’t face sitting at another busy table, trying to breathe when all I can do is clench the bench and try not to act weird. I hike cross-country to the piano on the other side of the school and start playing. I can’t figure out why it makes me feel so much better.
The night after I met Mr. Forrester, he called my parents and told them about his request for me to be the accompanist. My parents were so excited. My dad, apparently, had sung in a choir in high school. I think my mother was more interested in it because it meant my grades would go up.
Nobody asked if I wanted to do it. Nobody said anything about how good at piano Mr. Forrester said I was, or that I’d have to get up at the crack of dawn.
And then, the next morning, I was pushed onto the sidewalk at six fifteen to walk to choir. Mr. Forrester put me on the piano bench the minute I got there and played through the songs the choir was working on. It didn’t take me long to master them. But the prospect of playing them in front of the entire choir made my stomach throb.
The choir kids slowly filtered in. They arranged themselves in what I recalled to be “sopranos”, “altos”, “tenors”, and “basses”. I kept to the bench, counting the keys on the piano over and over again.
But six forty-five came, and Mr. Forrester told me to stand up and introduce myself. I got the standing up part. But then the nerves hit me, clouds of tiny whispers in my head getting louder and louder and my stomach collapsing in on top of itself. They were all looking at me. They were watching me and waiting for me to mess up. Mr. Forrester’s eyes kept flashing between the choir and me.
I licked my lips and pulled my hair behind my ear. Took a breath. Another. But my mouth was dry and my throat hurt, and I couldn’t get the words to form on my tongue: My name is Anna. That was all I had to say. But my knees felt like they were about to buckle.
“We have an accompanist!” Mr. Forrester said, rescuing me. I moved back toward the piano bench. Mr. Forrester looked at me questionably. I pointed at the door, like I needed to go to the bathroom, but he shook his head. “We have to start rehearsal. Everybody, this is Anna.” And I sat down and played the music, relieved.
After rehearsal, once the choir had filed out, Mr. Forrester came over. “Good job today,” he said. “I’ve never seen someone master music so quickly.” I curved smiled, but couldn’t let thanks escape from my lips. I picked up my bag and left. But I knew that Mr. Forrester had noticed what so many others had passed off as laziness, or shyness. I knew he could see the anxiety in my eyes, the fear and the sadness in the way I stared at the piano. He could see it more than I could.
I should have known that he would find me here. Mr. Forrester comes up and stands next to the bench, and I stop playing. He kind-of smiles at me and tilts his head, looking at my hands. My heart starts racing again. The butterflies are back, too. Damn it.
“Hi Anna,” he says. “How’re you doing?” I can’t look at him. I stare at the ground this time. He waits another second.
“F-fine,” I whisper. I pull the sleeve down further. He looks back at me.
“You didn’t come to choir,” he says. It’s meant as a question, but I don’t answer. He sighs. “We need you.”
I keep my eyes on my hands folded on my lap. I get halfway through counting the keys when he speaks again.
“How did the meeting go?”
I clench my teeth. Like hell.
“Look. Anna.” He takes a deep breath. “I didn’t promise I wouldn’t tell anyone about it.”
I shake my head. “But I t-trusted you.”
“I know you did. That’s why I asked about the scars. Because I knew that, if you were going to talk to anyone about them, you would talk to me.” He takes a breath. “I’m a teacher, and when a student is struggling, I have an obligation to help. And you’re struggling.”
“I’m fine.” A beat.
“Sarah doesn’t think so.”
I close the piano, loudly. But I still whisper, can’t be too loud. “What do you mean?”
“Well, she put you on Crisis Prevention.” I look up and stare into his face.
“What are you talking about?”
“Crisis Prevention. CP for short. It’s just a way for staff to know when students are struggling and at risk for hurting themselves. They established it after multiple suicides over a couple of years.”
“That’s…ridiculous,” I say, looking back down. So everyone thinks I’m a suicide risk? The throbs in my stomach are increasing, thoughts ripping me apart. “I’m not trying to kill myself.”
“But.” Mr. Forrester slips his hand to my arm and pulls the sleeve back. And I yank it down again, cross my fingers that he didn’t notice. But of course he did. He takes another deep breath.
“Anna.” He looks up at my face. “One of those cuts wasn’t there the day before yesterday.” Get away from me.
“This is why you’re on CP,” he says. “I’ll be right back.” He shuffles into the music room and comes out with a bandage. (My God. Does he keep them in his office?) I don’t say anything when he puts it on the new cut.
“What did you use to make that cut?” he asks.
“What did you use?”
Shake my head.
But his face gets tense. “Listen to me. Either you tell me how you cut yourself, or I’m going to take you to the Sarah’s office right now, and you can tell her.”
Please no. And I realize that this must be “CP” protocol, and he’s supposed to collect the weapon and… report it. So I open my mouth, ruin myself all over again. Because there is no way for me to lie.
“A razor,” I say.
“Where is it?”
I reach into my bag sitting next to me on the bench and pull it out, pressing it into my thumb as I do it. Relief spreads up my arm.
He nods as he takes it from me. “Thank you.” He puts it into his pocket and looks back at me.
“I can’t force you to, because I’m not quite sure that you did this at school, but I really want you to go see Mrs. Jackson.”
At first, I don’t want to go. But then I realize it’s better to go now than be called out of class. I nod at him. He follows me to the unfamiliar office and makes me wait outside while he’s talking to her. I sit on that stupid plastic bench again, waiting to be punished.
The throbs are increasing. I wish I were in class—anything would be better than this.
I hear something loud reverberate from inside the doorway. Mr. Forrester’s voice. Loud, like he’s yelling. I know it’s wrong, but I want to know. So I press my ear against the door.
“You don’t know that I’m not.” Female voice. Sarah Jackson.
“She cut herself again. That’s not supposed to be happening. You’re supposed to be monitoring her, or something.”
“What’s going on between Anna and me is confidential. But I can assure you steps are being taken. Both her parents know what is going on, and she’s already been put on CP.”
Why are they making such a big deal about this?
“Well, okay. That’s good. Do you want me to file an incident report?” Oh, great. An incident report.
“That’s all right.” Thank God. “I’d like to talk to her, though. Thank you for making sure she was okay.” Oh my God. Are they serious?
“No problem. Anytime.” I hear footsteps.
I scramble back to my seat in time for Mr. Forrester to emerge from the door. He holds the door open and watches me step in and sit in the stiff-backed chair. The door slams behind him, and I’m alone with Sarah Jackson.
She holds up the razor. “Mr. Forrester told me about what happened.” I bite my lip. “I don’t know if you know why he took the razor and bandaged the cut, but it’s because I’ve put you on Crisis Prevention.”
I nod quickly and stare at the desk. “Do you know if your parents have made an appointment with a therapist yet?”
I shake my head. I keep forgetting about the whole therapist thing.
“May I see the cut?” she asks. I shrug, and she pulls my sleeve down and looks at the bandage, ugly dark blood seeping through, even though Mr. Forrester wrapped it five times around. “Wow. That’s pretty deep, Anna.” I shrug again, start chewing my nails.
We sit in silence for a minute.
“So… you feel comfortable talking to Mr. Forrester?” I consider this for a moment. I guess I do. Kind of weird, that I chose him to talk to. But somehow, he doesn’t make me as nervous as other people. He understands. Or understood, I guess.
“Did you talk about… why you hurt yourself with him?” I think back. The sensory things, yes, the emptiness, the control. The pressing thoughts that have grown immune to any other attempts to chase them away.
Not the other things, though. Not that face, the inklings squirming just beneath my ribs, memories ripping my lungs apart, pushing my teeth together and binding my jaw—
But I will not go there. I will not think.
I shake my head. She nods. “Okay.” She checks her watch. “Listen, I’m sorry, but I have someone else I’m seeing in just a couple minutes. You can go to class.” She digs in her front desk drawer and hands me a hall pass.
As I’m leaving, she speaks: “You can come in anytime to talk to me. If you’re feeling… sad. Or anxious. If you feel like you need to hurt yourself, try coming here. I might be able to help.” I nod. But no way am I ever coming in here voluntarily.
Thank God is pounding in my head as I walk back to class.
When I get home, my mother tells me I have to clean my room. I’m standing with one of my feet on the first stair with a knife held between my arm and ribs, beneath my shirt, and I stop in mid step and make a face.
“Why?” I am a good, good girl today because I have talked twice, so she ignores the face I’m making.
“A party planner is coming tomorrow to check out the house.” What party? I want to ask, We’re having a party? But she answers me: “And you’ll need it cleaned for the family reunion, too.” A pause.
And then I’m careening up the stairs and into my room because something beneath my ribcage is stirring. I have to get out of my mother’s gaze before I turn myself inside out.
Family reunion means my mother’s side, smiling relatives asking questions about college because they’ve forgotten I’m only a freshman, aunts and second cousins once removed clutching babies to their hips, and–
I take the knife I brought upstairs from under my shirt in my sweaty fingers. No time for breath. I clench the handle until my hand hurts. Then I graze the knife across my left hip and dig it in far enough to make my mind scream.
This is real. This is control. This is letting the pain seep out in one two fivemilliondrops of blood. I grab a towel and apply pressure on the cuts, three sweet straight lines kissing my bones.
This is forgetting.
When I’ve slipped the knife into the bottom drawer of my desk, I pull three band aides from my desk and put them on the cuts. All night they get to heal, and in the morning I’ll rip the band aides off and stuff them underneath unused tissues in my trash. Someone knocks. I open the door, and Nicole is standing there with a worksheet in her hand. “Will you help me with my homework?” she asks. Every day. No, I tell her with my eyes, the frown on my face. I have homework, too, weeks and weeks of half-done sets of math problems and essay corrections and science questions. I need to be left alone. She stands there for another second, and I wait for her to leave. She always does. And then, “Did you hear about the family reunion?” This is said in a softer voice, almost a whisper. Almost… scared. I nod my head. “You know he’ll be there, and what if—” I push the doorknob in my clammy hand forward, let the bang of the door make her run back to her room. Get f*ing out of here, I want to scream. Don’t let me hear you bring that up again. Don’t let me ever hear that again. I sit on my bed, try not to remember what she said. I will not go there. I will not go there. I will not go there. I dig my fingernails into my left hand, make the pain the only thing in my mind, chase away the too-clear features of that face, face contorted with rage, face contorted with sickening pleasure. I feel wetness on my fingers now and know I’ve broken the skin, that it will show even if I wear a long sleeved shirt, but I don’t care. My jaw is locked and my teeth hurt from pressing together. I sit up on my bed, tense. It took me a long time to figure out how to scream without opening my mouth. Mom is angry when she discovers I have not cleaned my room. Her mouth opens and yells grimy words, mad mad mad. I nod and go back to my room. I don’t say the truth, that I’m scared to pick up my floor and look under my bed because I don’t know what I’ll find there. I’m scared to throw all the crap away and be left with nothing but memories. Sterile clean, nothing but shiny floor and empty bed, sharp edges to the square of my room. So I make my bed and push the stuff on the floor behind my bookshelf where she won’t be able to see it when she looks through my doorway. The face is in my dreams, too, makes me wake up with my jaw hurting from not screaming. No choir again, and this time Mom doesn’t say anything. My friend Stacy asks why I wasn’t in class for a half hour after lunch yesterday. I shrug. My mind panics again, same feelings buzzing underneath my fingernails, pangs in my abdomen. I leave the lunch table as soon as I can, but I can’t walk fast enough to not hear whispers. I tell myself, who cares. But the voices in my mind are swarming, attacking my weak fight. Those kids are whispering about you, they say. They think you’re a freak. I dig my nails into the cuts on my wrist and move out of the cafeteria and into the hall, empty. In math, I see Mrs. Mills staring at my left hand, red scabs in the shape of mini-crescents, vertical curve made from my hand. I pull my sweatshirt sleeve further down, and she finally looks away. Geometry isn’t so bad. The kids in my class are quiet, and there are never any discussions in math. Mrs. Mills never calls on me, either. I prop my book up on my desk and work on the homework for tonight. When the smart girl sitting next to me pokes me and says, “Why aren’t you doing the classwork?” I just shrug and keep paying attention to the homework. I don’t need the pain, I tell myself. I’m fine. Mom smiles at me when I get home. She’s happy that I’ve cleaned my room. I bite my lip and do homework at the kitchen table while she and Nicole discuss a trumpet emergency in tense voices. Stacy calls before dinner. I don’t understand why she likes me so much. I can talk on the phone (thank God), but all she wants to do is gossip about her crush Brian and Gwen’s breakup. I mhm and yeah until my mother calls for dinner. Human contact is good, I tell myself. At dinner, Nicole vents about her music teacher. “The music he picks is so easy,” she says. “I mean, it’s not that I want something really hard, I just like to be challenged, you know?” I snort. I bet the rest of the kids in her class would beat her up if they heard this conversation. There is a recital on Tuesday, and I am “absolutely expected to attend.” I nod and retreat to my bedroom, where I fall asleep at eight o’clock because there is no one to tell me not to. The nightmares wake me up screaming and scratching at my throat. I bury my head in pillows and take a sleeping pill from my mother’s medicine cabinet. In the morning, I have long red scratches on my neck. Mom wakes me up at six fifteen and insists that I go to choir. She says Mr. Forrester called the previous night and said they need me. I pull on a long-sleeved shirt and jeans and get to choir five minutes late, sipping hot water from a thermos. During rehearsal, Mr. Forrester keeps looking at me, concerned. I play louder and harder. I am dead inside. He stops me on my way out. “Wait a moment, Anna,” he says. I just keep walking, shrug his hand off forcefully and ignore the glances people are giving me. Stacy corners me on my way to science to tell me that Brian and she IMed last night for an hour. I nod and escape. The first time I cut, it was the middle of summer and I used the sharp part of a tape dispenser. I was at home wrapping Nicole’s birthday present, and it happened by accident first, but the pain was so wonderful that I dug it into my wrist for so long I got a bruise. The pain was revolutionary. I’d never felt more real and in control in my life. It shattered the images in my head and blinded me, razor-sharp lines cutting all memories in half. It felt wonderful to breathe deeply again. After that, I stole a knife from the kitchen and kept it in my room, slipped between two shirts in my closet. I didn’t even try to stop. It was the only thing keeping me from taking all of my mother’s sleeping pills, got me through the nightmares and Nicole’s whispers in my ear, scared whispers. I felt bad that I couldn’t help her, that she was as alone as I was, but younger and not used to being so lonely. I felt bad that people were getting injured every day overseas and I was causing pain to myself on purpose. But I couldn’t stop. When I get home, my mother tells me I have an appointment with a therapist tomorrow at 4:00, after school. I nod my head like I’m listening, but inside me something is dripping down my stomach and my mind isn’t moving anymore. Somehow I thought they’d forgotten. “Her name is Dr. Sandy,” my mother says, sipping iced tea and reading Newsweek. “She has an office downtown.” She flips the page. My bag is slipping off my shoulder. This is actually happening. I am seeing a therapist and I am crazy and everyone knows it. And the family reunion is inching closer every day and he is coming and I have to be there. With him. And my mother is talking about it like it is no big deal, like she’s used to sending her daughter off to a shrink. Like it’s not a huge surprise that I’m messed up. I tell myself, stop thinking that. You’re being stupid. But the knowledge of Nicole’s perfection is drilling holes in my brain. I search the living room for the old keyboard. It’s under the couch, like someone tried to hide it. I lug it to the garage when my mother is looking the other way and play for hours. I tell myself I’ll wait a week before I cut myself again. Yeah, right.