The idea for this story actually came from a dream. I dreamed about a girl who couldn't talk and...
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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.