BY KELLY MCLENNON - MINNESOTA, UNITED STATES
Kelly McLennon writes poetry and fiction. She earned her B.A. in English from Sonoma State University and is currently working toward her MFA at Concordia St Paul. A former intern at Copper Canyon Press, the California native now lives in Minneapolis and is an assistant poetry editor for Narrative Magazine.
[Content warning: mention of suicide]
Maybe it was my fault, after all. I broke the number one rule of the group: do not speak to each other outside of therapy. We only knew each other by first names, and were not permitted to exchange phone numbers, email addresses, social media handles, none of it. The moment we were released from the table-less room with the chairs in a circle, we were to act as if every person to whom we’d just been telling our deepest secrets, our tenderest wounds—as if they were all strangers. Lower than strangers.
But when you’ve been in group for as long as I have, you get comfortable with the faces, even as they come and go, each new addition filled with an entirely new yet entirely the same set of problems, hoping the empathy of other broken people under the guiding hand of a gentle therapist can be what they need to go back to “normal.”
T. was the only one who’d been attending longer than me, though I didn’t know how much longer, as that tidbit had never come up in group. He looked about my age, maybe even a little younger, mid-twenties or so. He had shaggy brown hair and always wore solid color button-up shirts over gray jeans and Vans. He was slightly below average height, but he didn’t seem the kind of guy to be hung-up on it and was of an average build. Average.
But T. and I had developed a rapport of sorts over the months. It almost felt like we were the therapist’s right-hand helpers, though she would probably question us on that, why we felt this way.
Superiority? Paternalism? A need to be helpful, or a need to feel better than the others?
I suppose the reasoning doesn’t really matter. Not anymore, at least.
It was just after session let out, a nondescript late Wednesday afternoon in May. Average, maybe. No one had cried that day. No one had gotten heavy enough for it. A holding-pattern sort of session for all of us. I’d had little worth sharing; just yet another strained phone call with my mother. She, always asking more of me than I can give. I, always wishing I could be the daughter she wants me to be. It’s practically a cliché, that everything in therapy can be traced back to your mom, but it’s only funny because it’s kind of true.
The therapist held the door, and the seven of us spilled out of the room like cars just out of a bottleneck, separating out into the widened selection of lanes after the claustrophobic bumper-to-bumper. The patients in the waiting room always watched us out, even though we were more or less the same each time. Looking for some red-faced blubberer, maybe. As if they weren’t all there for the exact same purpose.
I was mildly irritated to see a car parked next to mine in the parking lot. Most patients liked to park close to the building, but I preferred to stay a few lanes away, where there were more empty spaces, and spots under the trees lining the dividers were easier to get. I didn’t know what kind of trees they were, but in the spring, they tended to dump some awful orange pollen all over your car. I didn’t mind. I liked washing my car, along with other mindless tasks. They brought a sense of peace and structure to what felt like my increasingly disordered life. I didn’t like doing much of anything anymore, so chores allowed me the sense of productivity I needed to get through a day without clogging up my mind.
I used to do so many things.
I was barely put together that day, planning to go home and eat some pasta with jarred sauce before changing out of my ratty jeans and old concert t-shirt into my work uniform and heading out for the night shift. I wasn’t wearing makeup, but that wasn’t unusual—I’d stopped bothering with it almost a year ago, after my stint in the psych ward. My brown hair was in a messy bun because I’d been too depressed to wash it for a few days, so it hung limply—as dead as I felt inside—unless I put it up and out of the way.
I was fumbling in my bag for my keys, silently cursing whatever asshole parked right next to me, close enough that I had to sidle between them to get to my door, and I would have to squeeze myself in to avoid hitting this other car. Not that it would matter. It was a piece of junk, dinged up and rusted out on the bottom.
“Oh, sorry. Didn’t leave you much room there, did I?” It was T., standing at the hood of the car I now realized was his. I flushed slightly, feeling guilty for mentally cussing out my friend. Was friend the right word?
“Oh. Don’t worry about it.” I resumed digging around for my keys, keeping my eyes only just averted away from his.
“Need some help there?” He nodded to my bag and stepped to me, reaching out for it.
I jerked it away from him, an instinctive reaction, looking him directly in the eye.
“Sorry,” he said, lurching back and lifting his hands in a “don’t shoot” position at his shoulders. “I was just going to hold it open for you.”
He seemed uncharacteristically hesitant, not at all like the unsparing man in group who spoke bluntly of his overdose suicide attempt. It was one of the things I admired about him. He didn’t shy away from the things he’d done to himself. He didn’t fear judgment—notwithstanding the group’s rule never to judge others for the things they shared. I was too ashamed of the shameful things I’d done.
“No, it’s fine,” I said, but I held my bag closer to my body, though that made my task more difficult.
T. stood there, silent. I didn’t want to look to see if he was staring at me like I feared he was.
Finally, my pinky finger slipped through the key ring, and I jerked the car keys out of the bag, nearly spilling receipts and used gift cards and other junk onto the pavement. But instead of unlocking my car and driving away, I looked over to him.
He was just there, uselessly. He flexed his fingers the way he did in group when he got agitated. I was not going to console him.
“I don’t like that you thought I was going to do something to you,” he said, eyes averted but voice clear, resolved.
“I didn’t. It was just a reflex.”
“You know I wouldn’t hurt you, right?”
I squinted my eyes slightly. “I know,” I said, not sure if I was lying. I adjusted the straps of my bag on my shoulder. He wasn’t doing anything, but I felt stuck there.
He was quiet, dragging his shoe against the pavement, making a dry rasping sound that made my skin tingle like ants were creeping across my body.
“Did you need anything?” I asked then, just to make something happen.
“Do … you want to get a coffee or something?” He sounded nervous, but not in a boy-asking-girl-out nervous. I couldn’t put my finger on it.
I paused. “Okay.”
“Good,” he said too quickly, followed by a more assured, “Okay, cool.” Life flickered in his eyes. It reminded me of how he looked when he told the story of when he almost drowned. A pride that shouldn’t be there. I started wondering why I found his attitude admirable. Wasn’t it actually just carelessness?
“Okay,” I said, lifting my tone at the end of the word. Say something, it said to him.
“There’s that place, a few blocks away. Dean’s, I think?”
“I don’t know it.”
“Okay, um, just follow me. Or why don’t I just drive us?” He smiled like he’d just been told some bittersweet story.
I wasn’t scared of him. You see a side of a person in therapy that he shows to no one else. I knew I didn’t need to be scared.
But this was already starting to feel like a bad idea.
I knew things about him that his parents didn’t know.
It was as if my presence in his car changed something, flicked some switch. He began talking as if I were one of his college buddies, the ones he meets up with less and less frequently as the years pass.
“God, I hate my job so much. Everyone there is so full of their own drama, and the customers are so fucking annoying,” he began as we exited the office’s parking lot and headed down the tree-lined street.
I couldn’t remember exactly what T. did for a living. Something to do with computers, or maybe household appliances. Repair and maintenance. It was a far cry from his original dream of acting, the failure of which led to his first suicide attempt.
“I had this one guy on the phone, yelling at me because he’d voided the warranty on his TV, thinking he was going to be some hotshot and soup it up or whatever. Ruined the thing, and then expected us to pay for his fuckup.”
TVs, that was right.
He began talking faster, almost frantically, as if he were on something. Or as if he had abruptly stopped something. I listened to his ranting but wasn’t sure if he expected a response of any kind, or if he just needed to vent. Why me? I didn’t have anything to offer in this situation. I’d worked in a hospital for about a year, until they found out I was illicitly swiping pain meds. I wasn’t taking them from patients or anything. I was checked in to the psych ward of that same hospital less than a month after they fired me. Since then, I’ve taken night shifts at a 24-hour grocery store. Far fewer people to interact with, and most of the people shopping in the middle of the night aren’t much interested in conversation, either.
Despite T.’s near frenzied talk, he drove smoothly, following the speed limit exactly. We arrived at the coffee shop within a few minutes, and T. wrapped up his story with, “It’s all just annoying. I can’t do anything about it.” He got out of the car and began walking to the front door without glancing back to see if I was following, not even bothering to lock his car.
Deans was your typical hipster coffee shop, nestled between a spin studio and a realtor’s office. Inside, the walls were exposed brick and filled with black-and-white photos of objects blurred in motion. Edison bulbs hung over the thick, dark wood tables, and the menu was displayed in cursive on a large chalkboard that hung over the counter. It listed drinks I’d never even heard of, like flat white, doppio, and cortado. I ordered a regular cappuccino, and T. had a chai latte. I was grateful that he ordered first and didn’t offer to pay for me.
After the barista called out our orders and we collected our drinks, T. led me to a table at the back, away from the two other customers, both of whom had laptops open in front of them.
T. had grabbed two sugar packets from the counter, but he simply laid them on the table next to his chai, fiddling with the corners of one. I wondered if he was going to continue talking about work, or if he had a purpose asking me here.
I took a sip of my coffee and winced, unprepared for how hot it would be.
T. pointed at my cup. “Isn’t that going to keep you up?”
“I have work tonight.”
“Oh, right. The . . . grocery store, right?”
“Do you ever get scared?”
I looked at him for a moment. “Of what?”
“I dunno. Some weirdo attacking you or robbing the place or something?”
“There are cameras and a security guard.” I didn’t tell him that the guard scared me more than any customer I encountered. He made jokes about frisking me to make sure I hadn’t stolen anything, and repeatedly tried to show me his gun. I used to have him walk me to my car after my shift, but now took to waiting an extra fifteen minutes for my friend at checkout to balance her register. We made a point of parking next to each other to give the guard no reason to follow us, and sometimes we kissed before going our separate ways. More and more frequently, we kissed before going our separate ways, for longer and longer periods of time.
“Did I scare you? In the parking lot?”
I shrugged. He needed to let that go.
“I didn’t mean to. I forget that it can be threatening. You know, a man coming at a woman.”
“Well. You know.” I didn’t know if he was angling for some trauma story to justify my reaction and assuage his guilt, or what. As if any history I might have would be the sole explanation for the way I’d reacted.
I didn’t. Nothing had ever happened to me. Not like he was thinking, anyway.
No, I didn’t have some traumatic assault story. I was lucky in that way. Just an unstable mom, a dad always too busy with work, and no teachers who reached out about my home life. I’d wanted that so badly, my own Matilda, but that’s not what real life is like. At least, not for me. My parents weren’t even really the problem. They just didn’t know how to help and ended up making it worse.
T. seemed nervous, almost shaky. He picked up his cup, put it down without taking a sip, ripped open one of the sugar packets, then put it back down.
“I just,” he started, rubbing the back of his neck, “I don’t want you to be scared around me.”
“I’m not,” I said, an edge cutting into my tone. Drop it already.
“I mean—” he started, but I cut him off.
“What are we doing here?”
That seemed to slice through whatever fog was cluttering his mind. “What?”
I gestured to the general surroundings. “Why are we here? Why did you approach me in the parking lot?”
“Oh. Um,” he said, tilting his head down to his chai. He took a sip, then removed the lid and poured just a few grains of sugar into it. He hadn’t brought a stir stick from the counter, and rather than get up to get one, instead he ineffectually swirled the cup a little, sloshing a couple of drips over the side, and replaced the lid. He dragged his finger up the cup to stop the dribbles.
I said his name. My annoyance had turned to concern, and he could hear it in my voice.
“I have a favor to ask you.” He looked into my eyes, clear and focused.
He averted his gaze again. “No one else would get it. You know me better than anyone.”
“That’s not true.”
“Maybe our therapist.”
I took a deep breath. “Okay, what’s the favor?”
A loud scraping noise broke our focus as one of the other customers stood, the thick wood legs of his chair rubbing up against the floor. It made me shiver. T. and I remained silent as the man packed his laptop into his messenger bag, slung it over his shoulder, and left the café, the bell above the door tinkling as it opened and closed.
“I, um—” T. resumed, staring at his cup. “I need you to take care of my cat for a little bit. If that’s okay.” His voice almost cracked.
Something sounded an alarm inside of me. “Why?” I furrowed my brow.
“I need to go somewhere. Out of town. For a few days.”
He looked back up at me, eyes pleading and pathetic. He looked like he was going to cry.
“Why me?” I asked instead.
“I don’t trust anyone else.”
I couldn’t look at him. I picked at my nails, pulling at a hangnail until it bled, but still unable to rip it off.
“Why?” I balled my hands, so I’d stop picking. I squeezed my eyes so hard I saw sparks. “You don’t have to.”
“I do. You don’t understand.”
My lids flew open. “Then make me.” We both started at how loud my voice was, but neither the barista nor the one other remaining customer seemed to have heard or taken notice. Lowering my voice, I repeated, “Make me understand.”
He said my name and I wanted to cry.
“I thought you would,” he said. “You’ve been there as long as I have. You know what it’s been like for me.”
I turned my head and bit my lip.
“I wouldn’t ask this of you if . . . if there was another way.”
I didn’t respond. I heard the jingling of keys and watched as he removed one from the ring and placed it next to my coffee cup.
“That’s my spare. I’ll be gone by noon tomorrow. You can come any time after that.”
I hated myself for closing a fist over that key. I jerked slightly when he placed his own hand on top of mine, the first time we’d ever made physical contact. It felt like a barrier had broken between us.
With my free hand, I downed the rest of my coffee, and T. followed suit. Like a pact.
I waited until he pulled his hand away before I moved. I slipped the key into my pocket like it was something shameful and stood. He wasn’t much taller than me. I pressed myself against him, and we held each other like siblings reunited after a years-long separation. He smelled like a forest, all pine and peat and petrichor.
I stepped out of the hug and looked at him. He still looked on the verge of tears, but a soft smile of gratitude tinged his face.
I turned my back, and he said, “Let me drive you back to your car.”
I shook my head and did a half-turn back to him. “No, I want to walk.”
He pressed his lips together but said nothing more.
As I walked back to the therapist’s office, I swiped at the tears rolling down my face, hating him for doing this to me, but also feeling an almost protective tenderness. Who was I to dictate to him? But also, how could I live with myself?
Dusk was settling, and I would need to be at work soon. I needed to make a choice. The sky turned orange and pink, and some evening bird chirped.
Could I look the other way? Out of respect? As a form of fellowship for our shared experiences?
I thought about my shift that night. Would I be able to go on like everything was fine? Would I be able to say goodnight to my friend, who was maybe becoming something else? Could I ruin that heart-bursting-ness with this?
But would I really disregard his wishes like that, and for such a selfish reason?
Wasn’t he the one being selfish here? Putting this onus on me?
I arrived back at the parking lot and hesitated next to my car. I leaned my forehead against the driver’s side window and gripped T.’s spare key in my pocket.
I couldn’t. None of it. I couldn’t let him do this, I couldn’t let my inaction overshadow my life, yet another burden. He had no right to ask that of me, as if it was some solidarity thing. As if I would look the other way and think, “He’s allowed to make that choice.” Sure, but not if he was going to bring me into it. He’d do what he’d do but he couldn’t make me complicit in it.
Pulling the key out and holding it in my fist again, I lightly banged against the car door as I straightened and walked into the office, telling the receptionist I needed to talk to my therapist right away, yes it was an emergency, no I wasn’t the one having the emergency, it was someone else, I needed her to send help.
It was a bad lie that he told.
He was allergic to cats.
He hadn’t even bothered to give me his address.