Therapy always began with a silence, the kind of dreadful silence that was desperate to speak. They asked him how he felt. He panicked. He always panicked when they asked him anything to do with feelings. The corners of his lips curled towards the broken fan above, the fan that turned slowly in the occasional breath of outside air.
“Ups and downs. Comme ci comme ça.” He had rehearsed this line. He was proud of it. It was reliable. It was the only line he used with questions about feelings. Since the death of his pet chihuahua, Tobias, sentences like these became his most treasured possession, his best friend.
The moment the words separated from his lips, Peter felt like he’d won an Oscar. He had always dreamt of winning an Oscar. A prize that everyone wants, but nobody gets. A prize that only incredible people with incredible talent, win. A prize that puts your name on the map, forever, and ever, and ever.
But this prize was different. There was no red carpet or awards ceremony. No aperitifs or crudités. Just heaviness.
Tobias died of natural causes. When Peter found him slumped on the tiled floor, there were tears in his eyes that glistened and drooled on his shiny hazelnut cheeks. The time had come. It had been coming for days; that soft, delicate limp; that wince of pain; the agonising slowness. The tears in his eyes made Peter wonder if his final moments were painful, if they were of anguish or fatigue. Or both.
When they examine a dog, they check facts and figures. When they examine Peter, they check facts and figures and feelings and stories and dreams. They check for bruises. They check for rashes. They check for signs of illness.
They know everything. They know about the purple bruise on his left leg. They know about the birthmark on his nape that vaguely shows beneath wavy coils of hair. They know about the colour of his urine, a subdued yellow like diluted apple juice. They check his height. They ask questions. Countless questions; his sexuality; his pronouns; his mother’s maiden name; his dreams; his hopes; his weight; his fears; his payment details.
He told them about his dream of becoming an Oscar winning film director with a spec home in the Hollywood Hills, a glass open plan masterpiece with a manicured lawn and a cinema.
It weighed him down. But that morning, it weighed him down more than ever before. The sunlight was hard edged and bitey. To him, the gossiping trees conspired with the spying sun, creeping between the half drawn curtains. Peter felt a warm tickle of tears that drooled and drizzled and drew in feathery tickles, lines on his back that were shifting and shapeless. He was alone in this dark world of inwardness, of distance and performance. “Is the sun in your eyes?” They asked with a crisp coolness. “Slightly. Slightly”.
So they tugged on the traverse rod. The curtains snapped shut. Peter shuddered. They walked with deft precision, light but firm as the floorboards creaked, before landing on a dark blue cotton chair with a shiny maroon cushion. “Ok. Let’s start”.
Peter wasn’t ready. He always started with the good news. He always spoke until time was nearly up so that the bad stuff would have to wait until next time.
That day, they’d opened the window midway. The panic on the streets was muffled, like a submerged scream. The curtains faintly shook in the occasional scurry of wind. A child screamed. A lorry reversed. A lawnmower mowed. Therapy moved in unpredictable, uncomfortable bursts.
“Tell me about your week”.
A charmless, tuneless wind chime played sad music with a distant siren. “Ok. It started well. I got a job on Venice Beach.” After Tobias had died, Peter quit his job as a barista at the local coffee shop. He needed time. He needed space. He needed help. A few days later, he took a stroll up Venice Boulevard, passed the coffee shop that he knew so well.
He smelt it again. The richness, the depth and intensity of Peruvian coffee beans. It was unmistakable. So he treated this moment as a calling. Go back. Make coffee. Draw artwork in the milky foam. Draw stars and dragons and hearts and lions and horses. Go back.
He told his therapist. “Great news!” They smiled with the same shriveled eyes.
“How does it feel?”
He choked on nothing.
“Great. Truly great. I love my job. I really do.”
They pressed their lips tightly together, showing dimples in their cheek like two thin pencil lines. “That’s so refreshing, Peter. So refreshing”.
Peter was drained. He told half truths. He told the best parts of the worst stories. “It’s a relief. I didn’t think I was good enough.” This sentence worked. It had worked many times before. It would work again.
They asked why he felt that way.
Peter sighed, deeply.
“Not sure. I’ve always struggled with these feelings. I felt quite low after what happened to Tobias. I started to question myself.”
He paused. Pausing made it all seem more true. “Like Prince Hamlet.”
He chuckled. Not hahahaha, but “hm, hm, hm.”
“Like Prince Hamlet?” Their words, soft yet firm, brief yet endless, stuck to the air like a wasp in a spider’s web.
“Yes. Like Prince Hamlet. To be or not to be. That kinda thing.”
The pencil lines had moved to underneath their eyebrows. He knew these sentences were a mistake. He could feel the next question coming. It had been coming for sometime.
“Peter, how often do you have these thoughts?” He hadn’t planned for this, but he knew exactly how to escape. He was experienced. “I don’t have those thoughts. Not specifically. I love being alive. Joie de vivre!”
But that day, there was no escape. Without the sunlight on his back, without the warmth and breadth of the summertime air, Peter was helpless. He was trapped by the truth. The truth he’d hidden. The truth he’d pushed away. Far far away. The truth that even the most incredible actors couldn’t hide.
It was painful.
It was tragic.
It was intense.
It was too late. Their timer rang out. They closed proceedings with a clever smile, a smile where their teeth shone with striking whiteness.
“Sorry Peter. Our time is up. Let’s resume our discussion next week.”
Their words were formulaic and slimy, predictable and harsh. Peter just nodded, then smiled away any fear. She opened the forest green door.
He simply said, “thank you”, before moving in slow, careful steps on concrete slabs with arched greenery shooting through cracks. They closed the door. It didn’t slam shut, but somehow the echo was long and deep.
It was over. The sunlight kissed his shoulders with a sticky heat, but cool air camly pushed it away. It was the kind of day where the wind gasped softly, where the birds flew in an ash blue sky, like coffee granules.
The kind of day where the roads were clear and the cars didn’t heave like breathless warriors, but spoke like friendly giants. The kind of day where cicadas shrieked in the bushes, where airplanes left traces of grey smoke in their wake, like chalk.
Peter followed the chalk with his eyes until it was far over the roof of his car. He sighed. He sighed towards the rear view mirror so that it hazed. He rubbed dust from his eyes with the hard bone of his knuckle.
He was home. He was thinking about the night sky. He made a prediction. Tonight, he’ll see the blurriness of the sky, the shapeless fury of shooting stars, the mysterious energy of twinkling lights.
Then he’ll watch the sky become a blank mystery of nothingness. No shooting stars or mysterious objects. No flights. Just endless silence. Endless silence hiding endless stories, stories that only the sky will know.
He’ll clench his fists so hard, so dreadfully hard, that his nails will pierce his palm. He’ll wait. He knows the time is right. He’ll wait. He’s waited far too long. Next week, he’ll tell his story. The whole story. Bit by bit.