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Brydee Strang


Portrait of a Lady in a Chair by Ilya Mashkov

Sitting in the huge comfortless chair I feel small. Flimsy. Stupid. Raggedy Ann with more cotton on the brain. This room is ill designed for purpose. A family room. Large windows flood the room with stale sunlight. It clashes with the dated green velvet of the furniture.

I’m missing something, an eyebrow piercing, a bad tattoo.

Family room. I keep thinking that. Not a living room– too Spartan, too detached. My family certainly wants me in this room, at this time, on this day each week. They invest in it financially, emotionally. It should have better décor.

Her far away chair is as large as mine. The distance is uneasy. It creates a chasm. As though she fears contagion. She has an empty smile on her face.

I almost expect to hear clocks ticking. Slow. Steady. Reverberating in my head. There are none. No clocks, no ticks, just Her, the manila folder, and me. My feet don’t touch the floor. I can’t lean on the back of the chair. A child. The manila folder flicks open. Chapter 1, page 1. A ballpoint pen clicks. She tells me her name. It’s followed by a string of letters. Expensive letters. I see them on the air with dollar signs all around them.

A reassuring smile. Why do we think I am here. I expect our beliefs on this are different. She is a strong believer in my getting well. We must first weaken, then explore my mind until I get well. I have a duty. I need to find a way to act well until I no longer rely on the foil wrapped tray of serotonin to convey this. I started it a week ago. It feels like years. I feel worse.

…I’ve missed a beat. Eyes look expectantly for a rejoinder. I postemptively predict the question. No baffled look. I guessed close enough. Talk, talk, talk. Every sentence may be unique to the speaker, but inevitably conversations have scripts. Scenes, stage notes and places. Before I fell into the mountainous chair, I knew what I would say and how the conversation would spur itself on. She spoke her lines perfectly. Invaluable information, judging by the busyness of the pen.

I wonder why did I come here? To become a case study. ‘If you look to paragraph D, you will see the subject exhibits classic signs of the syndrome, including deflection mechanisms to protect against external harm, despite excessive internal attribution of fault.’

I’ve read about me, and the thousands of others who feel as I feel yet not what I feel.

She asks me ‘Where does it come from?’ I don’t think she wants to hear my scientific opinion. Honestly I think I was born this way. Probably it’s a reaction to events. Definitely it’s low levels of serotonin due to reabsorption.

I should read less.

She asks again, rephrases— ‘What in your life led you here?’ I wonder if she gets many autistic patients. Would she frown, creasing that ‘caring’ façade, if I said my parents dropped me here? No. She would read into it. ‘How have they contributed?’ All the while I would be thinking this room is too bright for this. Your hair should be up. Internally shaking my head that she read substance into my flippant remark. I am rational. My mood is disordered not my mind. My parents did not cause this. Nor could they have prevented it. I am the

one who misinterprets events. I expect psychic response to my unvoiced needs. My mind cries out for distance, closeness, comfort and cold shoulders. I don’t tell her that, share the confusion. It would bewilder her unless she had experienced it, and if so she would know me too well.

Time is almost up. She smiles and then frowns. Concern. She pulls the folder onto her lap, scanning with golden eyes. I wait, ticking clocks absent again. She fears we won’t have much time together, looks to her stomach, smiles. She is heavily pregnant.

‘Will you come again next week?’ No. Fortnightly. I refuse to see her as frequently as I see my friends. I see she is poised to argue but aware that I won’t budge. That I might flee. Might flood the office with tears despite dry conversation defining the preceding interview. We move from the room to the front desk parked in the conservatory of the home. She departs.

The price of talk is not sustainable. It is the first time. I do not allow my father to pay. He who sat waiting across the street for the entire hour. Next time he will. I can’t afford to save myself. My pulse quickens. I can’t believe it costs this much. In that falls the first tear.

Stop. I won’t cry now. Home time. Smile time. We made a good start– we can solve this time. Time that occurs in the presence of loved ones whom I frightened. Time that occurs in the absence of clocks.

I book a second appointment. Two weeks. Same time, same woman. I hope for a different chair.

I cross the road. The light is still too high, too pale.

I see my father, my mother. I smile. It looks as though she has been crying. Sunglasses on, coffee in gloved hands. Winter breath and steam in the car.

‘She seemed nice,’ I say.

‘She’s not the one I know,’ Dad says. He is a little upset.

‘It’s late, Dad. Maybe she doesn’t work evenings.’ Grey seatbelts slide into place. We go home.

‘How do you think it went?’ Mum asks. She wants to know it’s helping.

‘Fine. I feel better.’ Empty consolation. I feel worse.

We exit the car with smiles on.

* * *

Eggshells, glass, coals. I am uncertain of the ground I walk on. At once aware of the care others take of my feelings and the fragility of their own.

‘How are you?’ Tenth time today.

I’m fine, should I say? Still a little low. I feel hollow and thin, like an egg. I smile. ‘Better than yesterday.’ I frown. I have said that twice this week. I need a new catchphrase. I worry. Before I could say I’m tired and people would quietly sit next to me and allow me to breathe. Now I say I’m tired and my companions shift uneasily in place. They fill beautiful silence with talk. I get free coffee for guilt trips. Guilt for actions and

words unstarted.

What do people want? I created this change. I told them a truth I had just told myself, and though nothing about me is different, everything about my relationships is.

‘No…how are you?’

Seriously? I was fine, now I’m a bit irritated, pissed even— any further questions? ‘Oh you know, getting there. Thanks for asking.’

Smiles. He is proud of himself for showing concern. I barely know him. ‘I just want to know you’re okay.’

Impolite to point out he should only ask after my mood once per conversation.

Time passes by. The crowd around me lifts and changes. University life creates easy transitions between social groups. My medicated friends arrive. For a while I can be free. ‘How are you?’ ‘Fine.’ ‘Liar.’ ‘You too!’ It’s almost like happiness.

We need nicknames. Cutter, Moper, Poser. Whose round for coffee? Whose paper is interesting? Whose parents understand them? Laughter. Real laughter, yet false. Still laughing at ourselves, not with ourselves.

Smiles. So fickle, they convey everything and nothing.

I feel like being alone. God, I want company. I go to the museum. Alone with ghosts. Alone with fossils, alone with scones.

‘Is this my fault?’ That question circles me like a shark. A dead shark. Every part of me screaming out Don’t reply. Too late. Confined in the car I answered. Not ‘yes’. Not ‘no’. Not ‘What a stupid, leading, pointless question.’ No I just spoke. Rational like Spock. I told the truth. It doesn’t matter what I really said. I should have said ‘Of course not.’ Pain, secondhand. Like acid rising in my veins, my gut. Like pressure. The words seem written in my head.

Leave the museum. Find a place to be. Don’t remember this for five minutes. Think about your day. Do you have work? I do. Well, can’t cry. Put it away.

What did I say?

Between us a tear. Not a salty tear on a cheek, a rift. My stupidity confirmed. Weeks of surface conversation follow. ‘Have a good day?’

‘Yes.’ – Do you still love me?

‘Dinner is on the table.’

‘Thanks.’ TALK TO ME.

How many months before I’m bright enough to explain the drugs made me say it? The hateful pills that stick in my dry throat and drain me of energy and emotion. Instead I watch TV. My brother beside me is quiet but I hear his message. ‘I’m here. I understand. I love you. Stay with us.’

For him.

He’ll never say anything about it. Ever. But he says it every day. Silent hugs. Cups of coffee. Fresh baked cookies. Both of them really. Even though in his room he doesn’t get it— it scares him. He too hugs. Holding me to this earth. Solid, real. Too young both to tell me how to feel, they ask me to be happy. I smile. They think they’ve won. I pray for that kind of innocence. Pray for such simple cures. They never demand that I get well. Never drag me to places where I must smile. Never make me feel stupid.

For them.

For my parents I want to get well. We’ve seen it all before.

I know that until I can stop looking back to what I said in that car, until I know I won’t repeat that mistake, I’m not well.

* * *

Cutter, Moper, Poser and I are not the norm. No matter how normal we feel together, our assembly is abhorrent. It is a symptom like the lethargy, the apathy, the desolation and ambivalence.

A symptom like the weight gain.

My turn to buy coffee. I have tea. How many eyebrows raise? One on each face. ‘Is our friendship a cancer?’ ‘Probably.’ ‘Definitely.’ ‘Yes.’ As long as we agree. Lighter matters now, philosophy and taxes, maybe death and later politics. Serious today. All talk and theories, no grins or laughter and therefore no sadness.

Discussion flows over us. See our minds work. We the broken, the cynical, the living, the breathing. See us dance.

We depart together. Silent farewells. A kiss on the cheek, a pat on the back. Safety and strength before division. Out of doors, I remember I am small. In my head I imagine how much space my mind could fill. I smile. It is unimpressive. Computer chips are small. My self-derision gives me strength. I do not hate having some humility. I go to class. No better distraction than new information.

Unfortunate then that I’ve read the notes. I spend forty minutes playing hangman by myself.

I lose.


About the writer:
Writing is one of Brydee Strang’s many escapes. If she can’t be found in a book or behind a screen, then look for her in a wild green space filled with native trees.

Image: Portrait of a Lady in a Chair by Ilya Mashkov (1881-1944). Oil on canvas. 69.2 x 45.6 inches. 1913. Public domain.

OJAL Art Incorporated, publishing since 2017 as OPEN: Journal of Arts & Letters (O:JA&L) and its imprint Buttonhook Press, is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporationsupporting writers and artists worldwide.

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