Daughters of the Dirt / Sarah Higdon

by Sara Stevenson

Not much had happened lately, except in her head. She turned to the phone as soon as she walked in, looking for the blinking red light to signal a message waiting. Strange, it suddenly seemed to her, the idea of a message lurking, suspended, holding its breath.

The call was a reply to a message she'd left for her psychiatrist. As she put away the groceries, she shook her head, wondering why she felt rejected. She took all unreturned phone calls personally; she had trained herself, early on, to prepare for rejections, to huddle her resources as if under siege.

The silent phone confirmed her constant fear. She was unworthy. Along with this belief, she carried many others about herself, including the seemingly contradictory notion that she was indeed special, superior to others. Her whole life had been a stealth search to find a person truly gifted enough to recognize this. Next to this idea bloomed one that she was mediocre, and the idea that she should stop comparing herself sat next to the fear that she was self-absorbed. All these thoughts in the time it took to open a refrigerator, stick a tub of butter on the shelf, and close it.

Moving aside the sections of two newspapers, she sat on the couch, leaned her head back, closed her eyes. She thought about her eight-year-old son, how he and her daughter had begged her to do sun salutations with them before bed last night. Her son had laughed over the word Chadaranga and had tried to hold the difficult yoga position for forty seconds. He said he wanted stronger arms, and his smile of delight and pride in his accomplishment made her ache. How long since she'd felt that pure joy? It's almost cruel for our children to remind us of what we have lost.

She sat down at the desk where all the bills, school memos, and invitations lay on top of the family calendar. She stared into today's square and crossed off the errands she'd completed. A volleyball game, a karate lesson, a dentist appointment rested at the bottom of the square, as if they were heavier, more important. Now she had two hours before the afternoon and evening rush. No task or activity was imminent. She felt languid and suddenly sleepy. She needed the pressure of a deadline to motivate her, but nothing and no one pressed. She pressed her eyes with the heels of her hands.

What was it she loved so much about her monthly sessions with her psychiatrist? Was it because he asked her questions about herself, that she was paying for the luxury of not having to reciprocate as in the even exchange of friendship? But it was more than that. It had to do with the questions he asked and the way he was able to elicit responses in her she wasn't aware of until they tumbled out in her own voice. There was this stripped, bare intimacy between them: no small talk, no how's the weather. Their conversations pierced right to the core of things. To examine this, to spread it out and look at it together was exciting, like working a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle in which the image gradually taking shape was her own. But recently there had been a shift; she'd begun to ask him questions, too.

At her last session, she had sat cross-legged in the brown leather chair, picking at one of the antique brass tacks stuck into the edge. When she looked up, he was staring at her over his drugstore reading glasses, his legs crossed like a woman's.

"Do you ever long for something because it's new?" she asked him, her voice sounding foreign to her, as if it were recorded.

"You mean, like something to buy, like some new technological device..."

"No," she laughed, cutting him off. "Like a relationship."

"A relationship?" he asked, surprised, pushing his reading glasses back to the bridge of his nose. He suddenly pulled the glasses off in the way Lois Lane might when she let her hair down.

"Yes. Yes I have."  He'd looked straight at her, and she'd had to look away, pulling again at the brass tack.

Now it had been over a week, and he hadn't returned her call to set up her next appointment. Could it be that she was a walking cliché, a patient in love with her shrink? And could he sense this and was therefore avoiding her? Then again, psychiatrists probably attend seminars on how to handle patients falling in love with them.

Her mind traveled to a childhood memory. She was interested in memories, how certain mental images seemed as exact as photographs, but when she compared them to another source, to a real picture, for example, she found the memory had been embellished through repetition, accumulating new details while relinquishing others. The memory tended to get scrambled with other memories, other events until she wondered why they were allowed as proof in court, the accident-prone memories of witnesses.

In her mind now she saw a white plane of snow. Being a Texan, she had never spent much time in snow. She stood in the middle of a flat plane, a cold wilderness. She breathed deeply, and the cold air burned her lungs, tasting like wintergreen. The field of snow felt hopeful, open, like a sheet of blank paper. When she looked more closely, she could see cross-country ski trails engraved in the surface, moving far into the distance, like those Nasca lines in the Peruvian desert that people in the seventies believed were scored by ancient astronauts.

When she was young, she spent hours sitting in the empty living room telling herself stories. Once she broke off the head of a china figurine and tried to fix it with Elmer's glue. Her mother didn't notice the crack until years later. When confronted with the evidence, she remembered the accident barely, as if in a dream. She remembered, also around the same time, her family traveling with her grandfather in northern California. They had stopped at a motel in the country, rich with forests. Behind the parking lot she heard the trickle of a small stream and discovered a waterfall about a foot high draining into the creek. Around the falling water sprouted bright green ferns, revived constantly by the tumbling water. She begged her mother to take a picture of it. She wanted to remember her waterfall always, as if she were an explorer and had been the first one to see it. She wanted to own it somehow, take it with her. But her mother did not believe in taking pictures without people in them. When, after the trip, the film was developed, the picture came out as the back of her shirt and her hair in a ponytail. Her mother had captured her devotion to the waterfall but not the waterfall itself.

And what was a crush really but an object of devotion? The devotion, the feelings of desire and longing, were the same always. Like heat-seeking missiles, they roamed in search of a warm object, never allowing a previous disappointment to discourage them in their quest. The quest for what? For something to love, something worthy of love, but most importantly, its consent.

With a sigh she stood and went out to the screened porch to shovel clothes from the dryer into the plastic hamper. As she folded and separated the laundry, putting off pairing the socks until the end, she noticed her favorite shirt had shrunk. Holding it next to her body, she could see it was too short to tuck into her pants. She stretched the lavender silk with her hands until she heard the snap of a stitch. She'd only worn it once, and the realization made her ineffably sad. She had to sit down.

She'd heard depression described as not caring about anything. But what if you cared too much about everything, if someone looking at you funny in traffic made you cry? Rather than numbness, she felt a surfeit of feeling, tidal waves of it overwhelming her at unexpected moments, and yet some of these feelings, such as a sudden surge of love for her children, were close to joy.

She remembered her first appointment. Actually, it wasn't her first appointment but the first after a long break. She had announced her arrival at the receptionist's desk only to discover he hadn't had an office there in three-and-a-half years. So she walked across the baking car lot into the overly air-conditioned building next door.

He answered the door and led her into his office. It was decorated with expensive leather chairs and couches and a coffee table laid out with things for patients to handle: a large, polished rock, a clear, plastic wand with sequins floating slowly inside it, a spherical glass paperweight. The office looked like a successful bachelor's den, except that he was married. 

They began talking, or mainly she was talking while he nodded, listening, his clipboard on his lap, although she didn't catch him writing anything down. He explained to her how the Prozac can stop working after awhile, how it loses its effectiveness. By changing to another drug temporarily, or adding another drug, it can retrieve its potency.

"Oh, that's just like shampoo," she said.

"What?" he shook his head as if trying to clear it.

"Don't you know about shampoo?"

"No, I'm afraid I don't." His accent was old family Texan. She could hear the ranch grit in it.

"Well, if you use the same shampoo for too long, it stops working well, and so every once in a while, every year or so, you need to switch shampoos."

"Oh, I see. Yeah. I guess it's like shampoo." He was smiling at her as if she were adorable, and she loved it. Not in over twenty years had she wanted a man to find her adorable, but there it was. Her erotic trigger had always been intimate conversations, and comparing shampoo to medications was hardly intimate. Maybe it was the prelude.

She offered to become his receptionist. He'd abandoned having one because the last one had embezzled funds. Although his practice was thriving, his clients were getting annoyed with his tardiness in returning their calls and setting appointments. Since his office was between her kids' two schools, he would give her a key. She'd let herself in, listen to the messages on the machine, return calls, and set appointments while he jogged or swam laps. In return, she'd get a free monthly consultation. It seemed like a perfect exchange, but the moment after she offered to do it, and he agreed, she knew she was in danger.

They never intersected. She loved the smell of warm leather greeting her as she unlocked the door to his silent office. She turned the mini-blinds to let in the morning sun and watched briefly the dust motes tossing in rays of light. She enjoyed filling-in the columns of his appointment calendar, a line for every fifteen minutes. She'd like one of those herself. Returning the phone calls, she got thrills from recognizing important local folks among his patients. So their lives aren't so perfect after all.

One morning she hears the outer door open and some footsteps. He leans an elbow on the doorframe to the inner office where she works, and he's in his jogging clothes, still catching his breath. His face is shiny with sweat. He's skinny, she thinks for the first time, but what shocks her most is that he's wearing black dress socks with his running shoes. The moment she registers the black socks, it's as if a switch turns off inside her, or as if an expensive vase tumbles off the mantel and she doesn't care. Instead, she's relieved because the vase was ugly and pretentious all along, and she'd been wondering how to get rid of it, but it had been a gift.

And so no more erotic fantasies as she waits in line at the post office, no inner scenes, revelations of attraction mixed with angst and guilt, no more soulful looks of longing before the first kiss, the first touch of her blouse curved from her breast. When her husband comes in from work, she greets him with a kiss on his rough cheek and rubs against him like a kitten, appreciating his solid reality as opposed to mutinous, turncoat fantasies.
Sara Stevenson, an Austin mama of two, taught high school English for thirteen years. Her writing has appeared in The Austin American-Statesman, The Houston Chronicle, The Houston Post, The Texas Observer, Short Stories Bi-Monthly, and Writersdigest.com