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An Ordinary Girl
by Alison Boulan

     Steve O, my last patient of the day, stands to leave my office, and I check my emotions, finding both guilt and relief. Guilt for not helping him, and relief because he went over by ten minutes and his non-stop complaining gave me a headache. His therapy will never be productive. Like so many before him, he reserves blocks of time to blather on about topics that would bore a broom handle: the movies he’s seen; the coworkers he’d like to screw; his struggle to be happy; and the rash on his elbows. And Steve O always mentions his visits to the mall, where he watches girls from a coffee shop.


     Another therapist stops to say goodnight. Six of us share a third-floor suite, and I have a cozy office at the end of the hall. There’s a large window next to my desk, and I can see the top third of a dying maple tree and three cooling units. The therapist, Mr. Hennessy, is an elderly widow; he’s also our senior-care specialist and the only male.


     “Have a nice weekend,” he says, giving me a toothy grin. “Tell Griff I said hello.”


     “Thanks,” I say, smiling back. “I will.”


     I’m lying. My husband does’t like Mr. Hennessy. He declined an invitation to watch the Super Bowl at our house ... eight years ago.


     With Steve O behind me, I open my laptop to enter his progress note, a meaningless document no one will ever read. For each of his three goals I write, “Patient making adequate progress,” and then I elaborate with social-worky jargon that fills the space provided. His first goal, “Improve ability to relate to others,” is something we could work on for years, because the fix is buried deep within his personality, and he lacks the intellect to uncover it.


     I glance at the time: it’s 4:30. Griff, a wiry seventy-two-year-old with a snowy goatee, is at the senior center playing gin rummy. He’s older than me by nine years, but could easily outrun me if we were getting attacked by bees. (Griff would also win a neuroses race ... by a long shot.) My husband usually calls at 4:30, and I’m hoping and praying he doesn’t, because he’ll only talk non-stop about his friends at the center. Everyone has had a “life-saving” surgery and is “blessed” with a grandchild who’s an attorney or a gifted musician. And at least one “connected” grandchild knows Elon Musk, or knows someone who knows him.


     Griff and I have been married for thirty-eight years ― no children, just two megalomaniac Chihuahuas, Cleo and Charlie ― and I’d assess our relationship as stable, reasonably harmonious and vacillating between dull and predictable. We’re just two ordinary people living ordinary lives. You could even say our introduction was ordinary: we met at a wedding reception while reaching for the same piece of cake. Griff’s got “senior-style” ― he wears a bowtie, suspenders and a black beret ― but there’s nothing remarkable about me. I have an extra chin, and my hair is dyed a confusing shade of red that currently looks skunky. And look at these clothes, my “uniform:" khaki skirt, white blouse, black shoes with gummy soles and cat-eye glasses favored by twenty- somethings. You should be able to look up “ordinary” in any dictionary and find a picture of me. And there might be a second picture of Griff holding the Chihuahuas.


     Luckily, he doesn’t call, and my sanctuary remains undisturbed. I’ve always needed a sanctuary and first learned this in junior high. My parents let me sleep in the buggy basement, and I claimed a storage room, only because the door had a lock. After smashing every crawling creature with a rolled up magazine, I dragged in a square of old carpet, an air mattress and a fluorescent-green bean-bag chair I found in the garage. I’d spend hours in that chair, in just my underwear, listening to George Michael, Michael Bolton and Madonna through headphones. The underwear-only habit actually began when I was three. Our household was loud, chaotic and unpredictable, because I had older twin sisters and a father with untreated bipolar disorder. So when the madness peaked one Christmas Day, I found a way to cope: I stripped down to my underwear and ignored everyone. No tantrums, no crying ― I just walked around in skivvies, a too-small T-shirt and dirty socks.


     I was freezing, but I was in control.


     My office is much more colorful than that dark basement. It has rose-colored walls ― law enforcement calls the color “Drunk Tank Pink” ― and a wall-hanging made of fisherman’s rope that Griff gave me on our anniversary. Aside from my desk, I have a blue winged-back chair, a love seat and a bookcase. The bookcase contains books on anxiety, depression, personality disorders, codependency and three on meditation. Most of the books haven’t been opened in years, though I recently loaned something to Max Q, a teenager with anger issues, and he filled it with vampire drawings.


     I should really get up and walk the halls. Griff wants me to exercise more (he bought me a Peloton for my birthday), but I’d rather spend an hour with my most annoying patient, Arnold K, who talks nonstop about his five cats. I avoid using the Peloton, because when I ride it, I sweat enough for two people. This means showering twice, getting wet twice, drying myself twice and viewing my menopause-mashed-potato belly twice.


     No, thank you.


     I’m anxious to wrap up my work responsibilities, because my patients’ love seat waits across the room. If I could communicate with this chunk of furniture, I’d say, Be patient, my friend ... I’m doing my best. And it would respond, Hurry, Nancy! Hurry!


     Now Griff’s calling. His ringtone is a recording of our chihuahuas barking at the mailman, and he won’t let me change it; he insists the “voices of our children” must be part of my work day, and by changing it I’m rejecting their existence. As the yelps of these crazed children fill my office, I hold my breath and wait. And then when the noise stops, I empty my lungs and relax again.


     As I finish Steve O’s progress note, I think back to our conversation. He described talking with his father about taking over the family business, a thriving produce market with three locations. Steve O said no and watched his father cry, which left him questioning his worth as a son. Looking out at the dying tree, I pinch my bottom lip and wonder when he’ll have the maturity to make better decisions. He’s like the dozens of other patients I’ve seen over the years, those with maturity levels anchored in high school. (Some elementary school.) Many are driven by impulse, and if they’re lucky, will tame those demons by the time they turn fifty.


     I’ve evolved well in my own life, and my therapist of twenty-four years would confirm it. Even though I’d assess my personality hovering around the midpoint on the continuum of normalcy, I have had my “quirks” like most individuals. There was a phase of pica in elementary school ― I ate pencil erasers and construction paper (only yellow) ― and then a few years later I started biting my nails and wore gloves to bed. But these harmless hiccups were only manifestations of my focus and determination, which served me well in grad school.


     Several therapists say goodbye in the hallway, and I begin rolling my chair over to join them. But this requires more effort than it’s worth, so I roll back while watching my warehouse-worker shoes do the work. I feel embarrassed every time I see these shoes, because they remind me of my lack of individuality. I recall treating a good-looking man three years ago. He seemed to have everything, including his own business and a Tesla, but he’d been saddled with a personality that made life challenging. (Unfortunate for many patients.) He asked me to call him “Wexler,” his surname, instead of his first name, and I found this delightful. Even though he was extremely difficult to work with, Wexler was his own person, a true one-of-a-kind, and I admired him for that.


     I impulsively open my laptop to check my upcoming appointments, a habit that’s difficult to break. As I scan the names my eyes fall upon “Janet B.” Her burden in life is guilt and it seems to be in her DNA. She’ll say things like, “guilt is my favorite emotion,” or “I feel guilty owning a car,” or “guilt is a shadow that follows me everywhere.” Of course Janet B has something she should feel guilty about, but she shouldn’t let it ruin her life. Many other patients struggle with guilt, and I’d give anything to have a magic wand that cured it, even though this would “heal” so many people that I’d have to switch to career counseling. And what if this wand also cured everyone struggling with sexual issues. During my career, I’ve heard it all: women wanting less; husbands wanting more; husbands wanting a lot more; conflicts created by sex positions, hygiene, food choices (one couple uses chocolate pudding in their love-making), pornography and toys; and the woman with plushophilia, Amy E, who prefers having sex dressed as a stuffed animal. One day I’d like to say to Amy E, who’s like a daughter to me, “Listen, you need to let go of this plushophilia nonsense. It’s not dignified. Are you going to wear a rabbit suit into your sixties? No. Absolutely not.”


     It’s time to return Griff’s call. If we don’t talk every two hours, his emotions turn into balls of rubber bands. But it’s after five, and I still need to visit the love seat, and then there’s the most therapeutic event of my week when it’s over. Postponing Griff’s call, I get ready for the love-seat visit and unlock my bottom drawer to retrieve my collection. I collected things as a child too, most notably insects. My family lived on a farm and bugs were everywhere, not just in my bedroom. Enormous flies smashed their heads against window panes; armies of ants prowled our kitchen counters; and tiny beetles crawled over shoes, pillows and toothbrushes. (I won’t mention the spiders, because I don’t want to have those dreams again.) I’d trap these insects in a thirty-two-ounce Mason jar, and then seal the lid to watch them die. Their tiny bodies would shrivel and become papery corpses, and then I’d transfer them to a smaller jar for safe-keeping. When I abandoned this hobby at thirteen, I had over three cups of smelly insect flakes.


     My therapist told me that killing insects and collecting their body parts was an attempt to control the chaos in my life. (I never told her about the underwear business; we patients always keep something in our back pockets, just in case we need new material.) If she had the full picture, I’m sure she’d write the following progress note: “Nancy murdered insects and practiced non-compliance as a child.” And hopefully she’d add, “But she kept it together.”


     Griff’s big brown eyes hover in my thoughts, so I give him a call.


     “Hi, honey,” I say. “No, I’m still at the office. I didn’t see your messages, because I’ve been stacked up with patients. You know how it is ― everybody wants to see me before the weekend. Yes, I ate the energy bar you bought at COSTCO. Honey-almond was a very good choice. Of course ― let’s buy them again. Did you enjoy yourself at the senior center? Good, I’m glad. Playing gin rummy with friends can be very rewarding, and it helps to create a balanced lifestyle. No, don’t worry ― I’ll be leaving soon. I just have to finish some paperwork. Do I plan to ride the Peloton? I’m not sure. I’ll let you know when I get home. Maybe we could consider another option, like getting ice cream. Okay, then. Love you, too.”


     I end the call and heave a sigh ― I’ve channeled my “therapy voice” again. After thirty-two years as a psychotherapist, it’s difficult to turn off and, honestly, I’m not sure where Nancy-the-Therapist ends and Nancy-the-Person begins. Few of us are willing to discuss this phenomenon, something I call “the curse of professional programming,” which left untreated, turns your personality into low-fat milk. And some days, I’m drowning in that milk.

     The charts are finished, I’ve talked to my husband and it’s now “me-time.” I’ve unchained myself from my patients” psyches and won’t have to face Griff and the psychotic dogs for another hour. I slip off my shoes, wheel my chair over to the door, pull it closed and then turn the lock. Just as I’m wheeling back, my office phone rings. The noise drills into my skull and elicits a hate I sometimes feel for my job. All the whining, patients pleading Help me! Help me! Help me! and the glaring ingratitude. How many people stop to thank me? How many say, “Nancy, you really helped me change my life.”


     I could count them on my fingers.


     The ringing ends, and the call, thankfully, goes to voicemail.


     I reach into the drawer, lift out a shoebox and place it on my desk. It holds my archive, the objects I’ve scavenged from the love seat over the years. I rake my fingers through the glorious stuff, the flotsam and jetsam of my patients' lives and remind myself, for the umpteenth time, that I should buy a diary to record my findings. Digging through my treasures, I find a sticky purple pacifier, three mini vibrators, a gold fountain pen, a hearing aid, dozens of tampons (one nineteen years old), buttons, buttons and more buttons, a diamond earring, $17.48 in change, a handful of condoms (two glow-in-the-dark), a pink rabbit’s foot and a charm bracelet adorned with teddy bears.


     Glancing up at the window, I see that daylight is fading ― it’s time to get to work. I lift myself from the chair, which requires an alarming amount of effort; gravity tends to be passive- aggressive, and it usually wins. Grabbing the shoe box, I walk stiffly past the winged-back chair and over to the love seat. I then lift one of the four red accent pillows and give it a sniff, finding lingering scents of dirty hair. On the next pillow, I smell a mix of Old Spice and dryer sheets and assume it belongs to Morgan G, a delightful man with Aspergers. The third pillow has traces of Rebecca W’s lily-of-the-valley perfume, and I pull it into my breasts and smile. (Rebecca W has mother issues; I’ll be seeing her until I retire.) I’m disgusted when I pick up the final pillow: it’s filled with the subtle stink of cat urine.


     Arnold K ― it’s got to be Arnold K.


     I drop to my knees and wince. The pain is getting worse, and I may have to abandon my searches in the coming months, instead of the coming years. Tossing the throw pillows to the floor, I slide my hands under the two bottom cushions and find a flash drive. I’ll set this aside and view its contents later with a glass of wine, when Griff and the dogs are sleeping. Flash drives are my most prized possessions. One contains a video of Jennifer A, a math teacher with OCD, tap dancing in nude, another has fifty dandelion photos taken by Charlene J, a depressed seamstress with alopecia. A third contains a half-written novel, which might belong to Madeline K or Sonja B ... I’m still figuring this out.


     When I shift to the right, my knee pops. It’s a disquieting noise, like a golfball hitting drywall, and I hope I’m not trapped on the floor until Griff calls the police. Hurrying to finish, I make one final sweep, which yields old gum wrapped in a store receipt, a yellow pill ― I have a baggie filled with medication and will add this to the mix ― and a heart-shaped locket etched with “I love Pookie.” I struggle to stand which, thankfully, isn’t being filmed, and then rearrange the pillows and pack away my treasures.


     I’m now ready to make a stand against the madness of my life. But then my cellphone rings and sends a hurricane of high-pitched barking around my office. Each sharp yap pelts the side of my head and makes me blink, and I wish I had a hammer to destroy something. Then it stops. And seconds later starts up again. As my heart slams my ribs, I have a breakthrough that’s like getting poked in the eye with a stick ― the barking represents every stressor in my life: Griff, the fucking Chihuahuas, the Peloton, my patients. Arnold K and his goddamn cats.


     I suck in a breath, wait, and then suddenly it’s quiet again.


     Laying my phone on the desk, I then walk over to the darkening window, unzip my skirt and let it drop to the floor. Air swirls around my legs and into my crotch, tickling me with a million tiny fingers. The sensation is heavenly, and I feel three again: happy, in control, free. I savor this sweet moment, until barking begins ricocheting off the walls and ceiling. I want to run through the window, but instead, pick up the phone and calmly say, “Hi, honey.”


     Griff tells me that Cleo bit his finger. And then he says he’s going to the ER.


     “Oh, honey,” I say, “that sounds stressful. You must feel frightened and worried, and I’m sorry you have to go through this. Don’t go to the ER. I’ll be leaving in a few minutes and can take a look at your wound. Honey, I’m sure that’s not true. You’ll still be able to play gin rummy if you’re injured. Just remember ― things will change, and this injury is not permanent. I promise we’ll figure out this finger problem as soon as I get home. Yes, honey, I’ll hurry. Love you, too.”


     We hang up, momentarily severing our tie, and I turn back to the window. It’s now a black mirror, and I can see myself: an exhausted therapist at the end of another long week. But when I look closer, I see a girl, and she’s terrified. I can almost hear her saying, Help me, Nancy. Help me. I can’t pull my skirt up ... please don’t make me.

Alison Boulan is a writer and photographer living in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Her writing has appeared appeared in Lucid Stone, WordWrights, Carriage House Review, Natural Bridge, jerseyworks, Pindeldyboz, The Dogwood Journal, The MacGuffin and Oyster Boy Review. Alison fills her days with walks in the city and long conversations with strangers who seem to enjoy her colorful personality.

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