A week ago I went to talk to my school counselor. Getting help, any kind of help, is something I’d been considering for years. Often I would fantasize about confiding in a woman sitting next to me on the high-speed train to Madrid, the gentleman in the supermarket check-out line, a little-known writer of Sunday columns, or, in a fit of absurdity, Plato (this lead to a series of letters addressed to the most kind Mr Plato, which I keep behind my bookshelf, as furtively and as shamefully as a degenerate child would hide the instruments of deflowering).
Earlier this year I somehow managed to tell the story to two of my classmates, while seated in a swinging lawn chair. I had my eyes on the checkered retractable awning the entire time, not because I would not look at them, but because looking straight in front of me meant coming face to face with my reflection in the glass-paneled doors. The confession was a failure; it left me feeling squalid and ruined, for reasons I will not go into here. I’d like to make clear that it wasn’t their fault, however. She was a darling slip of a girl, all flashing skirts and floral smile, a milder, kinder Lady Green Sleeves. He was a debonair Holmesian character, with an ancient, Romulus air and Roman profile to match. They were gentle with guilty, doleful me, but they were also unprepared.
Afterwards, I lost all sense of the story itself. Where had it began, where was the development, the character designs, the pacing? All the narrative elements that I’d so carefully picked up along the years felt artificial to the point of obscenity when placed against the backdrop of my mother’s relapse and my parent’s divorce. I found that the anger and weeping of those summer days had wiped out the details, leaving a muddled strip of brightly colored, bursting memories. There was that far-away sun, the ice cubes in my mother’s tropical drink, that pair of well-meaning but terrifying policemen (“don’t cry, you’ll get double the gifts on Christmas”). Humiliated, I found that I could no longer distinguish right and wrong in that mess. Where had my sense of justice gone? Where was I, all that time?
Often I was (and I still am) filled with sudden and powerful remorse. I couldn’t believe what a big deal I was making out of this, when in dim and dusty Africa children live and die in white refugee tents. I choked it down, and I tried my best to be good. That period taught me that I’d never possessed humility, and that even if I was not a true egotist, I had cut corners. I learned the pleasure of existing, and that home, and all the extensions of it (everywhere I stepped became home – school classrooms and warm bookstores, marble plazas and tree shadows) deserved genuine respect and admiration. I lost, for sure this time, my fear of associating with other teenagers, and I found that the grinning flashes and little peaks in their intonation, those indications of their goings-about, their evenings at the squash court, their exchanges of loving-constructed in-jokes, brought me joy.
I know I have not been an excellent daughter, sister, or friend. I have been distraught and sordid, but through all the ugly times and door slams I have stayed, if not strong, than at least firm. My one good quality, perseverance, has stuck by me, through, if you’ll permit me the small cliche, thick and thin. Though I am often unsure and confused, I don’t mind being proven wrong, I don’t mind a chiding “No, Emma, look here, it’s like this.”
But still I couldn’t find the sufficient courage to confide in someone. I wanted so badly just to have it be out there, not in written form but in spoken word, syllables leading to the sentences of my shame. I tried to imagine the prototype of the conversation, and each model I trashed as being too casual, too flighty, too stiff, too horrific. I have been accustomed, for as long as I have lived, to think through absolutely everything, which I now realize has caused me to miss out on the spontaneous memory-making of childhood. So when I spotted my school counselor at the reception area, speaking to the secretary, it was in the spirit of impulse and necessity (and a third thing, which started in the pit of my abdomen and exploded out my mouth) that I called out his name. It was with shock that I discovered that he recognized me, despite the fact that we’d spoken only twice, and with even greater shock I found myself asking for an appointment with him.
This leads me to the events of the past Friday. I sat in a straight-backed chair and talked, for almost two hours. He put in a word here and there, but mostly he smiled, hands cupping his face. My breaths were quick and raspy, and my fingers, curled in my lap, twitched and fussed. When I remember it now, I have to laugh at the pretty picture we made: a schoolgirl in sneakers pulling out her whole life story like colored scarves from a magician’s mouth, eyes running and darting, and a middle-aged man with a beatific expression and nodding head. The words, miraculously, did not fall apart under the pressure. I found the bravery of a literary ancestor; I spoke as though I were reading poetry.
At the end of it, my school counselor looked at me, not with pity, as I’d expected, but with something akin to wonder. He said to me, “Emma, you’ve been through a lot.” I’d never been told that before, and with a rush I realized that it was all I’d ever wanted. All I had ever wanted was that acknowledgement, that I had suffered, and that I had worked hard, to defeat something greater than myself. I was a child, looking for an approving tap on the head, any indication that I was doing okay. I came to terms, in an instant, with it all, and my life up until that moment unfolded before me, palpitating and beautiful, in the true sense of that word. He said it again: “You have been through a lot.” I told him, smiling: “No. I have been very happy.”
“All I had ever wanted was that acknowledgement, that I had suffered, and that I had worked hard, to defeat something greater than myself.”
understood more than you’ll know.
This is very good in very many ways.
My doctor just told me that same thing- that getting up, putting clothes on, going about your business: that’s a victory.
You are strong, and a gorgeous writer.