FICTION by Marie Becker
I put my hand on the dimmer switch. “Are you ready, Mrs. Coburn?”
When she nodded, I adjusted my headphones and leaned over the microphone.
“This is Wednesday, November 23, 2005 and this recording contains an hypnotic induction made for the exclusive use of Roberta Coburn by Claire Kendall of Grennet Hypnotics Incorporated. The material on this recording is not a subsitute for medical treatment, and this recording should not be listened to while driving or performing any other task which requires the attention of your conscious mind to the exterior world.”
The electronic tinkling of the piano crept into my headphones. Mrs. Coburn sighed and nestled more deeply into the chair. I flipped the switch that turned off the microphone with my left hand and pressed play on the first button of the CD player with my right, listening to my own pre-recorded voice flow into our ears, the sound both thinner and blurrier than it ever sounded in my own head.
“Now allow your eyes to close, if you haven’t closed them already, and listen to the music and the sound of my voice. As you relax, you know that you’re safe. Everything is taken care of, and all shall be well.”
I spent the Wednesday before Thanksgiving with dieters and hodophobes – or travelphobes, depending on the person. I have a list of 250 phobias pinned up out of view of the patient’s chair. Some of them relish the scientific imprimatur; some of them shy away from it. They’ve come for something more delicate and intuitive. “The holidays bring them out of the woodwork,” Seth told me. “After the New Year, you’ll get less fear-of-flying and more nicotine addiction.”
I handle the most basic clients, the ones who come to quit smoking or lose weight or want to be able to fly across the country without knocking themselves out on Xanax. Seth keeps the cases with medical or complex psychological backgrounds, and Janet the midwife is only in the office two days a week to work with the women she grandly refers to as her mothers. Mine are the clients and the problems Seth has secretly grown bored with, the bread-and-butter clients and the ABCs of clinical hypnosis. Not that they know that.
On my first day in the office, I was taken aback by the machinery. Even now I was occasionally unnerved by my six-year-old desire to push all the buttons at once in a mad and reckless orchestration, remembering how my little fingers had longed to control the VCR or microwave or anything else tucked away or above me. I thought all those buttons were the ultimate in power.
“It’s a warm day. The sun is overhead, and the sunlight touches you, warming you gently, all the way down to the bone, allowing your muscles to react. The air smells clean. Maybe there’s bird song overhead, or gentle breezes stirring the leaves in the trees, or flowers. In the distance might be mountaintops stretching up to the sky, or the sound of the sea lapping against the shore. This is a place of safety, and strength, and focus. And this image of a magical meadow is not an image I’ve created. It belongs to you, and it can be whatever you need it to be, and you can go there whenever you want. This is the place where your unconscious mind can go to gain power and rediscover what’s important to you. Now let one part of your mind observe everything that’s about to take place, and allow another part of your mind to fully experience it, and travel through time and place with the sound of my voice, listening to your own interior voice as it says, ‘I am calm. I am relaxed. I am in control.'”
* * *
I met Seth Grennet at a hypnosis conference at the airport Mariott. My temp agency had sent me to make sure everyone paid their registration fees and direct people to the main ballroom. It was the first February of my life that I hadn’t spent in school and I still felt as if I were playing hooky all the time. I liked being at loose ends.
And then I wandered into the keynote address.
Afterwards I hovered at the entrance, ostensibly giving people directions, but never letting Seth out of my eyesight.
“That was amazing,” I said.
He studied me. “But you’re not quite sure you believe it’s real.”
I was embarrassed to be seen through so easily. “No, it’s just really different.”
“Give me ten minutes?” he asked.
He hypnotized me to feel cold and my skin broke out in goosebumps.
That evening he hired me, ostensibly as an administrative assistant. He told me that his billing was a mess and his filing system was ancient and that much was true. Later he told me he’d known that within a month I’d be sitting in on sessions and writing inductions. He paid for my weekend classes and convinced the braver or cheaper clients to let me run their sessions for half-price.
“You fell in love with it,” he said, and I blushed. “It’s okay. I did, too.”
* * *
My last appointment of the day was a client Janet had referred to me the day before, the teenage daughter of a friend. Janet wasn’t exactly sure why the girl was seeking hypnosis, but she seemed to think she would relate to me better. This proved overly optimistic.
“Deirdre just lacks motivation,” Mrs. Billets explained, making a sweeping gesture with her manicured hands. “For anything.”
For fifteen minutes, her perfectly-groomed mother discussed what she described as Deirdre’s issues, from her poor posture and moodiness to her academic apathy and acne. I filled three pages with intake notes that descended into meaningless scribbles as she chattered on, making ever more emphatic hand gestures and occasionally prodding at her daughter to emphasize a point. Deirdre herself was a chubby, moon-faced girl with lank hair dyed a flat purplish black, thick eyeliner and ballpoint pen tattoos (at least I hoped they were pen) drawn on her hands. I finally managed to send Mrs. Billets to the waiting room for coffee.
“This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of,” Deirdre said.
“What about it seems stupid to you?” I asked, making an effort to sound friendly and curious. I’d had clients who were dubious, but they were equally curious, and at least civil, if a bit condescending. They wanted something, and I knew what I had to offer, and there was always a way in. This girl was all walls.
Deirdre blew a strand of hair off the face. “Last month she took me to a magnet therapist and bought me these fucking old lady bracelets to wear. Over the summer it was weekly trips to the so-called medical spa to clear up my skin. This is just her next new thing.”
“Oh,” I said. “Well, this doesn’t have to be like that. For one thing, if I’m hypnotizing you, you’re my client. Your mother isn’t. We’ll never do anything you don’t agree to, or don’t want.”
She rolled her eyes. “Look, my mom’s going to be the one to write you the check, so you’re going to do whatever she wants. Just swing your little pocket watch or whatever back and forth and in a month I’ll be a dipshit cheerleader or she’ll get bored and take me someplace else.”
“It really doesn’t work that way,” I said. I thought of myself at seventeen, my polished straight-A surface and something cold and sour underneath, wanting to please and defy all at the same time. I wanted to be kinder to her than I was then. Then anyone was then. “I promise. Hypnosis can’t make you do something you don’t want to, or be someone you don’t want to be. Even if I were trying to do that, it wouldn’t work.”
“Isn’t that the whole point?”
“I know that in movies and television they make it seem like hypnosis is all about being controlled by someone, but I promise it really isn’t. If there’s something you want to change in your life, it can make you feel really good about it. And it can be anything you want, it doesn’t have to be what your mom wants. Even if I were hypnotizing you to, um. . .”
“Wear pink miniskirts? Date the stupid apeboy from next door?”
“Sure. If those aren’t things you want, or things you really believed would be good for you and make you happy, you wouldn’t suddenly start doing them.” I tapped my pen against my hand, trying to remember the way Seth had described clinical hypnosis at that first conference, the first time he put me into a trance. “If I try to suggest something that’s wrong for you, your mind will just block it out. That’s one of the things I like about hypnosis. It makes me feel really strong.”
Deirdre raised a skeptical, pierced eyebrow.
“No, really,” I said. “It’s a good place to start trusting yourself. Your own mind takes in the suggestions that help you feel better, and blocks out the bad ones. If you believe that, you believe that no one’s going to force you to be someone you’re not.” I paused. “I know this will make me sound ancient, but I really wish I’d known that when I was sixteen.”
Deirdre stared at me impassively.
“So, do you want to give it a try?” I asked lamely.
She shrugged. “It’s not like I have a choice,” she said. She sounded less defiant and more defeated, and I bit against my lip, because that wasn’t right. She jerked her head in the direction of the waiting room.
“Of course you have a choice, Deirdre,” I said. “I’m certainly not going to hypnotize you if it makes you uncomfortable or unhappy.” Seth would back me up if we had to turn them away. We aren’t in the business of brainwashing.
She shrugged again. I thought about being sixteen. I never dyed my hair–I’m sure I’d still be hearing about it now if I had–or pierced anything more risque than my ears, but I remembered shrugging dozens of times a day, because there was no point to words.
Deirdre shook her head. “Just do it,” she said. “If I’m right it doesn’t matter anyway.”
* * *
I stayed late that evening, checking the billing three times while Seth saw his final client, a woman with splints on both hands and dark circles under her eyes.
“Have a nice day with your aeronausiphobics, Claire?” he asked, leaning over the desk after he’d escorted her to the elevator.
“Show-off,” I said, reaching over to take the client folder out of his hand and file it correctly. Seth’s version of small-talk.
“What are you doing for Thanksgiving, Seth?”
He smiled. “Nothing much. Rachel’s sister drove in last night, with the kids.”
“Should we have invited you?”
“Oh, no,” I said, shuffling the folders in her hands. “I’d have chickened out and gone home anyway.”
“You don’t exactly sound delirious with pleasure.”
I shrugged. “I’ve told you, they still haven’t forgiven me for dropping out of med school. I’m sure I’m going to hear about it again, is all. This’ll be the first time I’ve gone back since I disgraced the family, broke my father’s heart, you know.”
“I’ve never really had to consider myself a bad influence before,” Seth remarked.
“I don’t think I would have been a very good doctor, anyway.” I closed the file cabinet drawer. “We’re getting some new blank CDs on Tuesday. Is there anyone who still wants cassette tapes? Should I order more?”
He shook his head. “Do you want a session?” he asked. “For over the holiday?”
“I guess it couldn’t hurt,” I said.
“Losing the faith so soon?”
“No, no,” I said. “Not like that. It’s just that I’m not even sure what to suggest.”
He looked at me speculatively. “What is it that scares you when you go home?”
“I’m not scared,” I said, picking up the coffee pot and carrying it to the sink. “It just gets exhausting.”
“Exhausting how?” he prompted, his fingers resting on his chin in listening pose.
“Family exhausting,” I said, scrubbing the stains from the carafe. “We’ll talk about how much money Lauren makes, and when she’ll be made partner, and how generally brilliant she is, and in between there will be just enough time to reminisce on how stupid it was for me to drop out of medical school and how much they spent on my undergrad. Lauren’s bringing her boyfriend home, too, so we’ll have my having broken up with Keith to fall back on.”
“And you’re worried about spending the entire weekend on the defensive.”
“I’m not afraid of their disapproval,” I said. “If I was, I’d be a miserable surgical intern by now. That was the hard part, right?”
“The hard parts usually don’t ever end,” he said, taking the coffee pot out of my hands and offering me a towel. “Come on.”
I followed him into his office, so much larger and less cluttered than the one I shared with Janet, with neatly framed Turner reproductions and thin gold Greek masks on the walls instead of baby pictures stuck over every flat surface. I sat down in the recliner, twisting my hair in my fingers as he opened a drawer and pulled out a CD in one smooth motion.
“You know that you don’t owe your family their happiness,” he said as he dropped it into the stereo
I nodded, but the tightening of my stomach muscles already were beginning to disagree.
Seth began to dim the lights and then paused. “I mean it, Claire. You’re going to take care of yourself when you go home this time.”
I nodded again and he smiled at me. “Trust me.”
The music began, and Seth recited the same standard disclaimer I’d been giving all day, which made me giggle.
“Shh,” he said, and I did my best to focus.
“As we begin, I’d like you to imagine yourself sitting in a movie theater. Up on the screen the picture playing is of your life. You don’t have to watch it, you just know that it’s there. You can watch it, or close your eyes, or get up and leave the theater. You’re in control.”
Even as I dutifully tried to conjure up a cinema, with a wide screen and red plush seats, my mind floated, as it always did, to second-grade ceramics class and pinch-pots, lumps of clay unevenly hollowed out and squeezed into shape, with clumsy fingerprints left around the brim, and Seth’s long, tapered fingers moving over the edges, reshaping and reforming the edges, sealing off my weaknesses with his fingerprints.
* * *
“Have you gained weight?” my mother asked before I’d taken three steps inside the house that night.
“I don’t think so,” I said.
“Your face looks rounder. Maybe it’s just your haircut.”
Welcome home, Claire, I thought to myself.
Lauren air-kissed my cheeks and led me by the hand to meet Leo. “He’s a journalist,” she said brightly.
“Freelance,” he said with a grin and shook my hand, lightly rubbing the back of my hand.
I smiled back at him, but I was surprised. He was scruffy around the edges, his hair artfully messy, and miles away from any other man I’d ever seen with polished, intense Lauren.
I was desperate to go to bed by the time eleven o’clock rolled around. I’d only been home for two hours and I was already reduced to silently stirring my hot chocolate while the grown-ups talked about Lauren’s caseload and Leo’s journalistic exploits and my cousin Ben’s triumphs in business school. I began measuring the hours until I could leave.
I crawled into bed with my Discman to play back my session with Seth. “I’m only responsible for my own happiness,” I reminded myself out loud. I wanted to believe it.
* * *
On Thursday morning, assigned to peeling duty, I carried potatoes into the den and let the bag fall on the table with a thud. I’d spent the last two hours polishing the good silver and rolling out piecrust, listening to the lengthy description of the lavish wedding of one of my mother’s friends’ daughters, a girl I barely knew in high school and couldn’t even picture. By the time Mom got to the centerpieces of hard-boiled eggs spray-painted in metallic jewel tones, I was ready to scream. Lauren and Leo had to be better than this.
Lauren was lying on the sofa, surrounded by documents from the file boxes Leo had dutifully carried in from the car the previous night. She held a highlighter in her left hand and a pen in her right, and wore a scowl that had carved a v-shaped groove over her nose. I knew that scowl of old. If I came in juggling the potatoes and singing show tunes, Lauren still wouldn’t have looked up.
Leo, sitting at Lauren’s feet and listlessly poring through a magazine, did look up.
“Potatoes,” he said.
“Mountains of them,” I agreed.
He tossed the magazine to the floor and leaned over my shoulder.
“So, explain to me this familial distribution of labor. How did you end up peeling potatoes while Lauren reads her depositions all morning, Cinderella?” he whispered.
“I’d think you’d know. Lauren is very busy and important, of course.” I tried to say it lightly, but I knew it sounded petty.
Leo just laughed. “She’s tells me she’s due to make partner next year,” he said. “Some weeks I think I talk to her assistant more than her.”
He leaned in closer and reached around me for a potato. “Can I give you a hand?” he asked, his breath warm and surprisingly close against my ear.
I twisted around to look back at him and over at Lauren, who was intently scribbling onto her legal pad.
“Sure,” I said. “Go to the kitchen and ask my mother to give you a knife.”
I halfway expected my mother to come out and scold me for putting Lauren’s guest to work, but Leo returned smiling triumphantly, knife in hand, and immediately picked up the biggest potato to peel.
“Haven’t you ever peeled potatoes before?” I said, laughing as I watched. “Peel away from yourself, not towards, or you’ll end up scraping off half the skin on your knuckles.”
He flicked a scrape of potato peeling against my cheek. “You don’t enjoy flesh and blood with your mashed potatoes?”
“I’m a vegetarian.”
“Oh my,” he said, drawing it out in a drawl. “You are the bad daughter.”
“I see my reputation precedes me,” I said.
“Really. No medical school, no turkey. I don’t know how your poor mother gets out of bed.”
“It was worse last winter. You know what I was doing then?”
“Do I sense scandal?”
“I was temping,” I whispered. “To hear Mom and Dad I might as well have been selling myself on the streets for ramen noodles and meth.”
“I’d think temping would be interesting, though,” he said, rolling a potato under his palm. “Different places all the time and move on. I like that.”
I shrugged. “I didn’t mind it, really, but I was ready to stop when I met Dr. Grennet.” I began cutting the peeled potatoes into quarters. “I think that bothers them more than anything else. We were all brought up on ten-year-plans. It isn’t just that they’d feel better if they could tell their friends I had an extra string of letters after my name. They honestly don’t believe that it’s possible to blunder your way into the right thing inside-out and be happier that way.”
“And you are? Happy, I mean?” he asked.
I smiled. “I love what I do.”
“And you believe in it.”
“It’s not a scam, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“I wasn’t implying that.”
“S’okay. I think Mom and Dad still think I’m set up in a stand between the bearded lady and the guy selling funnel cakes.”
“No funnel cakes?”
“I work in a very respectable looking office complex, with hideous fake plants in the lobby.”
We peeled in companionable silence for a few minutes.
“Do you want to hypnotize me?” he asked. His tone was friendly and unreadable—politeness to the ugly duckling little sister, or professional curiosity, or something not at all in the words and all in rakish grin and eyebrows. I couldn’t imagine anyone less likely for Lauren. She likes the definite, the precise, the polished to a shine.
“Do you want to pay me seventy-five dollars?” I tried to make my own tone light and insubstantial, nothing more.
“I think I might be a pretty hard case.”
“Why?” I asked.
“I’m very stubborn. Ask your sister.”
I shook my head. “Hypnosis doesn’t have anything to do with that.”
“No. Some people can be hypnotized more easily than others, but it doesn’t have anything to be with being stubborn or weak-willed or suggestible. It doesn’t work like that.”
“So how does it work?” he asked. He sounded pleasant but persistent, and I could imagine him pursuing sources, tracking down leads, coaxing out comments from people who should know better..
I glanced at Lauren before replying. “It’s a skill,” I said. “Yoga’s a skill, meditation’s a skill, blocking out all distractions is a skill, and being hypnotized is a skill. Some people are naturally better at it, and you can get better if it’s what you really want.
“You have to be able to concentrate. You have to be imaginative. You have to be smart enough to know what’s good for you.”
“Well, that’s not my strong point,” Leo said with a grin. “Witness my potato peeling technique. I’m a reckless man, Claire.”
I laughed. “Close your eyes. Well, you’d better put the knife down first.”
He closed his eyes and leaned towards me. “I’m waiting,” he said.
“Keep your eyes closed and roll your eyes back, like you’re looking into the sky.”
“I see the stars,” he said brightly.
I shook my head. “You can open them, but keep looking up.”
He obeyed. I leaned closer to him, inhaling his aftershave. His dark irises had floated away from me, obscured into his eye sockets, and in front of me was the translucent white of my mother’s good bone china.
“Okay,” I said, suddenly short of breath. “I could hypnotize you.”
“You think so?”
“I know so,” I said, picking up another potato. “I can see it in your eyes. Well, the whites of your eyes.”
He raised an eyebrow.
“It’s a biological marker,” I explained. “The Spiegel eye-roll test. We don’t know why, but the further you can roll your eyes back like that, the more easily you can be hypnotized.”
“I’d like to try it. You wouldn’t really charge me seventy-five dollars, would you?”
I laughed. “I could make your arm levitate for free. When you finish those potatoes.”
It was then Mom came to look for me, and she blanched at that last remark. So silly, I could hear the unspoken words. Such a waste.
“I’ll bring them into the kitchen in a minute, Mom,” I said.
Lauren looked up and blinked in Leo’s direction and he shrugged at me and relinquished his knife. “I guess I’ll see you at dinner. My vegetarian friend.”
“I bet you five dollars my dad will try to serve me turkey, anyway.” I said.
* * *
When I was a little girl I used to always swing my feet back and forth under the table during grace, where no one could see. It made me feel powerful–they could tell me to sit still and be quiet, but I could be quiet on the outside and raging, rebellious with movements they could never control. I kept my feet on the floor this time through the throat-clearing and murmured Amens, but it was an effort. This was the hour I’d been dreading, the closeness of the room and the smell of the turkey and the black hole of the conversation.
“Dark meat, Claire?”
“Vegetarian, Dad,” I said, twisting the napkin in my lap. It was going to be a long night.
Leo’s foot slid along my drugstore nylons and I drained my wine glass. Maybe not.
* * *
After I put away the last of the dishes, I looked out the window onto the porch. In the darkness I could see the smoldering end of a cigarette. This was a bad idea.
Or was it? If it were only words, strung together over the depressing chasms of the weekend? Only words, harmless, hollow words.
I opened the door.
“It’s a little freaky in there. Very House Beautiful,” he said.
“I can’t believe Lauren lets you smoke,” I said.
Leo raised his eyebrows. “Lets me smoke?”
“Hypnosis relies on very literal statements. I meant what I said.”
“I happen to be a free and independent adult fully capable of deciding to inhale tar and carcinogens of my own free will.”
“I just can’t smoke in her apartment,” he said, a little sheepishly. “Or her car, or mine if she’s going to be in it. Actually that goes for my apartment, too.”
“Or anywhere anyone who knows her might see me. Present company excepted.”
“Of course,” I said.
“Does it bother you?” he asked.
“Not really. My ex smokes. I think he’s going to look like an asshole when he’s doing it in scrubs with a stethoscope around his neck, but it doesn’t bother me.”
“Did she send you out to make me quit with your magical hypno-ray?”
I raised my eyebrow. “No, I don’t think she even saw you. She went to lie down. She has a headache.”
“Sure she does,” he said. He reached for his wallet. “I guess I owe you five dollars. ‘Dark meat, Claire,’?” It was almost physical, the way he mockingly imitated my father’s voice and then turned around to look me in the eyes. “Why’d you really drop out of medical school?”
“Oh, God,” I said.
“It’s my job,” Leo protested, his cigarette dangling. “Finding things out. Lauren promised me a mystery for coming, you know.”
“What, me?” I felt a tug in my chest, too dull to be pain. I shouldn’t have expected anything else.
I sighed. “Why does Lauren think I dropped out of medical school?”
Leo grinned. “She made a point of telling me it wasn’t because you weren’t smart enough.”
“How very sweet.”
“She meant it, I think.”
“Oh, I’m sure she did,” I said, sitting on the railing and pulling my sweater around me. It was a thin cardigan, not meant to be adequate November outdoor wear, but I didn’t want to go back inside.
“After I dropped out, and finally convinced them it was for real, you know what they did? They sent me Princeton Review guides for every possible standardized test I could take to prove I was still smart enough. GRE, LSAT, GMAT–Ben offered to personally tutor me for that one, and Ben has always hated tutoring anyone on general social Darwinist principle. Mom wanted to get me a life coach, and Dad was already trawling the Internet for biology PhD programs. And there I was doing data entry and answering telephones, and content. How awful for them.”
Leo was pulling off his jacket all through this diatribe, and when I had to pause for breath he leaned in to wrap it around my shoulders. “Shh,” he said. “I wasn’t aiming for a sore spot, honestly.”
“Sorry,” I said. “House Beautiful brings out my hypersensitivity.”
“I know. It’s okay.”
“I’ll always be ten years old here, playing catch up with Lauren and never getting there.” I looked up at him. “Why does Lauren think I dropped out, then?”
He looked away. “She says you got there and then you lost your nerve.”
“Lauren would think that,” I said. “She can’t comprehend that anyone could ever actually change their mind, so any deviation from course must just be poor planning or else just cowardice.” The word felt soft and mushy as I spoke it. “And Lauren’s never been afraid of anything in her life.”
“You still haven’t told me what you think, though. Since you’re the only one who really knows.” He perched beside me on the railing. “I love knowing things only one other person knows.”
I shrugged. “I finally figured out that it would have been a really good way to make myself miserable. At least I got out before I started clinical work and had the chance to make lots of other people miserable, too.”
“It wasn’t that I was bad at it. I would never have been great, but I would have been competent.”
“Ah,” he said. “And you weren’t conditioned to settle for mere competence.”
“I was so sick of it. I was sick of fighting with my boyfriend every time I outscored him on a pathology exam, and I was sick of doing better than him anyway, when he cared and I didn’t, and sick of studying, and sick of not being able to stop studying.”
“You were being held at gunpoint over your anatomy textbook?”
“No, but I was like an addict. The last semester I was there, I’d swear I was going to just stop, and then I’d get up in the middle of the night and study anyway. Not because I cared about it, not because I really wanted to do well. Just because it was what I’d always done.
“If you asked me what I actually wanted, anytime when I was in high school or college or starting medical school, I couldn’t have told you.”
“Yeah, but it’s not like you got into med school accidentally,” he argued. “Or that your parents enrolled you there against your will.”
“I never claimed it was,” I said. “I’m sure sometime, when I was six or nine, I said I wanted to be a doctor and meant it. By the time I began to think about changing my mind I was already in anatomy classes with a prospective doctor boyfriend and it was like I’d been sleepwalking the whole time. I had no idea how I got there. Twelve years of science camp and candy-striping and AP Chemistry and it all added up to this big black hole.”
“I don’t know that I believe you, Claire. You don’t seem like you’d be that easily influenced.”
“Do you know about Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield?” I asked.
He squinted at me.
“The Sweet Valley Twins.”
“I can’t imagine how I missed them,”
I punched him in the arm. “Shut up. I don’t know if there’s a cultural equivalent for boys, anyway. The thing is, these books gave me and my friends this total misconception of high school, right? That it was going to be this long line of romantic intrigues and parties and boyfriends and mysteries. Utterly transformative.”
“And then we all got to high school and realized how dumb that was and started marking time until we got to college, and that turned out not to be this magical portal to brilliant and romantic adulthood either. But it was worse for me because of Lauren because she was living that perfect high school life. Maybe it’s the age difference. I mean, she was sixteen when I was ten, and I thought sixteen had to be the most wonderful age in the world and I was suddenly going to be just like her.”
“You thought you were going to be blonde?” he asked, flicking at my dark hair. I stuck my tongue out at him and stepped back.
“I wasn’t dumb. I was just set up to want all the wrong things without even knowing why. Not to mention that Lauren spent her adolescence winning every single award the high school offered while looking like a Noxema ad, and now, well, you know. She looks like a lawyer on TV. No real lawyer should look like my sister does.”
“And what are real hypnotists supposed to look like?” he whispered.
* * *
On Saturday night my mother ran out of milk.
I offered to go pick some up, but my mother still doesn’t like me driving at night.
“I’ll do the driving,” Leo offered. “Claire can navigate.”
My father laughed. It’s a family joke that I didn’t really master left and right until I started wearing a watch when I was nine. But no one told me to stay home.
We drove in silence to the supermarket and he waited in the car while I purchased a quart of skim. As I walked through the aisles, I was sure I’d run into someone I knew, someone’s mother to ask how I was, some guy from my calculus class to ask me what I was doing now. Someone to whom I would have to be friendly and polite and cautious. Something, anything, that would slow time down until I stopped myself.
Then Leo was driving to the nature preserve and I fought the urge to giggle. Maybe this was what Leo meant when he boasted about his reporter’s instincts. He was taking me where my boyfriend Mark and I drove every weekend of my junior year in high school, the same overlook where I knew at least three of my friends had likewise lost their virginity. Not Lauren, though, I was pretty sure. Even high school Lauren wouldn’t have accepted furtive fumbled automotive sex, with the radio humming and sputtering advertisements and the lights from the freeway a blur on the horizon. Lauren never slummed.
He parked the car and we watched the red lights bleed away in the distance.
“I don’t do things like this,” I said.
“Aren’t you the bad daughter?”
“Not that kind of bad. This isn’t really me.”
“Okay,” he said, reaching over to unfasten my seatbelt with one hand, the other sliding along my thigh.
“Your sister,” he said, his mouth against my neck.
I moved my hand to cover his mouth. “I don’t want to talk about my sister anymore.”
* * *
The next morning I hid in my room, trying to stretch out the maximum amount of allowable time for packing three days’ worth of clothes. I folded and refolded the cardigan I’d worn on the porch, rolled up the nylons through which Leo had stroked my leg all through dinner, balled up the long-sleeved t-shirt he pulled over my bobbing head in the car. I was dressed for driving home and for subterfuge, a turtleneck covering the distinctive bruise on my throat, an oversized blue sweater swallowing my torso, skimming over the places he had kissed my breasts and run his fingers over my navel. When I looked in the mirror, my old bedroom reflected behind me, I looked the way I had in high school, when I’d dressed like this the first six or seven Saturday mornings after the first six or seven Friday nights I’d slept with Mark. Even that morning, dressing for church, with a scarf I’d found in the bureau drawer tied strategically around my neck, I’d expected my mother to look at me and see it all. I didn’t get caught then, either.
I felt as if I had swallowed a stone; my throat had locked during the prayer response at church earlier that morning, the words forced out in choked, sandpapery language. If my voice didn’t come back when I got out of the house, I’d never be able to do my Monday sessions. No one could go into a trance state listening to that.
During the first few months I worked for Seth, I spent days writing out sample inductions for him to approve. I’d never been called on for metaphor, and some days it was like slogging through swamp muck; I could feel my brain actually straining and tugging to find those muscles. It took me a long time to consciously imagine things and feel them at the same time.
Lauren tapped on the open door frame. She was wearing a blue sweater and jeans, too, but her sweater was fitted ice-blue cashmere and I knew that her jeans probably cost a month’s rent on my efficiency apartment. Even today, just to drive home, she was perfectly made-up, her princess hair hanging down her back.
“Are you almost done packing, Claire? Leo and I are leaving pretty soon.”
I nodded. The stone in my stomach rolled back and forth.
“I’m glad you came,” Lauren said too brightly. “I thought you might not want to, and I did want to see you.”
We’d barely exchanged a dozen words. I forced my lips into a smile.
“Are you happy, Claire?” Lauren asked.
I inhaled, trying to level my voice before replying, and Lauren pressed on. “I mean, down to the bone, sure that this is what you want every day for the rest of your life happy?”
“Yes, I am,” I said.
“Good. That’s good.”
Lauren pressed her lips into a thin ghost of a smile and I turned back to my duffel bag. Two hours, I thought. Ninety minutes if I plead heavy traffic.
Lauren sat on the edge of the bed. “Do you like Leo?” she asked. Her voice was suspiciously neutral.
“Sure,” I said, feeling my hands grow cold. “He’s nice.”
Lauren nodded. “Nice,” she said, with a slight frown. Since when has my opinion mattered to Lauren?
“I’m pregnant,” she said. For almost the first time I could recall, her voice sounded tentative, a timid murmur and not a complacent statement or supercilious interrogative. Just the simple, fragile words. Then they sank in.
“I‘m going to have a baby,” she said, sounding as if she didn’t quite believe it herself. “I haven’t told Mom and Dad yet,” she said, twisting the duvet in her hands. “I thought I’d wait until Leo and I worked some things out. You know. Decisions to make.” Her voice caught in her throat and she proffered a tight shaky smile. “I just thought I should have a plan first, for them.”
“Oh, Lauren,” I trailed off. I couldn’t say the things to my sister I might have said to my friends, couldn’t broach the possibility that Lauren, perfect golden Lauren, not marry the father of her baby, that she might not have the baby at all. Besides, Lauren has never needed my advice. I tried for reassurance.
“They’d be happy for you, of course they will. It’s a grandchild.” I tried to sound more certain than I was.
She shook her head. “It’s okay. I know they’re going to be unsettled. Because it wasn’t planned.”
“That doesn’t matter, Lauren,” I said. “Not if you’re happy.” My parents might not believe that, but I wanted them to.
“I think I am,” she said. “I think I could be.” She smiled, that shaky, watery smile so unlike her perfect camera-ready self and then looked up at the ceiling.
I put my head on my sister’s shoulder, and Lauren leaned back against me. Downstairs above the piano was a framed studio portrait of us in this pose, in matching blue flowered dresses and new-from-the-shoe-store white sandals. In my mind I could see Lauren a year from now, her hair cut in a sensibly short Mommy-bob (no self-respecting infant would let her get away with pin-straight hip-length hair) and circles under her eyes, and my heart thudded in my chest. This is finally the older sister I could have been friends with, I thought.
“One of the other hypnotists I work with is a midwife,” I said. “I can send you some of her CDs. She has a whole set for preventing morning sickness.”
Lauren produced a tremulous smile. “That’d be good.”
“And for when the baby’s born, too,” I said, my voice sounding stretched out and thin and rattling in my head. “People don’t think about it, but Lamaze breathing is really mostly just self-hypnosis anyway. There are other techniques, too–even when Janet’s clients do hospital births, they ask for less pain medicine, the labor’s shorter, the babies have higher Apgar scores–”
“Will you come?” she asked
“When the baby’s born.”‘
“If you–do you want me to?”
Lauren nodded. “You’ll be Auntie Claire.”
Anti-Claire, I thought. UnClaire.
“When you quit–” she began and cut herself off again.
“It’s okay,” I said. “When I quit med school?”
“I knew I wouldn’t be happy,” I said. “That mattered to me. And it was too important to do badly, you know? To be a doctor and only be halfway there all the time?” The weight in my stomach rolled and shifted. “I’m there now,” I said, forcing myself to meet my sister’s eyes. “Everyday, no matter what I’m doing, I know that I’m doing it. That was never true before.”
“It was pretty brave of you,” Lauren whispered. “I never thought about it like that. I never realized. . .” she swallowed. “Mom and Dad, I mean.”
“I know. It’ll be okay, Lauren,” I said. I tried to laugh. “I broke them in for you.”
I felt rather than saw her shake her head. We both knew it wouldn’t make any difference.
* * *
Leo carried Lauren’s file boxes back out to the car while she was kissing our parents good-bye.
“Call me? Soon?” she whispered as she hugged me.
I nodded my head against my sister’s neck.
Leo offered me his hand. “It was nice meeting you, Claire,” he said.
His hand was cold and clammy as I shook it. “You, too,” I said, looking at the space above his head. He needed to shave, and his hair stood up crookedly along the side of his head, and I hated that I still wanted to smooth it down.
He leaned in as if to hug me and I stiffened and reflexively looked at my sister, who was twirling a strand of hair in her fingers as she spoke to Mom. How could she not notice, I wondered? Lauren had never indulged in nervous habits. She had never so much as chewed on the end of a pencil. I shouldn’t like her more for that now.
I watched from the front door as Leo opened the car door for Lauren and she looked up at him and smiled. I wanted to run out and shake her, tell her she was smarter than this. But I couldn’t, and I didn’t know why.
* * *
Deirdre Billets was sitting on the steps outside the office complex when I arrived there at seven the next morning. Her dark hair stuck out in spikes around her head, uncovered in the 20 degree weather, and it made her look younger and more vulnerable until she opened her mouth.
“You look like shit,” she said.
“What are you doing here, Deirdre?” I asked, fumbling for the key and spilling hot coffee over my hand. “Don’t you have school?”
“I called myself out for the morning.” She paused. “You going to turn me in?”
I shook my head. “No, I don’t think so. But we’re very busy today, so I don’t think we can do anything for you here. Unless you want to make an appointment.”
Undeterred, Deirdre followed me upstairs and hovered behind me as I unlocked the door to the suite. She was on my heels as I hung up my coat and began pulling out the files for the day’s clients.
“It didn’t do anything,” she said. “I just thought I’d tell you.”
“Sometimes it’s hard to tell,” I said. “Usually when hypnosis is most successful, you don’t feel like you’ve been hypnotized. It all comes out from your subconscious.”
“Whatever.” She frowned. “My weekend really sucked, and my mom kept watching me the whole time to see if you fixed me enough, and I don’t think she’s convinced. You’re probably in trouble now, too.”
I slammed the file drawer closed. “I’m sorry if you had a bad time this weekend, but I did, too, and I really need to get to work.” I don’t know why Janet thought I could relate to this obnoxious girl. She made me want to stamp my feet like a child.
“What happened to you that was so horrible?” Deirdre demanded, her pudgy hands gesticulating madly over the last word.
I closed my eyes. “That doesn’t really matter, Deirdre,” I said. “If you want to make an appointment this week to talk about your Thanksgiving, and how you could train yourself to react to certain things differently–”
Deirdre laughed, a rough, raw snort, and stepped in closer, so close that I stumbled backwards and dropped one of the files, and as the papers spilled to the floor I heard myself speaking as if I were far, far away from my own body, my old outgrown self suddenly aching for the fights she’d turned away from.
“I fucked my sister’s boyfriend, and then I found out she’s pregnant and I really, really shouldn’t have told you that,” I said, feeling entirely deflated by the time the sentence wound down.
Deirdre burst out laughing. “You’re so fucked up! That’s awesome.”
“No, really it isn’t, and I really, absolutely shouldn’t have told you that.”
“So why’d you do it?” she asked, idly spinning Seth’s globe under her fingers. I set my hand against Africa to stop it.
“There’s no good reason for something like that, Deirdre,” I said. “It’s not the kind of person I want to be, or that you do, really. Even if you think differently now. Do you want to make an appointment or not?”
“Do you get hypnotized? By the other guy?”
I was momentarily foolish of enough to answer this question. “Yes. I do self-hypnosis, and Dr. Grennet hypnotizes me sometimes. Why?”
“Maybe that’s why you fucked your sister’s fiancé. Maybe he told you to do it.”
“Deirdre. No,” I said. “I told you, hypnosis doesn’t make you do things like that. Your mind knows better.”
“So do you just hate your sister? Is she, like, a total bitch? My sister is.”
I struggled to conjure Janet or Seth’s calm, authoritative tone into my voice. “Deirdre, this really isn’t an appropriate conversation for us to be having, especially not right now.”
She sighed. “You know how many times you’ve told me you shouldn’t have told me? I think you are hypnotized. Hypnotized to be boring.”
I bit my lip. “That isn’t why I keep telling you that, Deirdre. I don’t think my telling you can do any good. It has nothing to do with why you’re here.”
She traced the pattern on the carpet with her foot. It was hideously ugly carpet, inherited from Dr. Grennet’s predecessors in the office, waves of sickly green and grey.
“You kept saying that hypnosis made you strong, right?” she said without looking up. “It made you happy, it made it so you didn’t do things just because other people wanted you to.”
I sighed. “It’s not a get-out-of-jail free card. I also told you that your mind protects itself, that you aren’t going to take suggestions that go against who you are.”
“So that means you’re stuck?”
“I don’t think I understand.”
“You’re stuck being the whore who fucked her sister’s boyfriend, and I’m the stuck being the bitchy daughter who ruined everyone’s holiday.”
She looked around the office. “I’m not impressed.”
“I have a feeling it takes a lot to impress you,” I said and she sniffed. “No, that’s a good thing, Deirdre. Believe me.”
“Can I have some coffee?”
“Yeah, in a paper cup. To go. Somewhere not here. School would be nice, but I’ll pretend I don’t know anything about that.”
She giggled. “Okay, maybe you’re not completely a zombie.”
“Look, I’ll understand if you don’t want to come back, Deirdre. If it’s not for you. I know I said that I wish I’d known about hypnosis when I was sixteen, but maybe not. Maybe it just would have seemed like someone else telling me what to do.”
She shrugged and turned to leave, coffee clutched in hand. “I’ll be back next week anyway. My mom won’t let me cancel.”
I stood at the door watching her until the elevator closed and wanted very badly to cry.
* * *
“I see you’re back in one piece, Claire,” Seth said when he came in a few minutes. “Oh, you made the good coffee. You’re the best assistant-slash-protege I’ve ever had, you know.”
“I thought I was the only one you’ve ever had.”
He shrugged. “Minor detail.” He filled his mug and leaned over my shoulder to look at the day’s calendar. “So was it as bad as you thought it’d be?”
“No, it turned out pretty differently than I was expecting.”
Before he could ask anything else, Janet whirled into the room, her long coat sweeping in an arc behind her. “I told you he’d be a Thanksgiving baby, Claire. See?”
She produced a blurry digital photo and I forced my lips into a smile. “He’s beautiful.”
She nodded and moved to hang up her coat.
“Janet, can I talk to you for a few minutes later? Maybe after your ten o’clock?”
“Sure, honey,” she said, pivoting at the closet door to look at me speculatively.
“Not for me,” I said quickly. She laughed.
Seth carried his coffee cup into his office. He’d forgotten to take the file for his first client and I opened the drawer to pull it for him. I ran my fingers over the tagboard tabs and I thought about all those tender and satisfied minds curling up eagerly against his voice like kittens begging to be petted.
Marie Becker (MAPH ’12) lives in Chicago, where she works for lawyers and wrangles with cats (and sometimes the other way around). A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she is working on a novel. Occasionally she remembers to blog at Dubious Egg.