She sat there, once, twice gazing tentatively
Trying to recollect a time
When memory was like a glass of Amarula
Sweet and intoxicating
She sat there and found none
Her mind and body had become numb
Her soul floats in a sea of calmness
All energy from years of pain dissipated
Leaving behind a hollow feel
Her senses were active and then dull
Her mind was sharp and then not
This was a healing they said
For it came out like a wave,
Floating out of rocks and forgotten seashells
She thought of all plausible occurrence that led her here
She smiled inwardly because now she can fill the void
Now her energy will encapsulate light and goodness
Now she will be careful, not fearful but cheerful
Leah appeared small and frail on the slim, hard iron bed in the corner of the room. She lay on her back with her head angled in an awkward manner. The room was bathed in fluorescent lighting that gave the stark, empty room a stern clinical feel. She had noticed it when they came to visit Mamita. The light bulbs emitted a low buzzing sound throughout the day, it had become soothing to her.
Her dull eyes were fixed on a white wall. Everything was white. The floors, the small bathroom crammed in the corner, the clothes they had given her. If you weren’t convinced of the true seriousness of your situation, the absence of color would break you down, making you aware of your hopeless condition.
It was quiet. Every now and again she heard footsteps coming and disappearing outside her room. Time had blurred for her since the day her legs gave out in the visitor’s room beside her mother. That day, she had slowly given in to the urge to close her hot, stinging eyes.
When she had come groggily out of sleep, she had been in this room. Her limbs had been heavy, her head raged. She couldn’t speak. Her tongue felt leaden and all she could manage were low guttural sounds. She had fallen asleep and woken again to someone force feeding her something warm and watery.
There were plenty of nurses. They came in and out. They stood over her body, talking about their personal lives and laughing as they worked. They gave her injections and called her name repeatedly until she forced her eyes open and saw them. They all looked the same in their pink uniforms. They forced her food down and followed it with medicine that made her groggy. Soon, her head stopped aching and things became clearer. She knew she was in the Clinic. After the scene with her mother, it was clear she couldn’t remain at the Centre and she wasn’t well enough to return home.
By now everyone at the Centre would know. So would her family. Bad news traveled fast. They were probably picturing her and her mother together. The thought had made her stomach heave viciously as she vomited onto the floor. After that, she had turned to face the wall and stayed there.
She had stopped feeling anything. She slept a lot. But even when she was awake it felt like she was walking through her dreams. People faded into the background like the noise from the light. From far away she heard Doctor Sulo speaking to her a lot. Leah would feel a slight depression in the bed when Dr. Sulo sat with her. She would talk about many things. Usually, they didn’t have anything to do with anything. She spoke about art, books, gossip about people Leah didn’t know. Dr. Sulo would laugh to herself and it made Leah feel better somehow. Dr. Sulo had taken to asking questions and answering herself. Sometimes Leah wanted to reply but she couldn’t make her mouth move. Her body was too heavy.
Only once did Dr. Sulo attempt to bring it up. Quietly, she mentioned her mother. The unexpected reminder sent a shock through Leah. She reacted violently, a cry ringing out from her. It cut Dr. Sulo short, sending them into silence.
“Leah,” Dr. Sulo tried again. Leah released another cry, stretching louder and longer than the first. Once it began the sound dug deep, refusing to stop. It grew into a scream that made Dr. Sulo gather her in an iron grip, keeping Leah’s own arms trapped at her side.
“Shhh shh,” she murmured, rocking her back and forth, her face pressed into Leah’s hair. But Leah didn’t stop. She screamed and screamed until her throat was raw and no sound could come out.
Leah was in therapy. She sat in a chair on the opposite end of Dr. Sulo’s light, brown wooden desk. The room, like the one she slept in, was more subdued than its equivalent at the Centre. Those ones were warmer. These ones lent themselves to seriousness.
Again, white dominated the color scheme. There was also less in the room. Besides the desk and heavy, white curtains on the windows behind Dr. Sulo, only a comfortable looking, brown backless, couch occupied the space, propped up against the wall. Leah missed the shelves of books in Dr. Sulo’s office at the Centre. They had given her something to do, reading the titles over and over again.
It was her fifth session here. It felt strange to be regarded as a serious patient. At the Centre, she’d always had the assurance that she could leave whenever she wanted. Now she couldn’t. Not without consent from her guardian, her grandfather.
Leah felt calmer than she had in the beginning. These days she got out of bed, dealt with her personal rituals, ventured out to the cafeteria for meals. She still didn’t speak to anyone and kept to herself. During their sessions, Dr. Sulo did most of the talking. Leah knew she hoped it would loosen her resistance and encourage her to follow her lead, but it had the opposite effect. Leah preferred to listen to her. The sound of her voice was safe and comfortable.
“J.J. came to look for you,” Dr. Sulo announced, peering closely to gauge her reaction. Leah offered none. Her heart skipped a beat and then stilled. The image of him the last night they had seen; in black, handsome, walking away from her into the night was fresh in her mind. It filled her chest with bittersweet warmth. She ached to see him and at the same time, she didn’t want to face his reaction. It gave her hope that he had come back. Perhaps he wasn’t as sickened as she had thought. But even if that was true there was no place in her life for him right now. There was a circle of chaos around her. It would be better for him to remain outside the circle.
“He wanted to know where you are,” Dr. Sulo continued. “Would you like to see him? The sooner you make some progress, the sooner that might be possible.”
Leah shut her eyes. She had to resist the urge to smile for the first time in a while. She must really be a hopeless case if Dr. Sulo was resorting to bribery.
“I shouldn’t be here,” Leah said softly, surprising herself.
Dr. Sulo was surprised as well. She straightened in her chair, hope crossing her features. “This is the best place for you right now. You won’t be here forever. ”
Leah’s eyes flitted open to Dr. Sulo’s face.
Seeing her opportunity, Dr. Sulo took it. “You know you have to talk about it, don’t you?” Dr. Sulo said, leaning forward. “You can’t avoid it.”
Leah’s eyes fell shut again. “No,” she said definitively.
“Leah,” Dr. Sulo said, beginning to speak but Leah disengaged. “No,” she said, again brooking no argument.
Her mind was made up about this. She wouldn’t talk about this. Now or ever.
It was her second month anniversary at the clinic. Dr. Sulo gave her cupcakes, decorated with smiley faces that made the occasion less grim.
She had become a staple there. The nurses treated her like a favorite little sister; giving her recaps of their favorite TV shows and bringing her pieces of the best food.
“You’re getting too comfortable here, Leah,” Dr. Sulo observed in therapy.
“Would you rather I hate it?” Leah said, folding in the chair.
“I would prefer you to get better and leave. It’s not healthy to hide from the world or your problems.”
“I’m not hiding,” she denied.
“Yes, you are. You’ve made us your surrogate family to replace your old one.”
Lea smiled. “Maybe they need replacing.”
“And what about you?” Dr. Sulo asked. “Your friends. Goals. Things you want to do that you can’t do here. You know Ter extended his stay at the Centre. He asks about you. Someone else asked about you too…Mamita. She came by a few days ago too. She left you something that you can’t get until you leave.”
Leah sat up in her chair. “She did? What is it?”
“You’d know if you weren’t here.”
Leah gave her a look. “You’re so annoying,” she said, without any animosity.
Dr. Sulo smiled.
Leah fiddled with the hem of the white top they gave her. “How’s Ter doing?” She asked, attempting to sound uninvolved.
“He’s making progress. As should you,” Dr. Sulo said, without missing a beat.
“Aaaaah,” Leah exclaimed. “You’re like a broken record. No one likes scratched CD’s nau.”
Dr. Sulo smiled and shrugged. “You know how to make me stop.”
Leah stared mutinously at her for a moment then began to laugh. “You really are the most annoying person in the world.”
The three of them sat around a rectangular, white table in the cafeteria, each of them quiet. Leah’s hands were placed delicately on the table in front of her where her gaze was trained. She felt self-conscious for the first time, in the Clinic’s clothes. She fidgeted with the too-wide neck, wishing she could have changed into something that made her look less like a prisoner.
Her grandfather had aged significantly since the last time she had seen him. He was leaning heavily on the golden handle of his black cane. When he sat he let out a breath and hadn’t spoken since. Stephen hadn’t been able to look at her. He looked everywhere but at her. When she attempted an awkward smile in his direction, his eyes dropped to his shiny, black shoes.
The silence was hard to bear but Leah refused to fill it. She expected they had questions, recriminations, accusations. She kept her back straight, waiting for them.
Dr. Sulo thought their visit would be good for her. “I’ve tried everything with you, Leah,” she had told her. “It’s time for you to face it on your own now.”
Her Grandfather cleared his throat abruptly, bringing her head up to face him. His intense brown eyes stared back at her and she braced herself, waiting.
“How have you been? Have they been treating you well?”
His question surprised Leah. Her forehead screwed together. “Have they been treating me well?” she repeated in bewilderment.
He nodded gravely. “Are they feeding you properly? Have they been manhandling you?”
“That’s what you want to know? Have they been feeding me?” Leah asked carefully. “You don’t want to know what was happening with your daughter in your house?”
He flinched and quieted. His hand tightened over the handle of his cane. Leah glanced at Stephen who was looking away, towards the door.
“Why are you looking at the door?” she asked. “Is the truth too ugly for you?”
Stephen shut his eyes and ran a hand over his face. “Leah, stop.”
They were really going to pretend none of this was happening, Leah realized. Even now, when it was right in front of them, they preferred to pretend that it wasn’t.
“Stop what?” She said softly. “I know you. Stephen. I know that you want to know. Do you want to know when it started? It started when I was seven. Do you want to know what she did? She used to touch me in her room and she used to make me touch her back. Do you want to know how long it lasted? Ten years. Do you want to know if I hated it? Not all the time. ” She turned to her grandfather. “Do you want to know why I didn’t tell you? Because I didn’t want her to get in trouble. And because I shouldn’t have had to tell you. Why didn’t you see it?” she asked, her voice rising steadily as a fury built. “Why didn’t you see it? Why didn’t you see it?” She shouted.
Her Grandfather’s head dropped with the force of her hostility. After a moment, he raised his head slowly. Tears were trickling down his worn, wrinkled face. Her heart caught at the sight of it.
“I’m sorry,” he said, quietly, sounding older than she had ever heard him.
Leah’s anger dissolved and her own eyes filled instantly. A sob escaped Stephen on the other side. She whipped her head in his direction. He hunched over and began to sob, his entire body shaking.
“It wasn’t your fault,” she whispered. It was the truth. She had no right to blame either of them.
“You want to know the worst part?” she asked to no one in particular. Now that she had started, she needed to finish it once and for all. Her Grandfather didn’t shy away from it. He stared her directly in the face and waited.
“I don’t hate her. I love her. And I don’t know if I love her because she’s my mother or because she made me fall in love with her. How messed up is that?” Her tears began to stream unchecked down her cheeks. “How do I fix that? What kind of hope do I have?”
Her Grandfather rose quickly and came around the table to her side, his arms enveloping her. “You have hope,” he said, forcefully. “You have hope.”
Leah began to sob hard in his arms. Stephen came around the other side of the table and held her too. They clung to each other, crying together in the silence.
Leah walked the grounds of the Clinic, her gladiator slippers sinking into the dewy grass. She wore a loose fitting black dress with oversized pockets into which she had slipped her hands.
The nurses had made a big deal about returning her clothes. “We’ll miss you,” they cooed, crowding around her. Oddly, she would miss them as well. She had been in the Clinic five months and it would be strange being back out in the real world.
It was time, she was sure. She had spent the last few months committed to her therapy. She had opened up, forced herself to reveal the deepest parts she had sworn never to speak about. It had paid off. She was more peaceful than she could remember ever being. She was grounded, settled. She no longer possessed the compulsion to keep her door ajar or avoid being alone. She still battled a wave of sadness when she thought about J.J. but she tried not to dwell on it.
Her only lingering worry was a dull pang of emptiness inside her that she couldn’t fill. She kept waiting for it to get better, but it was like an open wound that wouldn’t heal over.
Leah moved through the palm trees behind the building to one of the wooden benches bolted down under the shade. She sat to savor her last moments at the Clinic.
“Hi,” Dr. Sulo called out, drawing Leah’s attention. She came towards her in a large doctor’s coat, worn over a long skirt and prim blouse. A medium sized, black gift bag hung on her arm.
They had forged a surprising friendship over Leah’s time there. So much so that Dr. Sulo had turned over Leah’s therapy over to Dr. Emmanuel, a paternal, graying man who would be more objective about her treatment.
“Hello,” Leah said smiling up at her.
“You’re graduating,” Dr. Sulo said. “Congratulations.”
Leah laughed. “Thank you.”
Dr. Sulo sat beside her on the bench. “Are you ready?”
Lead nodded. “Yeah, just waiting for my brother. He will be late. He is always late.”
Stephen was coming to take her to the apartment her grandfather had arranged for her. Her mother had moved out of the family house some time ago but Leah could not picture moving back to that house. Not after everything that had happened.
Dr. Sulo smiled. “While you’re waiting, I brought you some things.”
Leah raised an eyebrow. “What?”
Dr. Sulo reached into the gift bag and pulled out an A4 sized envelope. “From Mamita.”
A slow smile engulfed Leah’s face. She took the envelope and smoothed it out, then slipped it open and pulled out a single sheet. She gazed down at it and smiled.
“It’s a letter. I’ll read it later.” She glanced at the older woman. “What else did you bring for me?”
Dr. Sulo smiled and reached into the bag and pulled out a coffee cup. “Well, first of all, coffee,’ she said.
Leah took the cup from her. It was warm in her hands. Dr. Sulo retrieved one for herself and took a sip.
“And now that we are drinking,” she began, trailing off. She reached into the bag once more and pulled out a black, leather bound book and laid it gently on Leah’s lap. “I made you a promise some time ago. Are you ready to have the talk?”
Leah stared down at the bible in her lap for a long moment. Then she looked at the woman beside her.