“The Ones We Send Away” by Jenny Drai

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Playful, decorative by August Klotz; this and images below from the Prinzhorn collection

In Beige-Land, the police pack the homeless population into their squad cars and drive them to a neighboring town. Whether official or unofficial, that’s the policy. The Beige-Police deposit the homeless individuals at the steps of the town hall of the other town and then whiz back to Beige-Land in air-conditioned comfort. Here, now, it’s happening again. I’m nursing a papaya salad at the Thai place in the strip mall near my apartment, thinking about how I should be looking for a new apartment. Instead of wasting time on Facebook, which is what I’m actually doing. It’s just as I share a meme of a kitten dangling from a clothesline that two cruisers descend on the woman pushing a shopping cart who has been loitering outside in the parking lot.

My nose is running from the salad’s spicy heat or from the antipsychotics I’m taking. I’m not sure which. Cold-like symptoms stares out at me from the folded list of possible side effects I get handed along with my prescription whenever I refill it. Todd, currently in the process of divorcing me, hated my runny nose and my wet upper lip, slimy with snot. I try not to think about the medicine right now or about how unspontaneous I am. Or about the slight blush that rose on Todd’s face when he introduced me to Sandra, his new co-worker, at the last of his company picnics I attended with him. Sandra came across as bright and cheerful without being fake. Warm and genuine and good with people. Above all else, though, like she might be the kind of person who would consider going on a weekend getaway last minute, something Todd had always wanted to do. She had a rich, throaty laugh and pleasant crinkles around her eyes whenever she smiled. I wanted to be her in that moment. The kind of person who could live without structure and make spur-of-the-moment decisions without ruining my entire day. Now, I push my bangs out of my eyes and take another bite of papaya salad.

The homeless woman in the parking lot is putting up a bit of a fuss. I think about what she means, the unsightliness of her, about how the other inhabitants of Beige-Land find her rude for existing. I start to wonder who called the police. There’s a woman at the table next to me with frosted hair, not a strand out of place. She’s wearing steel gray capris, a dazzling white sleeveless blouse, and expensive-looking leather sandals. She reminds me a little of Sandra, because when I met Sandra, she was also dressed in a manner that seemed stylish without effort. The woman in the parking lot is wearing several layers of unseasonable, tattered garments. Maybe she doesn’t own any summer clothes. All I know is that the world around her melts and hazes with heat. I read once that dressing in unseasonable clothing is a symptom of schizophrenia and thought about all the times I had sat around in my baking Beige-Land apartment, wrapped snugly in my winter coat. Comforted and protected by all that extra warmth. Now I shovel strings of papaya into my mouth, into the waiting gap between my burning lips.

I love chilies. Lately I’ve been eating more spicy food, in order to convince myself I’m alive, but I’m not sure my efforts are working. I feel tired a lot and bogged down. Lonely and trapped. I know I need to give notice to the building manager and find a new place to live, but all this beige paralyzes me. I don’t belong to these people. I can never be like them. They wake early, and go running, and work eight hours a day at jobs they’re good at without losing their minds. All while managing to do chores as well, and cook healthy meals, and have friends, and go out for the occasional quiz night or candle party. They make last minute plans. And their bodies are stripes of fire, alive to desire, no, not at all numbed out by meds. People like Todd and Sandra, who lead rich, full lives without having to chart their moods or keep records of their daily schedules that revolve not around big, important things—like Meeting with DeShawn and Eileen at 9:30 am in conference room to discuss new product launch—but rather around teensy, tinsy, mundane things. Wake up. Get out of bed. Do deep breathing exercises. Journal. Because that’s where I am. I’m two months in out of a three-month leave of absence from my job as a youth services librarian. I didn’t dislike my job, but it took enough of my energy that I didn’t often have much left over for quiz nights or candle parties. Nor did I walk around like a sex kitten, which never seemed to matter much until the company picnic when I saw the slow blush creeping over Todd’s face.

Here I am. Sandra again. I try to shake her, but end up looking back out into the parking lot where one of the cops is pulling on blue latex gloves. I tell myself to finish up here and go home, to begin the short walk to the other end of the strip mall, past the Target, across the road. I need to get out of here, away from these closing-in walls. And I need to call my brother, who has promised to help me sort out my finances. My heart starts beating faster just thinking about money, so I look at the woman with the frosted hair to distract myself. Her sandals might be Prada. I try not to hate her, or even not to hate Sandra or Todd, because hatred feels weak.

The woman in the sandals seems satisfied with the goings-on in the parking lot. She’s barely touched her green salad. From here, the lettuce appears somewhat wilted, probably from being drenched in peanut sauce. The thought of the smooth, sweet-nutty taste of the peanut sauce provides me with momentary comfort. It occurs to me that this woman may have been the one to call the police. I think about how I’m sitting here, doing nothing to intervene on behalf of the homeless woman. About how a weird sort of relief floods me, that I’m in here and not out there. I wonder why people do what we do and why watching the plight of another makes us feel safe.

The woman in the sandals is the High Priestess of Beige and, in fact, her leather purse is beige. Two men in golf shirts walk into the Thai place and up to the counter. They’re joking between themselves and I overhear one of them say: Would you want to touch that? I realize they’re talking about the blue latex gloves the police officer is wearing. Blue gloves on my skin once. I remember that touch and recall perfectly the security guard stationed near me in the ER and all the 51/50 paperwork. Paperwork is a headache, especially for the already confused. I’m lucky because I had my brother to help me fill out the necessary forms for my leave.

Now, I fork a last wedge of tomato into my mouth and suck down the rest of my iced tea. Pale sweetness. The police car with the homeless woman drives away. I watch them go, an outsider among all this beige. My bangs are currently green. I forget about this sometimes, but I dyed them that color the week I got out of the hospital. I suppose I was thinking, if I can’t be normal, why even try? Before I leave, I send silent curses in the direction of Golf Shirt Warlock One and Golf Shirt Warlock Two. I curse the High Priestess as well. They’re probably safe. I don’t have much power.

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Abstract, anonymous

Malina, Jan whispers. She shushes him because it’s raw-night, ink-dark, and he should be asleep. Tomorrow is going to be a long day. What he doesn’t know pries her heart apart and splinters the rest of her into jagged glass pieces. Mutti and Vatti are sending him away. Malina, he repeats. Are you awake? Jan is her cousin, the youngest son of her father’s dead brother. There is nothing for him to inherit and Mutti says she already has enough mouths to feed. That she can only stretch a loaf of bread so far. Bread doesn’t grow on trees. Mutti, Malina said. Bread is made of grain. Grain grows in stalks in the field. Maybe not on trees, but—Mutti boxed her ears for being smart and told her she would be lucky if she weren’t sent away as well. She had half a mind to be rid of Malina, Mutti said. Who needs a fifth daughter? Mutti shook her head and spit out her sharp words. Not me.

Now the daughter remembers the kernel of worry that sprouted in her stomach, but also how easily she tore that worry out by the root and trampled it. Mutti would never sell her, not even for gold. But Jan will be taken to one of the new settlements in the East because a silver-tongued man in pied clothing came to their town and spoke in the square. He offered coin for able boys and girls. Now, she relents when Jan says her name for the third time. Malina. She opens her eyes, letting them adjust to the blank dark under the sloping eaves of the roof. This is her place. This is where she belongs. Now Jan tells her they have to run away. He says they can live in the forest and nourish themselves from nuts and roots. That they can be together, always. Has he been listening at closed doors? How much does he know, or does he only suspect? Jan is fifteen, almost a man. His lanky body is able and strong. How much coin will he bring? She wipes sleep from her eyes. They sit together in silence, listening to her older sister snore from the other side of the attic bedroom. Malina’s also fifteen, but already a woman. Could they truly live in the forest? She doesn’t want anyone to send Jan to the East. She never did. They played together as children. He was always kind to her and taught her to whittle animals from pieces of wood with a sharp knife. The pied man must have offered Mutti and Vatti a lot of coin for them to be so cruel. To split them apart. After Jan goes to the East, Malina will never see him again.

When they were seven, Jan told her he would have no other wife but her. Now Malina swallows that whole. She won’t think on it or she’ll cry. She pushes Jan’s old words into the dirt and dust of the floor beside her pallet as she shifts underneath her rough blanket. She wishes the pied man had never come. If only Jan ate less, Mutti would not be so angry. But Malina has a sensible head on her shoulders. There aren’t enough roots and nuts in the forest to feed Jan. She opens her mouth to speak. Despite the dark, she can see disappointment flood into Jan’s eyes.

How many lives do you think you’ve inhabited? The woman asking seems dreamy somehow, standing before me in her pale blue blouse comprised of three swathes of draped gauze. I don’t know, I tell her. I’ve never really thought about it. The woman—her name, she tells me, is Larkspur—helps herself to a feta-spinach puff from one of the trays of canapes being carried around by the hired wait staff dressed in black and white. I meet the strangest people at weddings. Last summer, for example, when my brother got married. What did that one guy in the red blazer do for a living? He was a pet psychotherapist, I think.

Now I tell Larkspur: To be honest, I’m not sure I believe in reincarnation at all. Her jaw drops, which is unfortunate, because her mouth is full of chewed up food. Oh, but you absolutely must, she says. If you don’t explore your past lives, the circumstances, the issues, how will you ever find peace in this lifetime? Especially someone like you, she informs me. Thankfully she’s swallowed by now. I can tell from your eyes. You have a very old soul. You’ve seen things. I’m trying to think of a response—because she’s right, I have seen things, but I can’t think of what that has to do with reincarnation—when a man sidles up and throws an arm around Larkspur’s shoulders. He twinkles in my direction and says: I see my lovely wife is trying to talk to you about souls. Forgive her. But she makes a good living sorting people out. Past life regression, hypnotherapy, a little traditional psychotherapy thrown in the mix for good measure, you know. Her practice is a big deal. Larkspur is one of the field’s head honchos.

Larkspur laughs out loud and swats the interloper gently on his arm. When she laughs,  I can’t help but notice how her mass of dark blonde curls shakes along with her. She puts her whole body into the laughter. Then I remember the last company picnic I attended as a spouse, and Todd’s nervous laughter. How he stumbled over the words as he told Sandra what I did for a living, as if his tongue were thick in his mouth. A children’s librarian. I remember his voice when he said that. I felt like a mouse. As unsexy, as undangerous as possible, especially when Sandra chuckled and said: Well. That’s nice. Now I turn to my new companions and say: Who knows. Maybe I do have an old soul. I’d buy that.

Another waiter passes our group, this time with a tray of tiny fruit shish kabobs. I grab a skewer made up of one green grape and one dark pink watermelon chunk. But I’m less inclined, I continue, to buy into the idea that my soul is old because it’s lived a few times over before this body got it. As Larkspur stares at me, a sad expression spreads across her face. I wonder if that’s her given name. I guess it doesn’t matter. But where else do your deepest fears and desires come from? The ones you can’t explain no matter how hard you examine your own, present, life?

I feel the chewed up grape slide down my throat, busy wondering if I do harbor hidden fears and desires, ones I can’t account for. I’m pretty sure I don’t. I can connect all the dots in my head to this life. I know I got spooked by Todd’s crush, the way he kept turning his head while he thought I wasn’t looking, to keep an eye on Sandra at the company picnic. I also know I thought I needed to show him he had no reason to stray because he was already married to an exciting, adventurous person who could fulfill all of his fantasies. So I stopped taking my meds. He liked the new me at first, without knowing how or why I was new, although that changed as I approached my explosion.

As for Larkspur, she’s not letting this go. A lot of times, my clients can’t shake a phobia, or free themselves from an issue they’re struggling with until they explore their past lives. She goes on to list her credentials, which sound like a combination of the real and the mumbo-jumbo. I notice that her husband has drifted off. He’s talking to one of the wait staff. Flirting with her, I think. I watch as he taps the young woman lightly on the black uniform fabric covering her ass and wonder how Larkspur and her husband know my sister. This is her wedding I’m at. I scan the crowd for my brother but don’t find him anywhere. We still need to have our talk about my finances. Maybe, if I’m lucky, he’ll even help me sort through studio apartment ads, which is proving to be an overwhelming task. Once I give notice on my place, I’ll have to admit to myself that Todd has a new place to live. I try not to think about it. I try not to think about it some more. Now I stab the watermelon chunk with my incisors. A little juice spurts out and hits Larkspur on the nose. She’s standing that close. She hands me a business card. Call me, she says. Book a session. You won’t be sorry.

In Beige-Land, if I’m not careful, every day would resemble the next. It’s bad enough that it’s impossible to tell one beige house from the next. Sometimes I go to the nearby Target and walk the aisles just so I can tell myself I’m getting out of the house. Now, I’m walking through the heat to the Thai place at the strip mall for lunch, even though, considering the state of my finances, I should probably be eating cold cereal at home. By the time I get there, about ten minutes past noon, there’s a line at the counter where you place your order. The Beige Priestess in front of me laughs into her phone. The Beige Warlock behind me stands gleaming and shining in a clean white dress shirt.

I’m thinking about how beige is basically the same as white and about how I can never be one of these people, no matter how hard I try, when Todd walks in with Sandra in tow. My heart leaps in my throat. Then it plummets all the way to the bottom of my stomach. Betrayal all over again. Why would he come here? Our apartment—my apartment now—is convenient to his work, which is why we moved here in the first place, but why would he do this to me—and with Sandra to boot? He knows how much I like Thai food. I watch Sandra peer up at the menu on the overhead board and point in the direction of the color photo of Pad Thai. I want to disappear. If possible to sneak away without being noticed.

Sandra is wearing an elegant camel-colored sheath dress of brushed cotton. I’ve got on baggy orange shorts and a striped tank top that’s been washed a few times too many. Sandra has sleek, brunette, flat-ironed hair. In a flash, I come to understand that dying my bangs was a pathetic decision. I’m still thinking about trying to slip out unseen when I am seen. Sandra’s eyes slide over me, stopping when our gazes meet. There’s an awkward moment. She turns her head away first and says something to Todd, who flushes red. Then it’s our eyes meeting. I realize there’s an apology on his face, that he doesn’t want to be here. But he came all the same. I don’t know what to do. I can’t leave now. I’m at the front of the line by now and compromise by ordering my papaya salad and Thai iced tea to go. The whole time, I can feel eyes on my back.

As I wait for my food, I torture myself with imaginary conversations. No doubt Sandra would never be so petty or cruel in real life to try and force me into an actual conversation, but for a few brief moments I indulge myself and make her so in my mind. Fine, I tell her, when she imaginary-asks how I am. As I play mental gymnastics, Todd, in reality, looks like he wants to melt into a puddle right there on the floor. As for Real-Sandra, there’s an odd look of regret on her face. Maybe even shame. I’m pretty busy at work, I tell the bitch in my head. No need to bring up still being on leave in this conversation that isn’t happening anyways. Imaginary-Sandra laughs. I’ve always wondered, she says, what a youth services librarian does. The librarian when I was a kid mostly sat around and shushed us whenever anyone made a noise. Imaginary-Todd and I share a long, painful look. In my mind, he sees how awful Sandra is being and lives with the shame. Eager to appear competent, I imagine-tell Imaginary-Sandra all about my job. It’s not like that at all, I say. Into ether. Into nothing. I run literacy and after-school programs, do story times and movie nights, and buy books for the library’s collection. Imaginary-Sandra wrinkles her nose. She’s heinous. I grow larger where I stand. I suppose you probably have seven copies of every Harry Potter novel, she says. That’s when the very real man behind the counter hands me a plastic bag with a Styrofoam food container inside. I take a sip of my Thai iced tea. For strength, I tell myself. We have a few, I imagine-tell Sandra. Kids are reading a lot of fantasy right now, and dystopian fiction as well, but I try to round out the collection with contemporary and historical titles. Imaginary-me, the consummate professional, always ready to talk shop, and definitely not on leave. All the same, I wish I could slip into history now. When I was a child, I loved reading stories set in the past, because slinking into someone else’s time provided the perfect escape. As for dystopian fiction, I stay away from it now. Beige-Land is dystopia enough.

I nod a rushed goodbye to Real-Sandra and Real-Todd before stepping out of the Thai place into sweltering heat. My fury over Sandra’s temerity in addressing me as if we were old friends weighs me down until I remember I made the whole conversation up in my head. This isn’t helping, I tell myself. This isn’t a real escape. Hatred is a weakness. There’s nothing for me to do now, save go home with my lunch and sit down with a book. I want to find out if Malina changes her mind and runs away with Jan after all. Or maybe she’ll make an impassioned, last-minute plea that will win over her mother’s heart. Far more likely, I suspect, is that Malina will be sent away as well. That’s when I see the homeless woman in the parking lot and hear some Wicked Beige Witch near the restaurant entrance tut-tut to a Wicked Beige Warlock. Beige-Land has great dumpster diving and gentle, sprawling parks. Coming here is worth the risk. At worst, some poor sap gets a ride out of town and a long walk back in. Now some Beige uses the word trash. I feel the blue gloves on my skin all over again.

What can I say? I was out of my head. 51/50 all the way. Blue gloves, bundling me into the black and white car as lights flashed. Nobody likes it when you scream in the street, when you turn over trash bins but can barely remember your own name. Then the police officer drove me to a building. White-walled, the hospital, and I fell in. For two weeks, but the time hardly mattered because I couldn’t feel it. What I felt instead was groggy, at first, but then slowly I came back and started noticing my surroundings. One day I looked out the big, shatter-resistant windows in the day room and saw a large brown bird perching on a lamp post in the parking lot. A hawk, I think.

The first nights were horrible. I started crying outside the nurses’ station about three evenings in. There was a nice woman who brought me a cup of yogurt and a small container of orange juice but I couldn’t eat the food or drink the sparkling sweet liquid because it was after nine pm and I was due for labs in the morning. I’m not sure I could have anyways. The sides of my throat stuck together like glue and a powerful jackhammer worked in my stomach, piling away at the inner lining. I made sure to clench my sphincter, so as not to shit my pants. I remember feeling cold and hot at the same time. Very inner and outer. I remember thinking about the trash cans and about what had happened directly before that—when I accused Todd of planning to murder me.

It had been deep night by the time the police officer brought me to the hospital. The fluorescent lights in the intake room shone with a garish sheen and flickered in a way that left my raw eyes wild and strained. There was a table and a metal folding chair. I signed some papers in my loopy script. I thought about not being murdered and about throwing the frying pan at the wall to distract Todd so I could get away with my life, which at the time seemed like a reasonable thing to do. The jackhammer was in my stomach back then too, in the intake room, but  I made it to the bathroom in time. I decided, then and there, that the hospital was a castle surrounded by a deep moat full of fantastical creatures. No one could hurt me.

It was my brother who picked me up on the last day. He drove me to the apartment in Beige-Land, which by then had a half-empty closet. Todd had already moved out. By then it was obvious to him that I had stopped taking my meds. I had broken our pact.

I spent my first night home on the sofa alone, thinking about my body. About how numb I felt and how broken. I took some comfort in knowing that those sensations were somewhat temporary. No. I wouldn’t always feel as if I were trying to move through a wall of sand. I also thought about slow-sliding down into a murky pit and about how much Todd had liked me at first off my meds. The television hurt my sore eyes and the only thing I could read was YA.

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Decorative, anonymous

After they cart Mother away, Father calls Mary into the parlor and tells her she is now the Lady of the House. Mary is never to think about Mother’s wretched behavior. She is in a better place now with people who know how to care for her. Mary notices the look he shares with Aunt Treacherous. That’s Mother’s younger sister. Aunt Treacherous—of course that’s not what Father calls her—will be the one to teach Mary how to be a Lady. At sixteen, it is high time she learned. Aunt Treacherous speaks of the dresses she’ll need. Mary remembers the time she heard a door slam and then saw Mother rushing away from the closed door, her eyes red and her hair mussed. She ran past Mary, her daughter, as if she couldn’t see her. Mary went to the door and opened it. Father and Aunt Treacherous stood in front of the fireplace, very close together. Mary understood then what was happening and she understands now. She is not a little child.

Now Aunt Treacherous pulls the bell for tea. Mary is supposed to forget about Mother and sit here with these Cheaters in this parlor. This morning, Mother appeared in the dining room, her face wan and pale. Her long dark hair hung lank and unwashed around her shoulders. Father told Mother that she must go back to bed, that she wasn’t fit to be on her feet. Mother tried to meet Mary’s eye, but Mary shrank away from her blank stare. Aunt Treacherous gave Mother a withering look and spread the toast on her plate with thick, creamy butter.

Mary wants to understand what she doesn’t understand.  Why do people send others away? Merely because they become inconveniences? Mother has always loved Father although he hardly deserves it. Now Betsy brings in the tray with the tea. How is Mary supposed to drink anything? Her throat is a stone. Also, if she is truly to be Lady of the House, then perhaps she should be the one to serve the tea. But it is Aunt Treacherous, regal in her high-necked crimson gown, who thanks Betsy and sends her away. And it is Aunt Treacherous who stirs two spoonfuls of sugar into Father’s tea without needing to ask how much he prefers.

This morning, Mother brushed past Mary in the hallway, but then, full of purpose, as if she were making a decision, pulled her daughter to her chest and held Mary close. You must be my knife. That’s what she told Mary, right before Mary shoved her away. Her mother’s need, naked and raw, unearthed a needy, raw site below the surface of Mary’s own skin. Her skin practically crawled with the discomfort. The only words Mother had spoken to Mary all week turned out to be a cryptic mess. Be my knife? Mary shook her head. Later the bell rang and Mary heard the front door open, followed by a flurry of muffled voices. That was it. When Mother was taken. Now Aunt Treacherous wants to buy Mary with dresses. It was a kindness on Mother’s part to take her in. Mary looks at Father. She hates him despite knowing she ought not to. He is all she has. Mary wants to understand but she doesn’t. Her fingers tingle where she had used them to push Mother against the wall.

Two weeks after the wedding, I touch numbers on my cell phone screen to book a session with Larkspur. She calls back fifteen minutes later to tell me she’s had a last-minute cancellation and can fit me in this afternoon. I tell myself this is for the experience, but the truth is I’m grasping for anything to hold onto.  I am surrounded by slowly accruing stacks of moving boxes that seem to close in these walls. My brother has been coming over in the evenings after work and helping me pack. I know I should do more on my own, but I’m still overwhelmed. Now the air in the hot apartment hangs thick and damp, a pea soup made of memories. Todd’s not coming back.

He finally called me this morning to apologize for bringing Sandra to the Thai place. That was insensitive of me, he said. She wanted to go, but I should have said no. Afterwards, I think she wished we hadn’t. Not just insensitive, I think now, but also lacking in courage. He should have stood up for me. I think about his frailty, his inability to forgive me for thinking he wanted to harm me. Of the way he looked at me with delighted surprise the first time I came multiple times after stopping my meds.  I’m nothing if not courageous, a bit foolhardy. I shouldn’t have put myself through what I did for him.

After we hung up, I felt listless and shoddy. I wandered into the bathroom and dyed my bangs green all over again. My sister had begged me to show up normal for the ceremony. I don’t know why it mattered. I didn’t make the cut to be a bridesmaid. I think my sister didn’t trust me to hold myself together, and besides, she was in a sorority and still had a lot of female friends. I made a bit of a mess with the green dye but I’d covered the white sink and beige-white floor tiles with plastic garbage bags just in case. Now I promise myself that when I arrive back home after my appointment with Larkspur, I’ll go through the junk drawers in the dresser that doubles as a television stand and throw out everything that isn’t mine. Then I try to imagine the appointment itself. I’ve never been hypnotized before and I don’t believe in past lives. I have no idea what to expect or what I’ll end up saying.

Thirty minutes before the appointment, I lock the apartment door behind me and walk down to the parking lot, slipping the key into the lock. The motor starts with a hum, which is a relief, because I haven’t driven anywhere in a while. I wonder what Larkspur’s office will be like, whether or not there will be incense, sandalwood maybe, or strings of beads hanging in doorways. Will she light candles? I have to draw the line somewhere. If there are candles, I decide I’m not staying.

But there aren’t. No candles in sight, not even one. Instead there’s a comfortable armchair, a recliner upholstered in soft corduroy fabric, and a light blanket for me to cover my legs with against the slight chill in the air-conditioned office. Rows of books line the white walls, which are hung with a few pieces of tasteful art. A watercolor of a red barn in a field. Another one of yet another field, this one full of poppies blooming in the sun. The red in the pictures throbs warm and good. The red leaks through the clear glass protecting the art from air, dust, whatever might damage it. Larkspur is there, speaking to me, her voice smooth and melodic. My head grows heavy. I fall back through the shadowy tunnel of my own brain.

When I come to, Larkspur talks to me in a gentle voice about Malina and Mary, plus a few others. Your past selves, she insists. I don’t tell her they’re just characters in YA novels I’ve read. I’m too struck. Too aware I’m so full-throttle lost that confused, fictional girls live under my skin, and take root there, and become lives of their own. Instead, I burst into tears. Larkspur hands me a large pink box of tissues, the soft kind with lotion on them. The contrast to the smaller, blue, industrial-looking boxes of cheap, scratchy tissues from the last hospital startles me. Unnerves me even. Makes me cry harder. Those small blue boxes were always lying around on the tables in the day room. There they stood waiting, ready to be passed if anyone got emotional during group. Now Larkspur attends to my sorrow. Her concern feels genuine. I explain to her about the divorce. I tell her about the before of it, about the sex and the meds, and about the now of it. Even about how I made up a conversation that day at the Thai place so I could feel angry instead of hurt. Larkspur’s soft voice tells me none of this is my fault. I decide it might not matter that what she’s peddling is mostly crap. It feels good to be taken care of.

I drive back to Beige-Land after scrubbing the red from my face in the bathroom of the office building complex where Larkspur has her practice. It’s so hot outside I can see shimmering shapes take form on the other side of the windshield in the thin, dry air. I park the car in my assigned spot and walk up the stairs to my apartment. Once inside, I fix myself a small dinner. Banana slices, peanut butter, milk. When the sky turns dark, I stretch out on the surface of the couch. After a while, I flip open the cover of the book I pull from the coffee table and begin to read.


Jenny Drai is the author of three full-length collections of poetry, two poetry chapbooks, and an award-winning novella. She lives in Dortmund, Germany, but grew up near Chicago in Brookfield, where the zoo is.