red sauce session
Your dad is dying. You decide to see a therapist. The therapist is a free therapist, provided by the government, sent from the base. The therapist says he doesn’t have an office and can’t come to your house but can meet you somewhere near your house, like the pizza restaurant up the street. The therapist sounds hungry. The therapist looks hungry in his photo.
The therapist is hungry when you meet him on a Tuesday afternoon. An afternoon like all the other afternoons when the sky is gray, threatening rain, and all you can think about is that your dad is dying and your friends are having fun somewhere without you but if you were with them you wouldn’t be having fun because you’d be thinking about your dad.
You walk up the street to the pizza restaurant. The therapist stands outside, waving with both hands. You’ve never met in person, but somehow he just knows it’s you. Maybe because you look sad. Maybe because you look happy, trying not to look sad. Maybe because you look American. No one else looks American because this is not America. This is a country where you touch cheeks instead of palms. A country where you don’t eat pizza with your hands.
“Hello,” you say.
“Hello,” he says, “shall we?” ushering you from the street towards the restaurant. You’re pretty sure he’s thinking about dough and cheese and red sauce, not your mental health.
He walks behind you very close, his scent, a sour mix of yuzu and pastrami. You step up and into the restaurant. He steps up and onto your heel, leaving your left foot bare and shoeless, toes exposed, the maitre-d’ looking down at them, thinking about sausages.
The stone floor beneath your foot cold, you brace yourself on the door frame and turn back for your shoe, but it’s not on the ground. It’s in the therapist’s hands and the therapist is on the ground. Kneeling, shoe clasped in both hands, wringing, begging for forgiveness. He holds it out like a basket of fruit, like a jewelry box, a cake. Are you Cinderella? Will it fit? Should you sit down?
You sit down. He slips the shoe on your foot.
Luckily it fits. Luckily you haven’t stepped in dog shit in these shoes, even though you’ve stepped on other things like slugs.
He gets up from one knee and extends his hand that was just touching the sole of your shoe. You touch hands instead of cheeks.
“Shall we?” he says and you want to say “You already said that,” or you want to say “Yes we shall!” or “Yes, why let’s!” or in a transatlantic accent, “By God Gerald, I just can’t bear it,” grasping your bosom with one hand, your forehead with the back of the other, flinging yourself to the ground facedown, your petticoats ruffled around you.
He pulls the chair out for you to sit. You half expect him to pull the chair out even further so that you land on the ground, your petticoats ruffled around you.
He sits across from you and you watch as he scans the menu, asking you to translate ingredients because he was sent from the base and doesn’t speak this language. You wonder when the hour begins. He asks about your favorite pizza. He asks what kind of wine you want, how much? A glass, a carafe, a liter?
You put in your order and he puts on a face that says “Hey, I’m here. I’m here for you, I care,” but then his eyes dart around at neighboring tables, their pizzas.
Fist to your mouth, you clear your throat.
“Your dad...” he says, forehead furrowing.
It’s not a question or even a statement. It’s not a complete thought. You wait. You think about asking for his credentials, his resume. Calling references before you divulge a single feeling.
“So tell me, what’s up? What’s going on?”
What’s up? What’s going on? Is he twelve? No he probably has a twelve year old. He probably thinks you’re twelve because of your baby face and soft skin, because of the friendship bracelets you’ve had on for ten years, because you said Fanta, not wine.
But you proceed. You push past your snap judgements, and you divulge a feeling, but just a single one. He nods encouragingly and you divulge another. There’s actually so many feelings you want to divulge to anyone, no one, to him? Not to him? Icky ones, bad ones, conflicting ones, sad ones, but the pizza comes, two bubbling circles placed between you.
You eat your pizza with a knife and fork. He eats his with his hands and the other tables watch aghast. Whisper into their wine glasses, “Pffff,” eyes wide, heads shaking.
Oblivious, smiling with satisfaction, he nods some more, says between bites, “Time is the healer of all wounds.” You want to roll your eyes with your words, you want to say “Seriously?” you want to say, “Well sure,” you want to say “He’s not dead yet, what are you even talking about?” but instead say, “Please pass the oil.” He must have learned this line in therapy school. Or an inspirational quote book on grief. His spiral bound, college ruled notebook, quotes underlined three times, checking them on his way here, practicing out loud.
You want to ask him questions, you want to turn the tables. What are your dreams? What is your deal? How did you get hired? Can you expense the meal? Should I be a therapist for the government? Is this what taxpayers are paying for?
“Excellento pizza” he says to the waiter, thumb and index finger pressed together like the stray vowel he just added. Unsmiling, the waiter pours him more wine and you Fanta. You excuse yourself to use the water closet and head back down the road home.
Bronwen Lam lives in NYC. Her writing has appeared in the Drunken Canal, Spectra, and emails to her mom.