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October 9, 2020


Shannon McLeod

Person rides their bicycle to therapy. It’s a tandem. They have added outdated science textbooks to the basket in back to weigh down the empty half of the bike. Person picked the books up from the dumpster by the school last week. The school marks the halfway point to work, and now it also marks where they picked up old books, and the time when the books became necessary.

Therapist is too chipper. A self-proclaimed athlete, her biceps stretch the armholes of her polyester polos. She probably plays tennis on days when she wants to “take it easy.” Person is talking about their coworkers: the one who is passive-aggressive and the other who is just aggressive. Therapist urges Person to be gentle with themself. Person brings up their mother because they don’t know what else to say. Suddenly, the sound of screaming. Stomping. A string of expletives like an incantation.

“Sorry about that,” Therapist chuckles without a trace of discomfort on her face. “That’s group therapy in the room next door.”

Person cannot bring themself to talk about the breakup with Therapist, who has clearly never been rejected or, if so, didn’t interpret it as rejection. Person has this realization after a guttural scream from the other side of the office wall, beyond the hyacinth which somehow never wilts.

After this session, Person hangs around the parking lot. First, they pretend to fiddle around with the bike lock, eyes darting up to the office door at grandfather clock intervals. Eventually, they take a seat at the picnic table. They inspect the peculiar graffiti in the worn wood because they’ve left their phone at home. The sense of timelessness is disorienting but comfortable. The word PERFECTIONISM is carved in all capital letters and then crossed out with a gouge. I free myself from my story of myself is written in blue ink against the grain. The soft wood has given in to this message, too. Then, the sound of the door. The parking lot wraps around the building, and the five people who leave together scatter in different directions without goodbyes, as though they’re all exiting a movie theater. Guy walks in Person’s direction. They perk up, say hello. Guy looks around, sweeping his head, like he’s just making sure the hello wasn’t for him. He turns back to Person after a complete sweep, then jerks his head back. “Oh, hi.” He halts his swift pace.

Person asks if he likes group therapy. “I’m thinking of trying it,” they add to minimize his potential defensiveness. “Individual therapy just isn’t for me,” they say to show they are equally vulnerable to the world.

He comes closer. “It’s good. Really good.”

“I’ve heard you screaming.”

He swings a leg around the bench and takes a seat at the picnic table across from Person. “It’s not about the screaming, it’s about other people being there to witness your screams.”

Person nods. This picnic table seems to be an extension of the therapists’ office.

“It opens you up to peace and kindness, knowing your anger is accepted.”

Person asks if they can join. Guy says it’s too late, the group started last month and won’t open up for a new cohort until next fall. He says he will witness Person’s screams, though. He says the best place to scream is on the river.

Person takes the textbooks out of the basket, stacks them on the table.

“Are you worried about those?” he asks. “You can leave them in my car if you want.” Person says no. They try to get the tandem into his car, but it won’t fit.

Person sits on the front seat of their bike and welcomes Guy on the back seat. His weight is greater than the textbooks. He makes it so Person must push harder on the pedals. But the bike is steadier, too, not jostling about at every crack in the pavement. Guy shouts directions over the street noise. They turn onto a residential street. Person sees his pointing hand in their peripheral vision and then notices a little opening in the trees they’ve never noticed before. There’s a narrow dirt path. The bike bumps over roots and rocks. Branches whip their elbows. Guy tells Person to slow down, and they come to the river. Dust kicks up as they brake. They get off the bike and Person props up the kickstand. They walk to the water.

“Is there a special way to do this?”

“Yes, but you’ll know when you’re ready.”

Person gulps air and then screams. The water ripples where fish are travelling or maybe just the soundwaves of their screaming. When Person is empty enough for now, they turn to Guy. Guy nods.

They both sit down, set their feet in the part of the ground that’s sandy, just at the water’s edge. There’s foamy buildup at the shore that reminds Person of root beer floats, which they loved so much in childhood and haven’t tasted since. The water is a rich brown, its color deepened by dead leaves and animal feces. Person takes a deep breath and the sweet, rotten smell almost makes them sick. Beautiful things are sometimes repulsive and vice versa. Mosquitos are getting fat from Person’s blood and they don’t care. They no more feel the insect mouths than they would feel a single bristle scrub their back molar when brushing their teeth.

Guy and Person, they are silent for a while. Their hands planted in patchy grass. Guy yelps, a sputter of a scream, and Person hears it echo. Guy rubs his hands on his denim knees. Person thinks he is ready to push himself up. Instead, he holds his palm to Person, turns and gives them a look like, Why not? And — as though it’s easy — Person takes his hand. They watch the geese bob through the gentle rapids and out of sight. They hold a tiny bubble of warm space between their palms.