Mila, 17

Dr. X is pretty in a very clean looking way. Her brown skin glows with a copper tint. She has long, shiny cornrows tied back with a sky blue ribbon, perfect teeth, and slender, feminine hands. My mottled genes roil as I sit on the other side of her desk. I can feel my mother’s fat cells plump my thighs and tease my chin. My square, chapped hands rest on my lap, and I resist the urge to draw them up to mouth, where I can suddenly feel every punch and every cavity I’ve ever had.

Dr. X smiles, but I don’t smile back. Not just because I think she has it too easy, which I do, but because there is a steel hook digging into my chest and it’s making me want to cry. I won’t cry, though, because crying makes me even uglier. My face squishes up, my lips get twisted, and my tiny brown eyes disappear. I don’t like to cry, but when I do, I want to be alone, where there’s no one around to ask questions, and I can bury my face into a pillow.

It’s stupid, anyway, the things that make the hook appear. Today it’s yellow skin. I hate my yellow skin. I hate that I am the color of jaundice, and dry leaves, and bile and piss. I hate that I don’t know the man who screwed my mother and left. I hate that my mother won’t tell me who he is – I want someone to blame. I want someone whose eyes look like mine to stare back at me and tell me that I am loved. I want someone to say that they are sorry and really mean it. I want to scream at someone and then be forgiven.

Dr. X leans forward, her sterling silver Cross pen suspended over a manila folder. One day, I want a pen like that, something heavy and opulent, maybe as a gift from someone who thinks my words are that important.

“Here’s what I think we should do,” Dr. X says. I look up from staring at my rough hands and yellow arms and see that she is still smiling. There’s a hint of white lace visible over the buttons of her freshly ironed blouse. Her breasts rise and fall like a metronome. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock. When she blinks, her lashes almost meet the arch of her brow. The hook digs and digs.

“Since you’re not that comfortable talking, I think you should journal your history for me. You’re a writer, so that should be easy for you, shouldn’t it?” All the sudden, I get a sensation like lead in my veins. I feel heavy and stuck and halfway dead. Writing is the only thing I have left. It’s MINE – please don’t take it – it is mine, and it is untouched, and sometimes it is even beautiful. And when it’s not beautiful, it’s terrible in the way I need it to be, like a madness that keeps itself contained.

Dr. X’s silver pen taps the folder. My last name and first and middle initials are typed in crisp black letters on a white label with a blue stripe. I don’t want to be here. I don’t want pieces of my life split off and typed up in forms, or scribbled in shorthand.

My breaths feel ragged and there’s a sour taste in my throat. Still, she called me a writer, and I don’t know why her recognition stirs me in a way that feels hopeful, but it does, even if she didn’t mean it in the real, adult sense of the word. She only meant that she knew I wrote, not that I was any good at it, or that I might stand a chance in hell of actually ever becoming a real writer someday.

I feel stupid for realizing how much even Dr. X’s faint praise means to me, but under the lead and behind the hook, my nerves are tingling, and words begin to fly in my head, colliding and embracing and looking for a story. Beautiful words, like wild and oeillade, amethyst and bell. Burning words like love and anguish, hunger and fear.

Dr. X interrupts my thoughts. “Listen,” she says, “I don’t want you to worry about things like grammar or spelling, this is just between you and me – no grades, no judgments.”

Everything inside me freezes. Dr. X thinks I’m a moron. A dropout punk with dirty sneakers, a GED, and no future. I didn’t drop out of school because I was an idiot, but because I needed to live. I needed to be safe, I needed work, a roof over my head, and something healthy to eat. She should know that – I told her that already – but apparently she didn’t listen. Or she thought I was lying. The cold hook digs deeper, and in an instant I find myself hating Dr. X, and despising myself for liking her.

* * *

At home in my studio apartment with its dirty, threadbare carpet and faded sleeper bed, I sit at a Formica table and pound wire sharp letters down the throat of my Royal typewriter. At 3:00 a.m., I am sweating and the ashtray is overflowing, but the hook is still and the anger is gone. I open my windows and let the salty, chilled air of Santa Cruz wash over me. The 40 pages I have partially tucked under the typewriter rustle. I have no desire to re-read them. They already feel foreign to me, like some abstract theory or punishing science, but mostly I am afraid that I broke every rule and proved myself to be inept and unpolished. A common trait of the amateur, I once read, is the overuse of bruised adjectives and bloody metaphors, and I used both, too many times.

After a few hours of sleep, I spend two of my last three dollars on a black calligraphy pen from the drugstore, and I draw Dr. X’s full name, Lyndal Xavier, in Roman script across a white linen envelope. My history is not a gift, at least not one that’s worth much, but it feels like I’m giving something away, and I want it to look nice even if the inside is ugly. I drop the envelope off with Dr. X’s receptionist before I head to the plant where I work swing shift, counting out diodes and capacitors for the assembly line. It’s a mind-numbing job, but I’ve learned how to split my focus. While one side of me counts in sets of ten, the other imagines that the phone will ring and Dr. X won’t want to wait another four days to see me – she’ll want to see me in the morning – she’ll want to help me plan my future. She’ll tell me how to get out of this paper hair net and blue cotton smock and into college.

* * *

Dr. X doesn’t call, of course, but that doesn’t stop me from imagining all sorts of things, from an unopened envelope to a derisive laugh to a shrugged shoulder. By the time our appointment comes, I am high-strung and anxious, overflowing with hope and resentment although neither of these things make any sense. Dr. X isn’t a savior, she can’t rescue me, but I can’t help but think she knows the secret to things I don’t know. Like how to get out of a hole, not be nervous, and how to be the kind of person other people want to get to know.

Sandi, one of the ladies at work, called me book smart and life stupid, and I know she’s right. I had more books than I ever had family, and I loved my books. They never screamed, or punched, or called me names. Still, they didn’t teach me anything practical, like how to hem a pair of pants, balance a checkbook, or make a dinner that didn’t come out of a box. I taught myself all those things when I left home, but there are other things I just haven’t grasped, and it makes me feel stupid and inferior and set-apart.

I don’t think Dr. X – I don’t think a lot of people – know what that’s like, and it makes me feel resentful, even though it’s not their fault. That’s just the way it is, and sometimes I rub that feeling in on purpose for no good reason. I’ll go to a park or a mall and I’ll watch the mothers with the babies on their hips, or I’ll watch the giggling teenagers shopping at stores I could never afford. I’ll watch and let the hook dig into my heart until my eyes water. And then I’ll hate myself even more for never being the kind of child someone wanted to hold, or the kind of carefree, laughing girl with lots of friends.

Sometimes I walk through the suburbs in the evening just to see the bicycles abandoned in driveways, the lacy curtains pulled back from windows, and the girls in ponytails sitting on the sidewalks with buckets of chalk. I do it even though I know it will hurt. Some kids cut themselves, some do drugs, or drink. I just watch, and it’s a pain I give myself, except that I know that one day I want to be in one of those pictures, and not outside. I want to be in one of those yards with the green grass and yellow roses — in the house with the real beds and the fingerpaintings on the refrigerator. I think Dr. X must know how I can get there, and more than anything this is what I want from her. The secret about how to go from the outside in.

Dr. X holds my pages in her hand, and there’s a big silver clip that leaves them open to the middle. The middle is where most of the Big Ugly is, and I can see that she’s underlined sentences and written notes in the margin.

The questions come at me in rapid fire succession. Tell me when, Dr. X says, tell me how, how did you feel about it? (I told you, can’t you read?).

Were you angry, were you sad, you know it’s not your fault, don’t you? (Yesyesyes).

Your time is almost up, we’ve got a lot of issues to deal with, but first I think we have to deal with your depression.

I’m not depressed, I tell her. I’ve just become too aware of the world, and everything hurts. I thought I’d find peace out here but people hurt, and loss hurts, and not being liked hurts, and being alone every day and not knowing what to do or how to do it hurts. You can’t fix that with a pill.

Dr. X stands her ground, and hands me the slip. “It will take a couple of weeks to feel a difference, but take these twice a day, and Mila,” (she pauses, looks me deep in the eyes, as if speaking to an imbecile), “be-careful-not- to-skip-a-dose.” I watch her Laurel Birch earrings dangle as she waits for me to answer. Cloisonné and silver, a glittering bird amidst cheerless blue flowers. Dr. X’s eyebrows are arched like question marks as she waits for me to answer.

I feel pale and lost and angry and frustrated and broken and beaten and the hook digs and digs and digs and digs. I take the slip, but I already know I’ll be a no-call, no-show for my next appointment with Dr. X.

It’s a humble revenge, but I think – I really believe – necessary.

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  1. I like this very much, Jane. It really captures the thought processes of someone hurting and lost. Can’t wait to see what happens next.

  2. This was a hard read for me. I live daily with fear and concern for my children who I wonder will manage to survive without me. As long as I am around, they will always have a home with me. But what about when I’m gone. I’m so worried….

  3. Oh Jane I want to envelop Mila in a huge hug and hold tight until . . .

    Her story is very real – the longing, the hope, the disappointment. The hook – wow

  4. Jane I think you are one of the few that really “get” teenagers. I think you would be an awesome person to work with them.

  5. This made me feel profoundly sad. Sometimes I just want to crawl into my unrealistic, glass-half-full place and know that “the happy goddess” will cradle Mila at some point in her life. I mean REALLY cradle, nurture, envelop in unconditional love. This was an excellent piece, Jane. My friend David says that a good play or musical should evoke an emotional response, no matter what that is. I feel the same way when I am reading, especially if it leaves me wanting more. Thank you—–

  6. Ouch.That felt a little too close to home. It was amazingly sharp and clear, well honed,as it were. While factoids might vary, emotional pain is universal. Brava, Xena.

  7. Oops. I wrote that last comment without my glasses. PROPERLY not peoperly. But I’m pondering a use for that new word.
    I’m posting again because I want you to know that EVERY time I read your blog I am encouraged and inspired to write my own real stuff. A muse, you are!

  8. Thank you to those who took the time to read this. You probably know, because I’ve said so ten times or more, that posting stories is hard for me, if only because – wait, is that a draft, or am I naked? – they mean more to me than other articles I might post.

    The unspoken rule of blogging is that pieces shouldn’t exceed 1000 words. This is 1900+, which only proves, I think, that those who read Mila, 17 don’t have ADHD.

    Thank you.

  9. No more than 1000 words if you’re boring people about your breakfast. If you’re writing something beautiful and eloquent, you get as many words as you want.

    There is a difference in being overwhelmingly aware of the world and being depressed.

  10. I love the way you show the tangle of her ambivalence and her emotions, her desperate desire to belong and advance but her fear of expressing that longing to anyone. The fragility of her belief in her self is achingly real. We can sense her toughness and yet know how easily she can shatter. A great character, the beginning (or the middle or the end) of a compelling story.

  11. Caron, that’s it exactly. There’s truth to the saying that if you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention, but it’s not just anger it’s everything.

    Thanks, V. I’m thinking of a longer story, but you know I have so much unmarketable work that I don’t know if I should add one more to my collection. Child abuse is out, memoir type novels are out, young adult is difficult — ha. Everything I write comes at the end of a trend, or too far from the beginning.

  12. It is sad but true that the only time we seem to address important issues is when everything else is going well. They say the movies really took of during the great depression. People wanted to escape and be entertained. So what happens to the Milas when times get bad?

  13. I can’t imagine you have “so much unmarketable work” – I don’t buy that for a moment. Although, I suppose we all do to a degree… but you? No.

    This was wonderful. Regardless of the source of the pain, we all have it, many of us with hurts it seems very few others have endured and truly understand. That feeling is magnified when you’re a child, a teenager, a young adult. Your story has broad appeal for that reason.

    “…and words begin to fly in my head, colliding and embracing and looking for a story.” So many beautiful and stirring descriptions in this piece.

    I agree with V-Grrrl – the beginning, the middle or the end – I’d love to read more.

  14. Even in the best of times, Ann, it’s always been sink or swim for those outside the mainstream.

    Chris, I used to have boxes and boxes of unmarketable work. Now I’m down to one disc. Technology makes it so tidy.

    Thank you!

  15. This was such amazing writing! I didn’t want it to end. I even found myself trying to curl up around my laptop much in the way I curl around a good book.


  16. I like it a lot. Like I was saying, I may not be your target audience specifically, but I can tell you that this has just enough angst and anger without exaggerating the emotions. Very appealing to what you’re going for.

    And the hook? Great image, very powerful. I dig it, I dig it.

  17. Wow. This is truly amazing. I have no words to explain how awesome it is, just the silent tears that it pulled from my eyes, and the tug on my heart.

  18. I too found myself wanting to curl up around my puter like I do with a good book. Can’t wait to read what happens next Jane!

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