All that Matters
2017 Sydney Writers’ Room Short Story Competition runner-up.
The doctor’s talking and I’m trying to focus, but the painting on the wall behind her is driving me mad.
“We no longer use the term, ‘nervous breakdown’,” the doctor says.
The painting’s a Seurat, a print, of course, and it’s called “A Sunday on La Grande . . .” something. Can’t remember.
“You’re experiencing what we call a ‘modern mental health crisis’.”
Dotted women with dotted sun umbrellas stand on dotted green lawns dressed in hats and bustled dresses, corsets underneath.
“Jatte!” I remember, “On La Grande Jatte.”
“The painting. Behind you.”
She doesn’t turn to look. The doctor’s wearing jeans. She’s in a chair opposite me; it feels weird having her here, in my room. Shouldn’t I be on a couch in her office?
I’m not in crisis. Until just last week I was the envy of every other mum. “You do it all,” Carla used to say at school pick-up, shaking her head as the texts poured in on her phone, and I could see it in her eyes: the admiration, the envy.
I tell this to my doctor. She nods, takes notes on her iPad. Too many degrees, not enough sense, my mother would’ve said. Mom died four years ago, when I was pregnant with my middle child (can’t say their names out loud).
The doctor, who doesn’t wear a white coat, is trying to make a connection with the breakdown last week and my mother’s death.
“Parents die,” I say, “that’s what they do.”
I’ve been here four days and this place is enough to give you a mental health crisis. White walls, that faded Neo-Impressionist print in a plastic Ikea frame. Nothing to do. No computer. No phone.
Get this: I’m allowed books, but only classics, as if old books aren’t filled with the same pain. I’m reading Austen, partly because my sister’s been nagging me to read her my whole life and partly because her novels don’t have a lot of children — they’re in the background, where kids used to live. John visits every other day and tells me the kids are fine, but I’m sure he’s forgetting sunscreen and as for school lunches, God knows what they’re eating. He’s had to stop the swim lessons.
“Why does that bother you?” the woman who should be in a white coat asks.
“Because they’re paid for.”
My kids are in before and after-care every day while I’m stuck here. John’s an accountant and works all the hours. He must be getting take away for dinner. Or worse, McDonalds.
My children have never eaten processed food. I bake my own organic sourdough. I don’t use packaging — only reusable BPA-free plastic containers. Sometimes I think my life consists of putting food into plastic containers and washing them out. I even miss that.
I’ve got to get out. Book Parade is coming up — who will make their costumes? Who will run the cake stall at the school market on Saturday? Who will tuck my youngest into bed? I can’t tell you how I miss those little arms flung round my neck.
As for work, I’ve missed all the deadlines, but I’m sure they’ve found someone else; I’m replaceable.
The doctor says I should do less. She doesn’t have kids. Or maybe she does and someone else looks after them. I’m a freelancer; I write other people’s blogs when my kids are asleep — self-help, mostly, ways to destress, tips on eating, journaling, protein shakes, Pilates. The pay is shit, but the hours are flexible. I’ve never had to put the kids in child care. I wish this tick would stop — it’s my right eye-lid, a spasm with no particular rhythm.
A knock at the door makes me jump: the doctor. I wish she wore heels so I could hear her coming. She wears Birkenstocks. Her toes are manicured. There was a time when only tree-huggers wore Birkenstocks.
“Let’s talk,” she says. Another lie. She doesn’t talk. “Tell me about being an American in Sydney.”
“I’m American. I live in Sydney.” I should be more cooperative.
“Tell me about last week.”
I point at the 19th century Sunday Afternoon on the wall — the women are static, stuck. “Even when I saw the original in Chicago, it was worn-out from all the times I’d seen it before. Those poor Impressionists: their work plastered on handbags, mousepads, coffee cups. The paintings have lost . . .”
“Tell me about Tuesday morning,” she says.
“I was late,” I tell her, “I hate being late. It was my boy’s birthday and I’d stayed up half the night making a fire engine cake with wheels that turn. I was beyond exhausted. My twitch was working overtime and the kids were screaming, the little one naked and snotty running up and down the stairs. John had gone to work even though I specifically asked him to stay for presents and breakfast — wholegrain pancakes, fresh strawberries.
“You see,” and it does feel good to tell someone the truth and not the happy lies we post on Facebook, “I’d imagined the perfect birthday just before I drifted off to sleep at two a.m., but it felt like I’d slept ten minutes and the alarm was going off and John was gone and the kids were fighting already.
“In the midst of all this my sister calls to say, ‘Happy birthday’. And it’s nice she remembered. Except she’s slurring and it’s eight in the morning and you’ve got to wonder, was it a late night or did she just start early? And either way it’s pretty bad.
“I remember my boy ripping open presents. I remember a glass of watered-down orange juice sliding off the counter: shattered glass, orange on white tiles. I remember waking up here.”
“Do you worry about your sister?” she asks, looking up from her iPad.
“Is the Pope Catholic?”
The doctor’s fake smile reveals bright white teeth. Whitened teeth and Birkenstocks. I shouldn’t judge.
She clears her throat.
“Do I worry? Yes. And, no. My sister wasn’t the ‘trigger’ as you say. And even if she was, I can’t remove her.”
“Of course, but it’s good to be aware. You can come up with a coping mechanism for the next time she calls.”
And I’m convinced this doctor doesn’t have a clue. It’s the world gone mad, not me. God knows I can’t say that — they’ll never let me out of here.
Think about it, I want to say, everyone I know does yoga and they’re introducing meditation into the workday at John’s office. Thirty years ago, no one needed to hire someone to tell you to think about nothing.
Doc’s time is up. She leaves and it’s just me and the 19th century world of Sense and Sensibility, a welcome distraction from that Seurat. The dots appear to be moving. The women want to get out.
The next day comes and it’s exactly like the last except this time she wants me to talk about John. I try to think of something to say that will get me out of here, back to my precious chickens.
“John’s a good father, really, he is, but it’s hard for him to be around the kids. If I ever leave, say, for an hour on Saturday to do the shopping, he searches for a screen, any screen, to shove in front of their little faces.
“I came home once and the baby had John’s phone and the three-year-old was on the iPad and my eldest — five at the time — was not two feet from our giant flat screen watching a documentary on Gallipoli.
“‘It was the only thing on,’ my husband protested; which was true; ANZAC Day was a week away and on every channel. My children have the battle of Gallipoli memorized, and they couldn’t find New York on a map.”
The doctor raises an eyebrow, says nothing. I keep going, “It’s not that I don’t let my children watch TV — educational television or Youtube clips for half an hour a day — that’s fine. But Gallipoli? Enough of Gallipoli already.” And I know I’m talking too fast, but I really can’t stop.
“Don’t get me wrong. I’m not like some parents, who wrap their kids in cotton wool. I’m not like other mums, or dads, for that matter. Darren, now Darren’s a phenomenon. He could write a book: Cycling in Shin pads: Memoir of a Low-risk Life.”
She doesn’t smile. That faded Seurat — the dots really are moving. One of the women turns her head and looks at me — just for a second — a pleading look. I want to take it down, but can’t face the questions from Dr. No-white-coat.
“Tell me more about your husband,” she says.
“What’s to tell? He works. Someone’s got to pay for swim lessons. All that organic food — it’s not cheap.”
The session ends. I need a strategy. I lie down on the bed the wrong way round with my feet on the pillow so I don’t have to look at those piteous women. I can’t help them. I’ve got enough on my plate.
The doctor’s not gone ten minutes when I’m summoned out of my white room to the phone.
“This makes a change,” my sister says and I can feel her smirking. She sounds almost gleeful on the other end of the line — goody-two-shoes in the loony bin.
Then she says, “Awe, fuck. You’re OK,” like she wants to believe it and I realise she’s not smirking. Or slurring, much. She sounds almost sober. “It’s the world gone mad, not you.” And I could’ve kissed her through the phone. When we were kids, we used to share a bed. Curled up together, we protected each other from dad’s swings — mood and otherwise. I thought I’d never love anyone more than that.
“Fake it,” she says. “You don’t belong there.”
I tell her I love her and mean it for the first time in a long time. I hang up the phone, go back to my room. The woman in the painting is staring at me; the dots are swirling. I will them to stop.
When the shrink comes back I turn on the tears and talk about my mother and how Dad used to hit us. I exaggerate the violence and she takes furious notes, pecking at that iPad. It’s working.
The next day we make a “plan”. I go along with it, agree to come back for weekly sessions, “Yes,” I lie, “I’m feeling calmer.”
When they let me out I slip the Seurat from its frame, roll up the women in their stiff corsets, stuff them into my suitcase. Later I burn the painting in the back garden while the house is asleep. A flash of green flames: two women skip from the fire into night.
And I’m back. Back in this mad world with my gorgeous impossible children, pretending it’s me that lost it. They greet me — Lucile, Max, Tallulah — like I’m the new Messiah, which I am, to them, for now. I’m all that matters.