The woman limped in on two canes, sat down, sighed, and folded in on herself. We all gave her the once-over, some of us surreptitious, others not. The woman had high cheekbones in a square face. Around her mouth she was caving in with age, wrinkle folded into wrinkle. She’d let her hair go white. But she’d been attractive once, in a stern way, like a nature poet or the dean of a women’s college.
Possibly she’d had a stroke. It was there in the two canes, in her lopsided mouth, in the way she gripped her hands convulsively. To stop them from shaking, that’s what we all thought.
We invited her to speak first because this was her first time.
It took her a long time, each syllable punctuated by pauses, stammers, throat clearings. Grimaces distorted the left side of her mouth. No one had foreseen the rocky speech. It seemed more of an infirmity than her limp and her too visible attempts to control her hands.
She said she was grateful to be at the meeting. She said things were hard for her right then. Of course, we all thought she meant the stroke, the limp, the mouth, the canes; we all thought she meant her uselessness. But she never said that, never acknowledged it by word or gesture. Did she not know?
We tried to hide our disappointment.
You see, everyone in the meeting is on the lookout for someone. Someone to care for them. To understand how much they’ve suffered, how hard they’ve tried. To be that one person who will reverse loneliness and sorrow, absolve guilt, undo past mistakes, make sickness go away, make it all better. Everyone is looking all the time but trying to hide it all the time too. No one ever talks about it directly. In fact, no one ever talks about deep need here. Only about shallow triumph.
This new woman was not a good candidate to be that someone, that one who could absolve everything gone wrong in a life. Too much had gone wrong in her life. The tics, the canes, having to struggle for each word out of her mouth. Whoever she had once been, whatever she had once accomplished, she was diminished now into a shadow.
Then, after everyone had their turn to speak and we were gathering ourselves up to leave, she raised her hand. What could we do?
Without warning, her voice burned into us, like stones thrown, and harsh this time or maybe it was what she was saying. Nothing about gratitude. Nothing about it being hard for her. About stabbing herself, she started right in with that.
“I used to stab myself in the legs. I don’t do it anymore, I can’t remember the last time I did do it, it was a long time ago, maybe a month, maybe two, maybe even longer. I didn’t cut myself, I stabbed myself.”
She opened her hands to us, “Like this. Here and here and here, over and over and over…” and as she spoke, she drove her fingers into the tops of her thighs, her nails aimed straight down. Her nails were not like a college dean’s or a nature poet’s at all; they were like snaggleteeth. Like scissors, like penknives, like switch blades. They were not like anything human. Dark red spots surfaced through her beige slacks and still she lectured on, her voice vibrating through our meeting room like a pistol firing.
Everyone hunched down in their chairs to avoid it. Everyone’s fingers curled up into their palms, everyone trembled, everyone turned cold, everyone would have stammered had it been their turn to speak. Everyone felt like they were about to burst open and start telling the truth.
Then the room shimmered as if a strobe light was flashing, On then Off, and the woman slumped back in her chair again, coiled her hands into tight little balls, and said, her speech impeded and her facial tics working away, “But I don’t do that anymore. I’m better now.”
Even so, we’d seen her step out of her shadow.
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, Joanna Bressler was a dancer, a therapist, a psychology professor, and even worse. Now she writes and edits, publishes creative non-fiction and, as of today, publishes fiction too. Thank you, Every Day Fiction, for making it happen non-posthumously.