Underneath the Ficus Tree
\ Shed; shedding \ transitive verb 1. : to rid oneself of, tempo- rarily or permanently, as superfluous or unwanted 2. : to give off, discharge, or expel from the body of a plant or animal: such as a. : to eject, slough off, or lose as part of the normal process of life b. : to discharge usually gradually especially as a part of a pathological process(1)
Disgust turns to curiosity more quickly than I might have expected; the blister spills out over her lip-line and onto the chin, changes shape ever so slightly as she speaks. I lean in toward the shiny bubble, feigning interest in her speech, watching the surface glisten as the light refracts off her face. I can stare, as she has turned her gaze away from mine, and stare I do, fully entranced by the glorious unpleasantness of it all. Four years I’ve worked with Karen P., and in the hundreds of Tuesdays from nine to nine fifty-five am that we sit across from one another I’ve never seen her with a fever blister, and I can find fever blisters on faces before a face even knows one’s about to erupt. It’s true we see in others the things we find most repulsive about ourselves.
I begin to chew, just a little bit at first, on the lower-right part of my own lip. I imagine an itch, a tiny piece of dry skin just needing to come off, to make the lip perfect: no mars, no blisters, no flakes. My bite does not go deep, and a thin layer pulls off easily and I roll the tiny bit around in my mouth, still nodding and listening, still providing a perfectly professional façade of care. The skin gathers into a tiny ball as I tongue it, a little piece of me disappears down my throat when I swallow. No big deal. Just a little skin.
This shedding happened so subtly that it took some time to realize the import of it all. The shedding of a snake seems so quick and complete and meaningful, leaving behind a skin, and so putting down that part of a life. Leaving ghosts of self behind for others to find. I wonder if snakes find that funny or scary. And for us humans, our reptile brain covered over with layers of dura mater and a legacy of replacing mystery with scientific fact, the first shedding happens almost invisibly. I itch that spot on my left forearm during Ashley T.’s session and feel a few small peels of skin coming away under my fingernails. I exfoliate in the shower, keep exfoliating, more and more exfoliating. I wonder how I became so dehydrated and drink more water. Yet no matter the water intake, no matter the applications of lotion, the peeling continues. I schedule the next available appointment at my dermatologist, six weeks out, and continue to scrub and moisturize, showing up at my own office in long-sleeve shirts and feeling a little shiner than usual. No one seems to notice.
Every weekday, my patients come and sit on a white leather couch, next to and underneath the ficus tree. Most come once a week, some twice a week when things are really heavy, some every-other week when they are ready to go but not ready to say goodbye. We have our rhythms, our schedules, our ebbs and flows. The ficus tree sits to one side of the couch that patients typically use, and so for most of my day I see each person not as a solitary being, but a beautiful creature shaded by the outstretched arms of the tree. I only realize that the tree is a central figure for me, a peripheral one for them, after several expressed surprise upon noticing it was there after several months or even years in therapy.
Under the ficus tree today, Mike S. speaks about climbing out of his car on a bridge, looking over the edge at the dark and churning water, and seeing an embrace in the depths. I know it could feel terrifying going down he said, but it was so clear to me, in that moment, that once I broke the surface, it would be only love underneath. The water promised to hold me.
Under the ficus tree today, Ashley R., who prefers to go by Ash, shares an ordinary story about an ordinary conversation in an ordinary coffee shop as tears run down both of her cheeks. Affective incongruency, I tell myself to remember for my session note. With her in the room, though, I feel her tears as two streams of connection, as invitation toward something that does not yet have words, might not ever have words, but allows me to feel these layers beneath. We are quiet together. One last piece of subcutaneous tissue, one that connects my lower back and abdomen, melts off me and settles into the space around my hips in the chair, loosened by the depth of her half-owned experience.
Although it took months, I think of my slow loss of dermis, the thinning of skin until I was translucent, as all one shedding. The next few sheds were more like dissolvings, and certain parts began to melt away, take up less space, disappear. Losing entire anatomical systems seems a biological and physiological impossibility, but here I am. Once the dermis was gone everything seemed to move more quickly, more aggressively, more fatally and yet I did not die.
The bones dissolved. The entire skeletal system dissolved in less than a day, and this was the only time that I felt true fear. I maintained my therapeutic neutrality as my tibia, patella, humerus, ulna, clavicle, all began to soften, then felt tiny particles melt away as if each piece was an Alka-Seltzer tab finding a new form in the atmosphere of the room. I have been puzzled by the lack of concern from my patients about my deteriorating appearance, but Rachel R. comes in today and she always has something to say about my looks. Rachel will comment on my newest transformation, surely will notice when I do not cross or uncross my legs, or rise to adjust the ancient, failing heater.
But Rachel has other things on her mind: she hasn’t been able to stop thinking about last week and the fact that I hadn’t laughed, hadn’t seemed to think it was funny at all when she told that story about her girlfriend’s antics at the bar. And that had really gotten her thinking about just how often she tells her life as a story, looking for the punchline, looking for the joke to take the edge off it all. She had been pissed, she said, that I hadn’t reacted at all. (It’s hard to react without a face, I thought). But this was a real shift, Rachel went on. She had started tracking her speech that week, noticing when she was about to go in for the joke, about to put a spin on the sad stories, about to make light of the things that hurt. It had been a hard week, she said, sad really. But felt like getting toward something real. So, thanks. As she leaves the room, I instinctively try to rise to fully close the door. A surge of energy moves through my now-exposed belly, and I can almost feel a crackling run through the nerves that still seem to connect electric impulses even though my spine has dis- appeared. My brain hurts. There is nothing to do but rest for a while.
Karen P. is on the couch, nylon-cased legs drawn in at the knees, commuting sneakers splayed out hip-distance on the floor so her lower legs look like a triangle as she leans in toward me. It must be Tuesday morning. I’ll never forget that morning, she begins, when the letter came and….
Karen stopped living, really, three years ago. I can tell you her story just as she tells it here, over and over. I make a note to add “repetition compulsion” to Karen’s chart. The story always begins with I’ll never forget because truth be told, she never stopped living it. No one seems to understand Karen’s suffering. Three years ago, a letter from the IRS arrived, informing Karen that she had underpaid her federal taxes, that a discrepancy from a 1099 form meant that she still owed $11,327.00, which she could pay in full, or in installments. Karen broke down, reading that letter. It wasn’t that she could not make the payment. Industrious Karen had started saving little by little years ago and could and did promptly pay the balance in full. No, the financial burden was hard but manageable, Karen said. The real injury was the letter itself, the tone that Karen could hear emanating through the stock language on the page. You tried to trick us she understood it to say. You tried to trick us, and you didn’t get away with it. And now you know that we know that you are bad. A bad and sick woman. A disgusting little pig.
Mary cleans the offices, and she does a bang-up job. Before I became stuck to my chair, I only saw the after-effects of her work: the empty trashcans, the lines on the carpet left by her vacuum which she clearly operates with a steady hand and a preference for neat, tight strokes. I guessed that Mary was about 5’2”, given where the dust starts to collect on the cheap, plastic venetian blinds, and imagined her standing on tiptoes with a Swiffer duster, small particles of dust falling toward her serious face. Now that I am bound to this chair, I have no choice but to be here when Mary comes, usually between 10 pm and mid- night. I braced myself that first time for her inevitable terror: what terror comes forth seeing this pulsating mess of muscles and organs plastered to this formidable armchair.
Like Karen and the others, though, Mary seemed unperturbed and ignored me altogether.
I love watching Mary move. I follow every choice and action with awe. She is shorter than I thought, barely five feet if I wager a guess, and I was right about her serious face. She does the same tasks in the same order night to night: first emptying the trash baskets, a clever move, as any debris that falls to the floor will be vacuumed off before leaving. She dusts after taking out the trash, not only relying on tiptoes but pulling a small stool off her cleaning cart and reaching as high as she can up the blinds that must be more than thirty years old, bending but never breaking. If I was cleaning an office like mine, I imagine I may have stopped to look at the odd book titles: Psychopathy, Hard to Love, Psychological Evaluations for the Courts, The Divine Feminine and Jungian Archetypes. But no, Mary moves a duster over the bound books without pausing to lean in. And I began calling her Saint Mary when, on one occasion a patient file, one that did not belong to me and must have lived behind the file cabinet that came with the office from a previous occupant, fell out and open while she was vacuuming that corner. Mary, without a pause, gathered rogue papers that fell out, neatly closed the folder, and placed it face-down on my desk. The vacuuming is the best part to watch. Mary plugs the vacuum in near the door to the hallway, then unravels the cord fully as she moves the machine to the far corner, under the ficus tree. The dry, yellow leaves that fell to the floor during the day are sucked up first, making little thwacks on the inside of the tube as they rise up and into the main chamber. Sometimes, Mary will click off the vacuum and get down on hands and knees, reaching behind the massive tree to pull dead leaves off the floor where the vacuum couldn’t reach. She puts these in the pocket of her sweatshirt, pulling them out when she makes it back to the cleaning cart. And what a dance it is on the way back. Mary pulls and pushes the vacuum in straight lines moving about four feet each section, lunging and pulling with strength and grace. She gets every square inch that the head of the vacuum can fit into and also carries a small hand-held vacuum, the tiniest I have ever seen, on a loop on her belt, getting it into all the nooks and crannies. It is amazing to see. And when she makes it to the door, moving backwards so she never steps on the newly cleaned floor, she takes a good look at her work, nods, and moves on.
Have you ever been hummed? There is humming from the mouth of course, as you hum along to a tune you like, hum when the melody is there but not the words. Humming to become a temporary instrument to meet the band. I’m talking about that other kind of humming, one that I only learned as it happened to me. I can find no other way to describe it other than being hummed and while not unpleasant, it is not under my control. The more that I shed, the more that I hum. It’s beautiful, but not entirely so. It’s vibrational and phantasmal and mystical and also just so very ordinary that I’m surprised I never noticed it all along. It’s a space between being present and being hyper-present. When it kicks in, oh boy. Karen P. is here, so it must be Tuesday? How fast time flies these days. I’ll never forget that morning she begins, and I begin to hum.
Last week, my circulatory system shed quickly and surely halfway through the day. All at once I saw the blue threads, the most gorgeous interconnections of tiny and tinier tubular filaments, fall to the chair and the floor around me like a silk skirt falling off around the hips and ankles. It gathered on the seat cushion around me, some falling all the way to the carpet forming a brilliant nest of azure and cobalt and navy gossamers. It was so stunning that I gasped, pulled sharp breath into my still-operational lungs. I admired it for the rest of the day, through Sarah K. and Michael M. and Rachel R. and a no-show by Ash and a tearful session with Brenda R., who is making significant breakthroughs around boundary setting and relational enmeshment. When Mary showed up that night around 11 pm, vacuum in hand, I wept as she gathered up my beautiful mess along with the small pieces of the world outside that patients had brought in on their shoes. My beautiful mess. Sucked up the nozzle of a vacuum in less than five seconds, what an undignified way to go.
Karen P. is sobbing into a tissue as she says over and over I am a disgusting little pig, a disgusting pig, filthy, disgusting pig and there is nothing that I can do but pulse and hum but that seems to be enough today. There is energy to her sobbing, and her sobs seem to move all through the room: rising high, dipping low, swirling in counterclockwise eddies around the ficus tree planter, caressing the book jackets and squeezing underneath the carpet corners. The sobs climb up each venetian-blind slat, pulling up and up one at a time like the smallest mountaineers. The sobs move into and out of the gelatinous fat masses where my thighs and buttocks used to be, undulating the glistening piles that quiver and settle again as the sobs approach and retreat. Karen pulls more tissues, and sobs harder, which makes it more difficult to speak but each word lands with power. Disgusting. Fucking. Pig. As if a silent alarm goes off, at nine fifty-five Karen wipes her face, dabs at her red-rimmed eyes, pulls herself together, and with some light comments about looking a mess and I’ll see you next week, she leaves the office. When she pulls the door into the slightly ill-fitted jamb with a tug, I jiggle again, just a little bit.
I watch Mary clean and clean. I watch Karen P. smile more and weep less. I remember some things more clearly these days, try so hard to catch those things that fade. I sometimes summon all my efforts to remember just how bitter a lemon tastes, submitting to the ecstatic swell of joy when I can feel it, puckering, taking me higher, every- thing in that moment the glorious bitterness, knowing it will fade.
Energy to energy, we are all just bundles of spirited mass, pulsing and humming and changing shape all the time even though we barely notice, if we notice at all. And something is shifting today, I can feel it energetically, more so than I have ever felt anything; there is irony of course, to feeling more than ever while barely existing as a thing at all. But these tiny waves of excitation are becoming more intense, like surfs rolling over me, like being in the warmest ocean, an atmospheric Dead Sea, and more than washing over me now, I feel myself lifting up, rising, ready to break through something, some unseen surface. Is this it? Am I finally, after all this time, really dying? And if I could scream, I would scream something like I am not ready! and if I had a face, paradoxically, I think I would be grinning, a big stupid grin because these pulses feel so good. And what is dying anyway? Another form of shedding? And thinking has become useless because there is a sense of being pushed and of needing to push because whatever is happening here requires every ounce of me-ness that still exists, every bit of me to brace and then push and then rise above something. I have the feeling of both giving birth and being born, although I’ve never done the first and don’t recall the last, and yet feel the contraction of invisible muscles, the clenching of invisible thighs, and the undeniable knowing that I have to move, have to travel, whether I resist it or not. I won’t resist. I’m ready. Here we go.
(1) “Shed.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary.
Second Prize in Short Fiction
2020 Stubborn Writers Contest
Teal Fitzpatrick is a writer, musician, and clinical psychologist living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She is working on a book about the history of American psychology as a colonizing practice and writes a bi-monthly column about ethical mental health practices for No Contact Magazine. Currently obsessed with worsted wool, dresses with pockets, savory scones, tearing down systems of oppression and writing poems and short stories about all of these things. This is her first prose publication. Find her on Twitter and Instagram at @TealFitzpatrick.
Mileva Anastasiadou is a neurologist from Athens, Greece. A Pushcart, Best of the Net, Best Microfiction and Best Small Fictions nominated writer, her work can be found in many journals, such as Litro, Jellyfish Review, Ruminate, Okay Donkey, Open Pen and others.