Melika hadn’t used Dr. Zhi’s couch since her first session.
It was a comfortable couch. Melika had no complaints about the couch’s aesthetics. It was a textured, floral cotton print. Cream. Dr. Zhi said it had been her mother’s. Melika would have loved to have had a couch just like that in her apartment with Sabine.
Melika and Dr. Zhi had settled on an alternative to the couch. Dr. Zhi bought an inflatable mattress and pillows. Melika supplied sheets and a throw blanket for when it was cold. Melika stared up at Dr. Zhi’s plaster ceiling as her head rested on three firm pillows. Dr. Zhi didn’t usually administer her treatment with such a Freudian visual framing, but Melika wasn’t one for eye contact to begin with so they made their system work.
Vol. 1: Overture
By Dawn Saas and Nic Frankenberry
Powered by the Apocalypse and the work of D. Vincent Baker
as well as
Urban Shadows by Andrew Medeiros and Mark Diaz Truman
Microscope by Ben Robbins
Content Warning: Depictions and discussions of gender dysphoria, suicidal ideation, depression, teacher-student sexual relationships, and suicide.
“How are things with Sabine?”
“Great. I mean, yeah, great. They’ve got this new partner. So, they’re out a little more than they had been lately, but they’re happy, and when we’re together, we’re happy.”
“Have you started seeing anyone else?”
Melika just shook her head.
“Didn’t you just tell me last week you were thinking about re-installing that dating app on your phone?”
Melika picked her phone up off the mattress and shoved it back in the pocket from which it had just fallen.
“I’m happy enough with Sabine.”
“Yes, you two are very good for each other, but Sabine has several rich lives outside of your relationship. You need at least one of your own. When was the last time you went out and did something just by yourself?”
Melika didn’t answer.
“Melika… we’ve talked about this. You’re doing so much better than you were nine years ago. Your medicine is helping. I hope our sessions help, but I know just looking at you how much better you are. I can tell you’re sleeping. You’re confident. You aren’t apologizing to me every other sentence. I haven’t heard you mention hurting yourself in five years and I haven’t truly feared you’d do anything like that to yourself in at least three. You have something to offer to the world. You don’t have to be so afraid to share yourself.”
Melika was trying not to cry. What she hadn’t told Dr. Zhi was that she had redownloaded OKCupid. Her highest match was Todd. She had immediately deleted the app and smoked an entire blunt to stave off a panic attack.
Dr. Zhi quickly realized how upset Melika had become.
“Oh, Melika. I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. I just care about you. I haven’t had very many patients for as long as I’ve had you. I assumed a familiarity that was unprofessional, and I’m sorry.”
Melika couldn’t hold back the tears and started sobbing. Before Melika could stop herself, the truth of her brief foray into trying online dating again was spilling out uncontrollably. Melika didn’t breathe as she told Dr. Zhi what had happened.
“When was the last time you saw Todd?”
“The semester before I dropped out.”
“Where did you see him?”
“At the OED house.”
“I thought you told me once that he had been an RA at PittU?”
“He was. He was at the party with my Big.”
“Oh. Right. Yes. I remember this now. What was this woman’s name? We haven’t talked about her in years.”
“Robin. Robin Goldberg.”
“Did you never tell her what happened to you? Did she not know about your history with Todd?”
Melika shook her head as she choked back more tears.
“OED was my safe place. You were the one that told me to pledge. You introduced me to Chad and Professor Arnoldson.”
Dr. Zhi shifted uncomfortably in her chair, but Melika was staring up at the ceiling and didn’t notice.
“I didn’t think Robin needed to know what happened to me. I mean… what am I supposed to do? Should I tell every woman I meet that I was raped? Should I tell them who raped me?”
“Is that what you think you need to do?”
“I can’t with that Socratic shit right now, Dr. Zhi. Don’t make me feel worse than I already do.”
“You know that isn’t what I’m trying to do, Melika, but I can’t tell you how to live your life. You have to decide. You have to act. Do you not wish that someone would have told you about Todd before you met him?”
Melika sat up and looked at Dr. Zhi who didn’t turn away from her glare.
“Of course. You don’t have to ask questions like that.”
“Then why didn’t you ever say anything to this Robin woman? Clearly, she and Todd must run in at least overlapping circles. You met him at Jardin. I know you occasionally forget this, Melika, but I was young once as well. I know how often I went to Jardin when I was your age. Why didn’t you ever mention Todd to Robin?”
Melika barely kept herself from screaming, “Because I still thought it was my fault.”
“Do you still think it was your fault?”
“No! You helped me realize that. Sabine helped me realize that.” Melika broke down again. “But what if whatever happened to Robin was my fault?”
“Did you drug and abduct Robin?”
“Then nothing that happened to her was your fault.”
“Why would you ask me all of these questions if it wasn’t?”
“You are not the trauma that happens to you, Melika. You are not the trauma that happens to everyone that you know and love. I know that your PTSD doesn’t always make it seem like that’s the case, but you are all of the good and beauty you put into the world and not the evil that others push onto you.”
Dr. Zhi closed her eyes and concentrated until the tension went out of her face. Melika had started to notice the lines that were beginning to etch themselves into the side of Dr. Zhi’s face. It was so weird that this woman was in her 40s now. Had they been seeing each other for that long?
“However, Melika, there are consequences for our silence in this world. We have to accept that. The hurt others may suffer because we didn’t act doesn’t always rest at our feet, but we have to carry the knowledge of what our inaction wrought. I know that you understand this now, but you can’t hate yourself for not understanding it when you were just a kid.”
“Are you sure?” Melika choked out between sobs.
“Yes, Melika. You know that we share a very specific history in this regard. I struggle in my relationships with men and women every day. The gnawing doubt about what I could have done differently. The omnipresent anxiety at the periphery of my consciousness that this loved one will hurt me too. The impulse to recoil from an affectionate touch because that’s how he used to touch me. But at the end of the day, I’m not angry with me anymore. I just want you to get to that same place, Melika.”
Melika started to wipe tears from her eyes as her sobs turned to sniffles. “That was very manipulative, Dr. Zhi.”
As Melika placed her shirt against her face to wipe away the remaining tears, Lily, Dr. Zhi’s two year old chocolate lab, came bounding into the cracked door of Dr. Zhi’s home office.
“Lily! You can’t be in here!”
Dr. Zhi started laughing and got up to grab Lily, but Lily bounded under Dr. Zhi’s clumsily outstretched arms. Lily tore off towards the couch and grabbed her favorite throw pillow. Lily had the pillow in her mouth and dropped it off on Melika’s lap and looked at her expectantly like she wanted her to play fetch.
Without thinking, Melika grinned and grabbed the pillow.
Melika was sitting on Dr. Zhi’s couch. Except Melika quickly realized she wasn’t sitting on Dr. Zhi’s couch. The hands that were in front of her were white. They were holding Dr. Zhi’s pillow and compulsively picking at the purple cross-stitches of the pillow’s deep purple sailboat.
“Candace, did you hear what I asked?”
Dr. Zhi was sitting in her leather chair across from Melika’s line of sight. She was wearing her most reserved white button up shirt and jeans. Candace shook her head.
“Sorry… I was just… thinking about stuff.”
“Were you thinking about him?”
Candace nodded her head.
“Have you spoken to him since our last session?”
Candace almost invisibly shook her head no.
“Have you tried to speak to him?”
Candace nodded her head.
“And he’s just ignored you?”
Candace nodded her head.
“You have to speak to me, Candace.”
“You don’t need to apologize.”
“Sorry. I mean… okay. Yeah.”
“Why did you reach out to him again? I thought he had made it fairly clear that he didn’t want to speak to you anymore.”
Melika was overwhelmed by how empty Candace felt. Melika didn’t feel the child. She didn’t feel justified fear. She didn’t feel equally justified anger. She just felt a hollow inevitability and a singular purpose of intent. Melika recognized the barrel of that gun.
“Does Arnoldson know?”
Candace didn’t respond. Melika knew that Candace had sent Arnoldson half a dozen voice mails and twice as many texts.
“You have options, Candace. I know your family background, and I know how much you value your faith, but I hope that you’re considering all of your options. You don’t have to have this child. You are so young.”
“I’m sorry; I have to go.”
Candace stood up and stormed out of Dr. Zhi’s office as Dr. Zhi yelled at her to not leave and then Melika was back on the mattress, holding the throw pillow, thinking about killing herself for the first time in six months.
She knew exactly how she’d do it. There was a helium tank at the Arlo’s office for when they wanted to blow up balloons for big sales. Melika would steal it and suck down helium til she asphyxiated.
And then Melika slapped herself in the face in front of Dr. Zhi and turned to her psychiatrist.
“Did she kill herself?”
“Melika! Why did you hit yourself?!”
“Is she dead, Dr. Zhi? Candace, is she dead?!”
Dr. Zhi looked at the throw pillow Melika was holding and a look of horror consumed her face and Dr. Zhi was slow to compose herself.
“Yes. She hung herself.”
“Why didn’t you tell anybody!”
“Tell anybody what?” Dr. Zhi’s furious stare was a challenge and not a deflection.
“He knocked her up and she killed herself and Arnoldson is still teaching at this school!”
“Do you really think I wouldn’t do anything, Melika? One of my patients is dead. I went to Dean Becken myself. Ansel made me a personal promise to take care of the problem.
I would do anything to ensure that man doesn’t get anywhere near another young student for the rest of his life, but when the only evidence I have is the confidential client confession of a dead college girl, my options are limited.
If the Caretakers are protecting him, he’s untouchable.”
“How are any of us supposed to live in this world?” Melika needed encouragement. She needed Dr. Zhi’s wisdom. “Why aren’t we burning this school down brick by brick if this is what it has to offer?”
“I don’t know. You have to be careful about fires though, Melika. You don’t know what you’ll lose in the blaze.”