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'What did you do last night?'
'Stayed at home.'
'The night before that?'
'Stayed at home.'
'And the night before that?'
I look at Dr Solomon. I sigh because I know where she's going with this.
'I stayed at home.'
Dr Solomon shifts in her chair, crosses her other leg and takes off her glasses. It's all very patronising. She reminds me of all the teachers and student councillors who over the years told me to apply myself, "get out there!", whatever that means. Instead I went to community college. Where I met Mary Ann, headed for another awkward session, imploring me yet again to "apply" myself. A session that would no doubt be composed of chair shifitng and putting glasses on and off. Mary Ann worked as the Dean's secretary and was the only one to give me an encouraging smile on the way into his office. I don't remember what the Dean told me that day, but I remember the orange cardigan Mary Ann was wearing.
'When was the last time you didn't spend an evening at home?'
Everything goes blank, all the doors of my mind shutting closed on me. A sweat breaks out, an invisible balloon bursting over my head. In seconds, I'm soaked.
Think. Think, you stupid shit! You tramp. You scum of the earth. Think!
'I had to go to the drug store. Three weeks ago.'
'When was the last time you spoke to a person, not me or anyone on the phone, the last person you talked to face to face?'
'The guy behind the counter at the drug store. Three weeks ago.'
'Tell me about Susannah.'
'Ah, she was the greatest kid,' I say and I can feel myself smiling.
'Susannah! I'm not telling you one more time. Get your butt down here this instance or the play date's off!'
We have a standing appointment every Wednesday at 3 p.m to meet Susannah's friend, Amy.
Susannah comes shuffling into the kitchen, her pink, shiny coat threatening to swallow her. She's looking at me, accusingly, like it's my fault this is her current predicament.
'I can't move and I'm hot,' she says and sighs.
Mary Ann's mom gave her that coat for Christmas and I can't believe how many times I've had to tell that woman that Susannah's favourite colour is green.
'She'll grow out of that,' she told me on Christmas Day morning, re-filling her third martini.
'At least you won't be cold,' I say and pinch Susannah's cheek.
With only my head lights to guide me in the dark, I rumble down the road as a dense layer of snow covers the world around me. It's 9 p.m, I'm hungry and all I want is to go home. It had taken me a while, leaving Dr Solomon's office downton and now I secretly hate her for having an office so far from my house. Doesn't she understand how long it takes me to get downtown? And on a snowy night like this, I could die.
'What are you talking about, Larry?' I say out loud. 'It's not Dr Solomon's fault. It's your own fault. Such an imposition for you, huh? Dragging your ass over to your car and driving for twenty minutes? Life is so fucking hard for you, Larry, I can't even believe it.'
I put the volume on high, draining the car of thoughts and lectures, filling it instead with a loud drumbeat and a high-pitched voice.
After what feels like hours I'm finally home, but suddenly that doesn't feel like such a comfort either, and I'm tempted to turn around, hit the road, find a motel and pass out, after getting grossly drunk. I feel overwhelmed, almost battered by the memories today' session brought up. Dr Solomon had taken my hand as I left her office. She held it for a long time while speaking to me in a low, melodious voice.
'I think we're making great strides here, Larry.'
I nod, but inside I feel this sinking, crawling sensation, that whatever we unravelled today is only the beginning.
It's time to go inside. I take a deep breath and open the car door.
'Daddy? Da-aaddy?' the voice is shrill and far away.
I'm in our house, standing in the kitchen, holding a cup of coffee and a newspaper. Just as I'm about to browse the headline, Mary Ann enters the kitchen in her dressing gown and she smiles at me. She looks radiant, like she's been out in the sun all day. I smile and remember the trip we took to Greece.
'Larry,' she says and moves close to me, stroking my chest. 'This morning was... incredible. When can we do it again?'
I choke on my coffee and start laughing.
When did she get so cheery?
'Soon, let me just... regain my energy,' I say, but I don't know why I'm saying it. Wouldn't I give anything to jump into bed with Mary Ann again? She's still got her hand on my chest and she's still smiling.
'Daaaddyyy...' the voice says again.
'Did you hear that?'
'Hear what, honey?' she says and kisses me, and I can feel her tongue gently pressing towards mine, her breasts rub against my chest and I feel myself growing hard.
Mary Ann's face changes. Her calm glow winked out, and her body is impossibly thinner, somehow shrunken, deflated.
'Where do you think?' she screams at me, fists hammering down on my chest. 'She's gone Larry,' she cries. 'Goooneeee.' The last word is a long wail.
I wake up and Susannah's phantom call echoes in the bedroom, as if the walls are bleeding her voice, reaching out to me, somehow.
I clutch the pillow to my side as I whisper,
'I'm sorry... I'm so sorry.'
After that I don't visit Dr Solomon for two weeks.
I order copious amounts of energy drinks over the internet, only two cents a botttle, because falling asleep has become, instead of the dead escape it was, haunting. The fear of hearing Susannah's dead voice clings to me like a heavy fever. I'm afraid of Mary Ann's shrunken face as she damns me to eternity. I don't remember her ever looking like that, but my subconscious clearly does.
It glares so obviously at me, why things fell apart after Susannah went missing. After she was gone, nothing existed anymore. Mary Ann was just a presence in my life, a shadow in a picture.
Susannah left a void that consumed everything.
One morning I wake up in Susannah's room. It was the only room I bothered to do anything about when I moved out of our house, Mary Ann's house now. We had always talked about making a jungle room for Susannah, covering the walls with all sorts of animals looking out from behind trees and branches. I hold on tight to the pillow, smelling it, hoping Susannah's scent will be there.
But it isn't.
These sheets have never been slept in.
I've woken up in an abandoned dollhouse.
'I think this was important for you, Larry,' Dr Solomon says, after I tell her about my "breakdown". 'Susannah needs to have a positive association in your mind, so we need to keep this ball rolling.'
Dr Solomon asks me what I did during my two-week recluse.
'I ordered one thousand three-hundred and thirty bottles of energy drink.'
This is a significant moment.
This is the first time I've ever seen any kind of emotion on Dr Solomon's face.
Shock, confusion? I can't tell.
As anticipated, it's a brief moment.
'Yeah, well, it doesn't beat the time I got a whole mini-van of light bulbs or 5000 pounds of cat food, and I don't even have a cat! And all those slippers...' I can't stop talking, the words come pouring out, relentlessly, the shame burning on my face.
'Do you often shop when you're going through a rough patch?' she says when I've finally shut up.
'It's just so... easy. Everything is just a click or a phone call away.'
'Doesn't it get cramped in your house?'
'I've made a path, navigating through boxes and everything else became a breeze after that.
Home at last, I let a bowl of noodles grow cold in my hands. I haven't eaten anything all day, but I'm not hungry.
I sit on the sofa in the living room and stare out. Towering boxes reach the ceiling, empty bottles cover the floor like a plastic carpet and mounds of clothing lay scattered about. I look out over it all, what those seven years have accumulated to. All this that I survey.
That's what Mary Ann called it the last time she came to visit.
She came barging in, charging through the entire house, intent on revealing all my secrets, like shamelessly flicking through someone's diary. She found Susannah's room and looked at me, disbelief plain on her face.
'And what is this supposed to be?' she said, her voice cracking like a whip. 'The animals look dead, Larry! They look soulless. Do you think Susannah would want to come home to this? How can she come home to you when you can't even move around the rest of your house because there's shit everywhere?'
She's right. Compared to my vision, the reality of Susannah's bedroom is a hollow pantomime of that. Even the trees look rotten.
I walk into the bedroom and close the door behind me.