“How do you know?”
I try to think of an answer better than I just know. But I can’t.
Dr. Banning leans forward a little in her chair and asks, “What about the housewarming party, really? You’re in your new home with your friends and your family, but Lo isn’t there. That has to be difficult.”
“Shouldn’t you be asking me about sex?” This question has been my go-to digression tactic.
“We’ll get to that later. Right now, I want to talk about the party.” Obviously, she’s picked up on my strategies. I end up giving in.
“I felt awkward,” I mutter. “But I always feel awkward so it really wasn’t much different.” I scratch my arm, but without any fingernails it’s more like rubbing than scratching.
“Why would you feel awkward around your family?”
I have so many secrets, sometimes they feel like they’re crushing me from the inside out. Keeping my addiction from my family has always put this intangible gap between us. But something stops me from telling Dr. Banning. A lump lodges in my throat as I blink a couple times, utterly confused.
Because I think I know…I think I know that I’ve always felt this way, even before my addiction. Before there were any secrets at all.
I try to remember the mornings where I woke up in my own house. Where I clambered downstairs in my pajamas to have breakfast with my family. I can smell bacon and eggs, and I can see Lucinda standing over the stove asking me if I want mushrooms or tomato in the scramble. It’s not the right memory though. Our chef was named Margaret. Lucinda cooked for Jonathan Hale.
“It’s not right,” I mutter under my breath.
“What’s not right, Lily?”
Let me think. Nights. Nights were at my house. But that was before I left for Lo’s to hang out and sleepover. Yes. I’m what…seven. I can see the television screen with silly cartoons, and I hear Poppy playing the piano in the background. Rose was on the floor, reading the first Harry Potter. My mother’s heels clapped into the room and she looked between me and Rose. She strode to the bookshelf and came back to jerk Rose’s novel from her grip, replacing the magical world with To Kill a Mockingbird.
Our mother tucked the fantasy novel under her elbow and walked right out of the room without another glance.
“I can’t…” I shake my head, tears pricking my eyes. I don’t like this answer. Take it back.
“Lily,” Dr. Banning says but I’m still shaking my head.
I see all the years flash in and out. I see each of my sisters suffocating, being silently molded by a mother who just wants the best. I see me being free of that. But why does it hurt? It shouldn’t f**king hurt.
“It’s stupid. It’s so stupid,” I complain and touch my hands to my eyes.
“Lily,” she says slowly. “You have to let it in.”
“Let what in?”
My bottom lip trembles and I just keep on shaking my head. “It’s stupid.”
“Why do you think that, Lily?” she asks fervently. “Your pain isn’t worth less than anyone else’s.”
“You don’t understand. I shouldn’t feel this way.” I point to my chest. “I have money. I come from a privileged life. I refuse to throw a pity party for myself.”
“You can’t refuse to feel hurt just because you think that you don’t deserve to feel it.”
I don’t know if I believe her. I think I should. “My sisters got the raw deal,” I say in defense, my cheeks stained with tears. “I got off.” No controlling mother. No piano lessons or ballet recitals.
“You never give yourself a break,” she tells me. “You’ve never given yourself a chance to feel. Do you understand?”
The emptiness. I guess it’s where that pain should be.
“It’s just you and me,” Dr. Banning says. “I don’t care about your last name. I don’t care about what your sisters went through. All I care about is you, Lily.”
It takes me a few moments to gather the strength to start talking about the thoughts that unsettle my head. A couple tears fall onto my hands and I manage to say, “When I was really little, my mother used to put me in classes like she did the other girls. Art. Singing. Piano…Everything.” I bite my lip, nodding to myself as I remember. “I lasted about a day in each. I just never picked up talents like Poppy and Rose.” I pause and cringe at my own words. So what Lily Calloway? You’re not talented. You don’t need to cry about it.
“Keep going,” Dr. Banning urges.
I shake my head now, but the memory continues to spill. “When the school sent me to remedial math in third grade, I think that was the last time my mother paid attention to me. I wasn’t sociable and congenial like Poppy. I wasn’t smart like Rose.” I wipe my eye. “And I never grew tall and beautiful like Daisy. I think…I think I was something she wished she could return. Like a generic handbag. But she couldn’t. So she just acted like I didn’t exist…”
She let me spend nights at Lo’s. Let me do whatever I wanted. And that freedom turned out to be as suffocating as her control.
“I never felt like she loved me,” I mutter under my breath. “I never felt worthy enough.”
I shake my head again. I don’t want this to be the answer. It should be something more. It should be a horrific, life-threatening event. Not these stupid feelings.
“When are you going to stop punishing yourself for what you feel?” Dr. Banning asks me.
“I don’t know how,” I choke
“You’re human, Lily. You hurt just like the rest of us. It’s okay.”
I nod now, changing course a little. I want to get there. To allow myself to feel pained by my childhood without feeling irreparable guilt at the same time. I just don’t know how to compartmentalize these emotions. How do I bear the hurt of being lonely without hating myself at the same time? Because my sisters would have given anything for the freedom I had. Because the world would give anything for the life I was born into. I feel selfish and stupid. Worthless and pathetic. Ugly and used.
Sex made me whole again.
One time turned into two. Two turned to three. And then I just couldn’t stop.
Dr. Banning passes me a box of tissues and I pluck a few from the carton, blowing my nose and trying to compose myself.
When the quiet lingers, I say, “I don’t want that to be the answer. No one will understand.” I’m some girl who decided to fill the emptiness in her heart with sex. Neglect and loneliness drove me to this place. A single choice to start and then the inability to stop.
“I understand,” Dr. Banning tells me. “Rose will understand. And in time, your family will too. You just have to give people the chance, Lily, and you have to learn not to be ashamed of how you arrived here. It’s not your fault.”
Her voice soothes me, relaxing my torpid thoughts to mush. She scribbles something down in her notepad and my brain screams at me for not hitting eject earlier. But there’s unfortunately still more to discuss, especially with tomorrow looming.
“What about Lo?” I ask, clearing my throat. I sweep the last of my tears away. “What should I do now that he’s coming back?”
She unlocks her cabinet drawer and I watch her pull out a small white envelope. “Before I give you this,” she says, “I want to congratulate you on your ninety days of celibacy.”
I think I hear her wrong. “I haven’t been celibate.”
Her smile is warm. “Have you had sex with another partner?”
“Lo and I had…Skype sex,” I say, flushing a little at the words.
“But he hasn’t actually penetrated you,” she reminds me. I turn even redder at the word penetrate and silently wonder how she didn’t even blink when she said it.
“So I’ve been celibate?” I say, a little unbelieving.
“For your personal treatment and what you needed to do, yes you have completed your celibacy period. You should be proud of yourself.”
There’s really only one thought on my mind. “So I can have sex with Lo?” I want to jump up from the chair and do a jig or something silly. I also feel a little bipolar. A second ago I was crying and now I’m more excited than ever.
“Yes and no,” Dr. Banning says, and crushes me yet again. This emotional rollercoaster is killing my stomach.
She slides the white envelope towards me. “Based on our sessions, I’ve listed your limits. Sexual acts that you should never participate in and acts that you should limit yourself. Think of these as guidelines or rules for sex.” I always thought the words sex and rules should never be synonymous. I guess things will definitely be changing for me.
I take it quickly and press my finger against the crease to rip the seam.
“Before you open it,” she cuts me off. “I’m going to advise you not to look at it.”
I frown. That doesn’t make any sense. “How will I know what not to do?”
“Have you ever heard of the saying ‘people want what they can’t have?’” she asks. I don’t like where this is going. “In my experience, every time someone chooses to read that envelope, it’s much more difficult to abide by it. They get scared and they usually never share the information with their sexual partner. You have a choice, Lily. You can either look inside the envelope now or you can give it to Lo and let him take care of it.”
That sounds like a huge decision, one that could change everything. Reading it now could seriously terrify me. I can just imagine the words sex once a month written in clean scrawl. I think I’d have a panic attack. With Lo around, abstaining from sex will be a thousand times more difficult, and I know how draining telling me no will be. But that’s exactly why I should give it to him, so I don’t punk out and toss the letter in the trash. Let him decide my fate. My nerves spike at the thought of being in that unbearable unknown. But maybe Dr. Banning was right.
Giving up something isn’t the same thing as losing control.
“You don’t have to decide now,” Dr. Banning says, “and when you and Lo feel ready, you both can see me together.”
Great. I’ve never had a one-hundred percent heart-to-heart about addiction with Lo. Not sure how therapy with him will turn out. Another hurdle to look forward to.
I slip the envelope into my back pocket and give Dr. Banning a quick thanks and handshake before I leave. On the way out, my stomach overturns. I know how well choices can alter the future.
We started a fake relationship. We ended it. We dated. We loved. And then we separated. Pain, happiness, joy and hurt ricochet from each path taken and from each memory uncovered.
One decision can change my life forever.
3 ½ YEARS AGO
I hold the strap to my Captain America plush backpack, which can easily alternate into a pillow if need be. Every time I’ve spent the night at Lo’s house, I stuff my toiletries and clothes into the little inside pocket. With my seventeenth birthday in a couple days, I should probably retire the backpack for a more mature option. Like Batman. But Lo would kill me if I went DC on him.