In Session

Madeline McFarland

As it had been with all the bad habits that she formed in life, she had only realized her dependence when it was far too late — too late for what? her therapist asked her, and she bit her nails to avoid a response, but in essence it had been too late to be saved from it. It was ironic — was she using ironic correctly? she never knew — that she had spent her whole life worshiping feminist narratives, but the whole time she had really thought of love as surrender. Maybe it was because she grew up religious. When he came along, she told the therapist, she had unconsciously given him everything, because her anxiety about men had always surrounded the choosing of them, not the being with them, because her romanticism implied a complete loss of agency, relinquishing control to the mind of the man, his way of being. It’s that I have so many ways of being, she told her therapist, it’s that I feel like so many things at once, and so I always imagined the choice of a man to also be the final decision on everything — basically, my final identity would depend on his.

    Tell me the story from the beginning, her therapist said.

She laughed and told the therapist that she had always despised that sentence, because it always came at the end of the hero’s journey in children’s novels, as a kind of narrative device, so that adults would be informed of all the plot in just one sentence; it would go, “He told him the whole story,” as if this was easily done — no, as if there is something such as one true story.

    Maybe other children weren’t interested in those things. Maybe it was an Anna thing, said the therapist.

Oh, don’t start me on that, she said. Don’t start on that gifted child bullshit. That’s the kind of shit Thomas would always talk about — his burnout, his struggle, the limits of his previously unlimited mind. It’s fucking unbelievable. You raise a boy to think he’s the smartest person in the world, and he completely breaks down when he’s not, and that’s allowed to ruin his life? No one told me I was special, thank god. Thank god! Here I am, functioning now!

    Are you functioning? the therapist asked, and again Anna bit her nails.

I’m functioning much better than I was in Spain, she said. When I was talking to him, my entire functionality was dependent on him. It felt very real, I felt very tied to him, very under his control — and then I’m better than I thought I would be, in fact I’m objectively better on my own. Once I escaped. God. I don’t like that. Can we pretend I didn’t say any of that?

    Don’t worry about how it sounds, the therapist said, and then paused. So, tell me about how you met Thomas.

    It’s a long story.

    I’m here to listen, Anna.

    Yes, well, my parents are paying you to listen. But I do appreciate it. I don’t mean to be rude. I guess there are a few “meetings” to consider.

    That’s fine. Tell me what you remember.

    I first met him at the bar, at school. There was only one bar in the town, it was so small — it really was the middle of nowhere. A few restaurants, a bar, a post office, a church, whatever — that kind of New England town. It felt anonymous, kind of. Anyway, we met at the bar one night because we had some mutual friends — I was friends with some of his friends, they were older boys, I guess some were in my classes. I don’t remember much from that particular night, to be honest, but it was fun talking to him — notably fun, I remember my impression of him from that night.

    What was your impression?

    My impression was that he was very funny, very smart. Easy to talk to — very quick. When someone is quick like that, it’s easy to become intimate quickly, too, at least it is for me, I think. So we were kind of talking about everything from the first moment. I feel like it created the whole problem. The quickness, I mean, then the escalation. Real human connection I think is always quick, you know, zero to 100. When you’re slogging through it with someone — it’s not necessarily worthless but it does indicate something about how much intimacy will be built, I think. It wasn’t muddy with him. There was, from the beginning, a strong sense of emotional… lucidity in every conversation.

    Lucidity. How many other conversations were there?

    Hm. After the bar — before he graduated, a few more times? We met only in March, and then they all graduated in May — so maybe three more times? But he heard back from the Fulbright in March or April. I remember that night, I remember congratulating him, he was wearing a green shirt, maybe it was even St. Patrick’s Day — so then after that we started to speak a little about Spain, when we knew we’d both be there. It wasn’t really consistent, but you know, we spoke, here and there. It was always the same as the first time, the same ease, same openness.

    Did you think that you had feelings for him?

    No, no. I wasn’t attracted to him. I knew that from the first time. But it did feel like something drew me to him, there was a literal — a literal force of attraction, or I guess, a connection. But not in the traditional sense. Like, I didn’t want to sleep with him, but I wanted to solicit his opinions and to share mine — what he thought about things immediately mattered to me, I guess there was an immediate trust of his judgment as well. I’ve had that feeling before, but it’s relatively rare, still, I guess it always takes you by surprise. That feeling was much stronger when we were in Madrid. When I was there, it felt — it spiraled out of control. I became obsessive, I wanted to trace every single one of his thoughts, to download his entire brain.

    To download, the therapist repeated, laughing.

    I know, very millennial, isn’t it? But that’s what I wanted. Every single thought that he had. When I felt out of my depth, I also felt so far from everyone else — I felt that I had either adopted or built a new world with him that no one else could understand, and so when I was in it, I couldn’t imagine leaving it. Does that make sense?

    Hm. Adopted or built?

    I alternated between thinking we built it together, and that he had built it and I was a guest.

    Which do you think it was?

    I don’t know.

    Tell me more about this feeling.

        It felt like obsession. The question that hung over my head, though, was whether it was friendship or something else, a romantic obsession.

    What did you think?

    I couldn’t tell. I knew that he wanted it to be love-love, and so it forced the question, but it was something that I could ignore for long periods, too.

        Was it something – clearly physical, that dissuaded you?

        Yeah. Well, no. It was that – I mean, it just wasn’t there for me, for him, physically. He’s not – it wasn’t what I wanted. But I’d like to think I’m not superficial, I guess, and there was something else, too, like some kind of deep mismatch hidden even within all of the good.

    The therapist paused. Tell me about what it was like in Madrid.

    Do you mean Thomas — do you mean my eating? Or the depression? Anna asked, laughing.

    The therapist didn’t laugh. Tell me about everything.

    There’s that line again; I hate it.

    Maybe it would be helpful if we ignored the concept of “the whole truth” right now. Tell me about Madrid, from your perspective. I’m not here to judge you. I just want to know how you felt.

    Do you think that my feelings would be lies, like emotion and truth are totally separate? I think about that a lot actually — I read this article once that said men get off to the Enlightenment, that they eliminate the possibility of emotion and logic working together…

    I say that because you seem focused on the possibility of misleading or confusing me, and we are here to talk about you, your feelings, and your experiences. So, tell me about those things.

    Fine. Madrid. Madrid. Madrid! I did a program outside of school, and I didn’t know anyone. I lived in a homestay with an abuela, in an apartment by the park. Thomas lived across the same park, in an apartment with some kids studying with Erasmus.

    What’s Erasmus?

    It’s the European study abroad equivalent, but it’s kind of one big program — I’m not quite sure of the specifics. He lived with two guys, one from Sweden and one from Italy. He intended them to be fun, I mean that he purposely chose Erasmus students because he heard they were rowdy, but they were very quiet, and kept to themselves, and ended up making him feel guilty when he drank or played music or anything.

    What was your living situation like?

    Ah, sort of awful. I mean, my host mother or grandmother cooked me three meals a day, and I was grateful, and she cleaned my laundry and hung it on the clotheslines in the courtyard of the apartment building. It was a safe, clean, middle-class apartment, and she was no-nonsense in the way I was used to at home, and so that was comforting. But we didn’t become close, she had no interest in that, and she frequently insulted me, and made me defensive, and she yelled at me like she really was my grandmother, which was fine and sometimes not fine, because she wasn’t, and she didn’t love me.

    Can you give me an example — a typical fight?

    Once I went out with Thomas, clubbing, and we stayed out pretty late in the cold, and I caught the flu. I came home with flu medicine from the pharmacy the next morning — pharmacies are different in Spain, they’re more like doctors, you just have to tell them your symptoms, it’s crazy, they’re just everywhere and so cheap. Anyway, I came into the kitchen to tell her about it, and I was wearing old boxer shorts, not Thomas’, I don’t know whose, I did use to sleep around but I have two brothers, so who knows whose, anyway, and so I came in the kitchen to tell her I had the flu in the shorts, and barefoot, which is practically against the law in Spanish homes, and she yelled at me and said, of course you got the flu, you go out on the street wearing no clothes at night, what did you think was going to happen?

    Ah, I see.

    It’s true, though, it’s a fair question, and I think one that can only really be asked woman to woman, it applies to so many circumstances: what did you think was going to happen? If a man said it, I’d call him a misogynist, but I’ve asked myself about Thomas so many times, what did I think was going to happen? It applies to the eating, too, doesn’t it? I could tell myself a thousand times that I had it under control, but I was inching myself forward, you know, I made that decision again and again, and it is like, eventually, what did I think was going to happen?

    Not everything that you ask yourself is a fair question, Anna.

    How do we know what’s fair?

    We don’t always know. But tell me about how things went with Thomas in Spain.

    We started hanging out almost immediately, that’s something I regret. It was so early that I didn’t make many friends. With guys it’s different, of course, he had a group almost automatically, and Spain is one of the biggest Fulbright programs, so he taught English with a few others who he really liked. I liked them, too, they were great, and they became my friends as well, and I give them credit, they wholly accepted me into the group. We both wanted to get out of our apartments, and we loved talking to each other, and so we spent hours, sometimes almost every day, walking together and drinking, at cafés or on park benches.

    It sounds romantic, that image you just created. Did it feel romantic?

    Sometimes it felt so romantic I felt dizzy, and like an enormous fraud, like a really disgusting tease, the kind that everyone hates. Sometimes it was so nice and I felt so safe and cared for that I didn’t ask myself any further questions. I really felt an overwhelming tenderness towards him, and I still do now — which is horrible, I know I shouldn’t, but I do… my secret is that I miss him. I wonder — if you asked many people in the world, what’s your biggest secret? I wonder how many would just say, “I miss him.” Like there’s one ubiquitous “him.” He who left you. He who loved you. He who was undeserving, and unkind.

        That’s a beautiful, painful thought, Anna.

        Anna shifted in the chair.

        How did you know that he had feelings for you — or, why did you think that?

    We drank a lot. It came up.

    How much were you drinking?

    A lot. I don’t know. Often a bottle of wine a night, when I was with him.

    How much were you eating?

    As little as possible. Oysters and things that were oyster-sized.

    You said your host mom cooked for you?

    Yes, but we watched the Big Bang Theory while we ate, or the news, every night. I preferred the news, the Big Bang Theory was dubbed over in Spanish with these really grating voices. When we watched the American news, they spoke about the election, and she would point at the TV and talk about the viejo, el viejo. It was funny to me because, well, wasn’t Hillary old, too? So I wondered if I was misunderstanding, but it wasn’t worth it to cause a fight. At the end, she told me I was worse at Spanish than I had been when I arrived. Anyway — she wasn’t watching me eat, and I ate just enough, didn’t I — that’s how it starts.

        Anna shifted her body again. So, many other nights I ate out with Thomas. Dinner is cheap in Spain, so we could eat together for ten or fifteen euros, minus the wine, and I had enough money saved that I could afford that quite frequently. I didn’t eat much at dinner, but I think Thomas didn’t notice or didn’t care. I know that he loved how small I was, it was something he frequently commented on, and I think he must have noticed I got tinier and tinier. I wonder if he liked it, because I was easier to capture and contain. Anyway, yes… that’s the eating. I know this is supposed to be the session about Thomas, and the food comes next. I know it’s interrelated; I know. I’m just telling you now.

    Yes. But right now, I want to get clarity on Thomas, because we couldn’t really speak for very long last session without his name coming up, and I think it’s important. An important piece of the puzzle. So. I’d imagine you got quite drunk, if you weren’t eating as much?


    When you said that his feelings “came up,” a few minutes ago, what did you mean?

    I mean that… I never know if we’re allowed to say that we know when someone wants to sleep with us, or likes us, or whatever. But isn’t it sometimes obvious, just in the way someone looks at you? That they want to push you over and…?

    Push you over?

    I don’t know.

    Is that how you think about sex?


    Women — we’re told certain stories about our own feelings. There’s an implicit understanding of nuance, or confusion, for men, I often think — maybe that’s even the basis of depth we ascribe to them — that isn’t applied to women. What I’m trying to say, Anna, is that you’re allowed to be conflicted about someone without being a — to use your language — “tease.”

    Is that actually true, though? Don’t my actions have consequences too?

    What do you mean? Do you think you did something wrong?

    I did lead him on. That seems undeniably true. But I was working with a guess. I can’t know for sure now whether how I acted was wrong, the same way I wasn’t sure then if he liked me. It’s confusing, but, yeah, I think there was a transgression, that I am at fault.

    You said that he wanted love. I want to hear how you navigated that.

    Well, horribly, right? Isn’t that why I’m here now?

    I want to hear how you dealt with it at the time.

    I think that I knew what I was doing, that I knew what impression I was giving him — the impression of romance — but I couldn’t stop, because I wanted to talk to him and to be near him so badly, and so I did whatever mental gymnastics I needed to do to facilitate that. Eventually there was a breaking point, but for two months or so, it worked out well, and I was quite happy, though I was quite depressed, then, as well.

    The therapist paused again. What did you talk about?


    Which parts of everything?

    Books, movies, religion, our friends, our families, our ambitions… music, a lot of music. American culture, Spanish culture, the differences we noticed between. Not, like, siestas, but, like, for example, we both liked how many of the people our age we met, faced with the unemployment rate and the economy, still sort of stagnant from 2008, just went back to school, which was basically free. It seemed like a better life, one we admired. Morality, too — he had really concrete ideas about right and wrong, and about politics. I liked it because it gave me shape, me who always lived in a gray area, a kind of haze. He was, you know, always yelling about universal healthcare and how advanced other countries were compared to the U.S. He would chide me for having voted for Hillary in the primary, kind of shook me out of my neoliberal passivity, I guess you could call it. I mean, he would call it that.

        He’s very funny, Anna continued. Everything made me laugh. All of it. What’s a good example? Sometimes I still laugh to myself about this one thing, it’s dumb, but –  I said something about the Lion King as an adaptation of Hamlet, probably like he didn’t know that, being annoying, and he said, without missing a beat, “Right, just like how Transformers is an adaptation of Pale Fire.” Does that make sense? He helped me with my Spanish, too, he spoke it beautifully. Without flaws, somehow, always. Even better when drunk. He just had excellent taste, he’s one of those people, and he knew about everything, and so he curated his life so specifically in that way that to be part of his life meant that I too contained excellence. He came from a sort of shining place… a world of brilliance that I fell in love with too. He and his parents were always fighting about things that were so… important, academic I guess, but very real. My family, we fought over, you know, television remotes, and spots at the dinner table, and his father would yell at him for leaning towards authoritarian leftism… it was really captivating to me. Eventually we spoke so much on every topic that there was the creation of a world, or at least a shared worldview. I sort of stopped being able to speak to anyone else.

    Do you think that he learned from you too?

    I’m not sure, I think that was my big fear. I couldn’t imagine what he could have been learning from me. I felt so worthless, like a philistine. I learned that word from The Squid and the Whale. Thomas showed me that movie, even though he didn’t like it. Anyway, the only thing Thomas really sought out was my emotional intelligence, and some book recommendations. But that capital was limited, the cultural capital was all his.

    This cultural capital — for you, was that in sum enough… enough to sustain so much? She paused. In other words, I suppose, why was a connection over culture, or art, so important to you? That’s really what I’m hearing – that that was the central interest between you. An aesthetic. But an aesthetic that was almost global, like a way of life.

    I don’t know. My brain is creative, though I’ve tried to stifle it, I suppose. Ugh, that sounds awful. No, it’s just that those were the subjects that I felt, sometimes, I had no one else to talk to about. It’s not what my friends care about, not what my family cares about. And on those subjects, he knew so much. She paused again. What it comes down to, though…. well, I didn’t want to sleep with him, and he wanted to sleep with me. That was the key… it made my body, which I was already shrinking, feel so… it slowly killed me, to be valued for that.

    You were sure that that was why he valued you?



    It was all that I could think of.

    What happened next?

    Hmmmm. It started… it broke down. There were a few distinct nights, and then everything was sort of chaos. The first time was the night of the election; we watched the election together.

    Tell me about that night.

    Of course, we all thought Hillary would win, in Spain and in America. I sent in my mail-in ballot with Thomas, we dropped them at the mailbox together, I think I even took a photo, naively, thinking, the first female president! The day of the election, it felt momentous, not certain, but almost certain, and so it didn’t feel high stakes to watch the election with Thomas and his friends. I thought it was natural, that it made sense. It did make sense. We watched at an American bar on his side of the park, where many other Americans had gathered. It had a projector and a blank wall, and we watched a screening of CNN on that wall for hours and got very drunk. It’s five hours ahead in Spain, so we met at the bar at eleven or so, I guess when polls were closing or starting to close in the U.S. We stayed at the bar until about five a.m., which was normal in Spain, but the election wasn’t called then, we left before it was called. At midnight, one, maybe even two, it felt okay, and then maybe closer to three it started to look like Trump could really win, then later that he would win, but I don’t remember the timing well because at that point I was very drunk, so drunk that I couldn’t get off the barstool. Closer to five, I felt completely numb. I started crying, and Thomas took me home, walked me across the park, and the whole time I screamed things about how we could get mugged, that we had just elected a sexual assailant. Thomas left me for a moment outside the park and men were driving by, collecting trash, and they catcalled me because I suppose they didn’t see that I was with a man, it’s amazing how just one man’s presence erases that whole part of a woman’s life. I was so drunk that I screamed at them, in English, not today! Thomas almost carried me home.

    Did you discuss his feelings?

    We were outside my apartment building, it was probably closer to six, but I didn’t check my phone — I woke up to the notification that he had won, and then just below that the notification that Pennsylvania had gone for Trump, and I was crushed. I almost deleted the New York Times app. My state!  But — anyway, I didn’t accept it until the next morning, actually it was sort of like “Schrodinger’s Cat,” that idea we learned in Chemistry class in high school. I felt that way sort of about checking my phone the next morning — as long as I laid in bed, not checking, both Hillary and Trump had been elected, and I was okay. Eventually, my host mother came in and yelled at me to wake up, she said, get up, girl, no one has died. So, I woke up and I knew that he had won, and I went to class still sobbing. But I’m getting distracted — Thomas. Thomas walked me home, and we were on my street, which was really only one block or so from the park, so it was good of him to take me to the door, sometimes I felt scared at night, but anyway, it was then that he kissed me, when I was at my lowest, when I was literally in his arms. It all… unraveled from there.

    Did you feel taken advantage of?

    No, not necessarily. But I wished that he had gone about it differently. It wasn’t unfair, so to speak, to kiss me, but it was maybe unfair to have done it in that moment. It grossed me out, too, it confirmed everything I had suspected about how much he liked my fragility… my skinniness! Anyway, then I told him no, and I went inside my apartment. But it was the catalyst. We hung out later that week and we split a bottle of wine between us and smoked a blunt and then he wanted to discuss whatever was happening between us, he said. He said he needed to know. He said that he was losing sleep over me, like I was driving him to ruin.

    What did you say to him then?

    I told him that I loved him, but not in the way that he wanted me to. I told him… oh, God, I’ll barely get all of this out now. It was bizarre enough to say the first time. I told him he was the first person I’d ever met who made me feel less lonely. I told him that he was my best friend. I told him that I cared about him enormously, that I had only affection, admiration, and respect for him. I told him he was the smartest person I’d ever met. I told him that he enriched my life. But I think that all he understood was that I didn’t want to be with him.

    What did he say?

    He said that he loved me, that he had thought that I must have loved him too. He said he couldn’t understand what had happened any other way. He said that he didn’t believe me. He started shaking his head, wouldn’t look at me, and just started repeating, like he was chanting, the word “no.” No, actually first — oh, God, this is so horrible to remember, at first it was, “say it again.” “Say it again,” “say it again.” Like… like he wanted me to punish him. Like that. Somehow. It was so strange, and I was so high, and I remember sitting there very carefully, trying to keep still, basically unable to talk.

    Did you feel safe?

    No. I mean. No. We were in his room in the Erasmus apartment, which was very small. He had strung up some rainbow lights, you know, Christmas lights, and we were sitting on the ground by the desk and he started shaking, like he was convulsing, and he just kept repeating these things, and I started to back up, so that if he shook a lot more, he wouldn’t hit me, and I wanted to go home so badly, even though my host mother would yell at me too. I said that I wanted to go home, but he kept repeating the word “no,” and eventually he started to cry, and I just sat there, and I felt so scared of him and scared of myself, scared that I could be so unfeeling and heartless, scared that I had driven him to harm, scared that he was hurting me, too. Scared that the person I had trusted most, had given so much of my brain to, had loved so closely, could leave me if he was denied access to my body. I’m still sad about that, it’s so cliché, but, you know, that I wasn’t enough otherwise. But it was the “no,” it was the way he said “no” that put me over the edge. I’d never seen anything like it.

    Did you feel that you were… somehow… supposed to trade him your body for his brain? Or access to one for the other? Like you owed him?


    Did you think that he thought that too?


    Did he say that he thought that?

    I brought it up, and he said it wasn’t true, he repeated that he loved me.

        What did it feel like to hear him say that? That he loved you?

        I don’t know. I mean, it felt true and it also didn’t.

        Did his behavior align with your definition of love – of what love is to you?

        I’m not sure. In some ways, most of the time, yeah, like the infatuation, the momentum, the chemistry. But in other ways, no, I don’t actually think so. It’s probably a cliché that I don’t even know about, a movie quote I haven’t heard, but, when he said love, I felt like he was looking at or talking about someone else, someone right behind me, someone not there.

    I’ve never heard that quote before, Anna. But it makes sense to me. If we might – what happened that night in his apartment?

    I slept there, next to him, while he continued to cry and to shake. I didn’t know what else to do. In the morning he kissed me and I kissed him back, which I shouldn’t have done, I know that, but I was just so glad… I was so happy to have him back, I mean my friend back, back in his body, however briefly, and then I walked home, and my host mother berated me, and I didn’t tell her what had happened, even though she said she almost called the program to report me missing. I just said I was at a friend’s and I went back to sleep. But of course she knew that I didn’t really have friends. Just the man she called my novio.

    Did you speak about it again?

    The same kind of… explosion happened a few more times. Every time we went to cafés, any time he had alcohol. We would leave the group of friends to smoke cigarettes in the back, or be alone in the park, and he would start to talk about his feelings. His tone always felt so accusatory, and yet it always went the same way, from my end… no, I love you, but I don’t want to be with you. No, no, no. Every time. But I did feel like I was wearing down, and I thought he could tell that he believed he was pursuing me, and with some success, and that it was a fair… that it was a fair courting ritual, or something. That, like, that was how it could be, sometimes, that it was just one inconvenient path . I guess that was how I imagined him describing the situation to his friends… his narrative. Confusion… intermittent success… desire… longing… pain. Meanwhile, mine was something like, loss of affection… loss of acceptance… denial… pain… the hollowness of male friendship. I can’t believe that I still miss him.

    When you say you miss him — what exactly is the status of your relationship now?

    Around Thanksgiving — I remember because we had plans to cook an American feast together, which he canceled. He told me he couldn’t speak to me anymore. He stopped responding to my messages, he said it was too painful for him. He refused to see me. It was so jarring — I felt that I had instantly gone from a human being to a woman, without, you know, my permission or consent. This is unrelated, but — I’ve felt that way before, or I guess become aware of it, like, usually more existentially, as in thinking about how we don’t give consent to be born, and certainly not to be born women, not with everything that comes with it. Childbirth — it’s not something I want to do, but I didn’t get a choice. I secretly — I secretly don’t think I can go through with it. When I think about it, I panic, my skin feels like something foreign, something I’m trapped inside.

    Anna, the decision to have children or not is your choice. It’s not something you have to do. You’re not trapped in it, and you won’t be later, when you’re older. It will always be a choice between equally valid options.

        But it feels sort of like a choice between real life, the main plot, and something else. Something completely undefined. Not really, like, an equally valid option, because – it’s nothing at all.

        It’s okay. The therapist paused. Have you spoken to Thomas since then?

    Not once. I saw him on the street with some of our friends, from afar, but they turned the other way. Of course, they all stopped seeing me, too — they were his friends, the whole time. They would respond to my messages, once I even got drinks with one of the girls and she told me that she didn’t know what had happened, that she understood it had been “crazy,” and that she liked me but didn’t want to deal with it in that moment. I never contacted her again. When I got home for Christmas, my parents took one look at me and knew I was two or three sizes smaller… I suppose it got much worse in those few weeks from Thanksgiving to the end of the fall semester. I felt like I had spun my entire life out of control, and I liked that the eating… I could keep that up, and I could contend with myself at the same time. I could shrink, then shrink, then become someone so small I would be fully incapable of harm forever.

    So it felt like an expression of control.

    Yes, of course, I know that’s the classic… the classic root cause. But it was also of pain. I felt like this person… this person capable of real malice, of evil. I wanted to disappear, to become nothing. I knew that I was nothing to him anymore, but I was trying to mutate my relationship to my actual body, as in, my body to the actual world, sorry.

    When do you miss him? What do you miss getting out of your interactions with him?

    I miss him when I read something funny, a passage or a quote that I think he would like. Or I hear a song on the radio, and I know he’d like it. Sometimes something bizarre happens to me, and I wish I could tell him to make him laugh, even something stupid, something that happens when I’m at Rite Aid or with my family. I miss his responses to all of those things. I guess I got to a point where the world stopped having meaning if it wasn’t something that he was reacting to. Like his reactions created the world, because they defined it, or at least they defined its rules. So I walk around and I think, Thomas would think this shop is lovely, he’d think this album is horrible, he’d think these people were bourgeoisie, he’d think this outfit was flattering. It’s stupid, too, because I feel so empty now, because I live in his head, and not in mine. So I walk around kind of vacantly, and I compare… I constantly compare us, and I constantly lose.

    What you miss about him — this validation, or this feeling of approval, maybe simultaneously of judgment — is there a way you could give that to yourself? What would that look like?

        Anna thought. I’m not sure, she said. I think what I miss — the feeling you’re describing — is the feeling of being known. I don’t think that I can give myself the same kind of ‘love’ that he gave me, I think that’s, therefore, by definition, impossible.

        Did anything more ever happen with him? Did he try to kiss you again?

    Yeah. We had sex once, I know it was wrong, but it happened. It was two days before Thanksgiving, the day we were supposed to cook together, and I got high with him and took a shower at his apartment and when I came back into his room, it kind of just happened. It wasn’t bad, wasn’t good either, I was high and felt like having sex and wanted him to be happy more than anything. The next day, he told me that it destroyed him, having sex. That was when he said we could never speak again. I used to read books written by men about sex, and I was always shocked at their delusion — no woman has ever felt “completed” by a penis, good sex is good sex, it’s never destroyed me, made me fall in love with anyone, anything like that. It is… it just is. And sex, at least heterosexual sex, is usually pretty bad! It happens and it’s done, and you get the toilet paper or the rag or whatever and you clean up and it was fun and now it’s over, but it probably wasn’t that fun because it probably ended when he got off and you didn’t. You watch a movie. If the guy is basic, you watch something basic; if the guy is interesting, you watch a film with subtitles, whatever, it’s all vaguely dissatisfying, and it’s fine, and you’re probably faking it, and it’s okay. But then Thomas said he was destroyed? Like my body destroyed him? Like he was Icarus and my fucking vagina was the sun?

    That’s quite a metaphor.

    Thank you. As I said, creative mind. Anna laughed, then continued. It was the only time I had sex abroad, only time in six months or so, I don’t know. I hated myself for a while for doing it, I guess that’s part of the reason I wanted to change my body, I felt sort of poisonous.  I didn’t really do anything, after, until I got home, either. I would go to class and come home and watch Narcos on my laptop. My host mom would get me for dinner and we’d stare at each other across the table like cowboys in the Old West or whatever. I’d just think about everything until I went to sleep. And then a few weeks later, it was time to fly home.

    The therapist paused. How did you feel about yourself during this time, as a person, mentally, or maybe I should say intellectually?

        Anna paused too. So stupid, she said. I felt so stupid. I felt like a shell of a person, and he was, in contrast, the deepest person I knew.

        Would you say that all of your conversations with Thomas were “deep”?

    I guess so. I don’t know. I guess I still don’t know whether or not it was… shallow or deep. I guess it is shallow to talk the way we did. Cultural capital must be as shallow at least as any other type of capital. I guess there’s no distinction between hoarding book recommendations and hoarding restaurant reviews or… something like that. I don’t know. I don’t know how important I found all of that before I met him, because I can’t really remember. I don’t know whether he confirmed my belief in the importance of all of that, or he created it.

    I don’t mean to overstep. It just seems the question for you is one of depth and this idea that you lacked it. Would a deep person become close to a shallow one if the conversations required depth? I’m just throwing things out there. I want to understand how you valued yourself and him. We are running out of time, so we can sort of wind down on this note, if that’s alright.

    Well, if he just wanted… if he liked the way I looked.

    But if he was so wise, so omniscient?

    Everyone is blinded by physical impulses, even the smartest people.

    Hm. And you felt you owed him, maybe, well — did you feel that you owed him that chance, some time with these physical impulses?

Yeah, I guess so, but I mostly felt bad. Is that the same thing?

That’s a good question — let’s talk about that next time we meet, explicitly, though I think we’ve been discussing it today: what it means to owe someone something. I think more specifically, what that means when it’s someone we really love. I think if the working definition of love itself is somehow distorted — not wrong, but not serving you — it’s also going to impact the areas that self-love would improve, like confidence and self-esteem.


        I think next week we should start here, although I do want to start talking more seriously about the eating disorder.

    It was more like disordered eating.

    We can discuss that next week as well. I want to ask, Anna — the loneliness you described, that he helped abate to some extent when you were close with him and trusted him, how is that going right now? Now that you’re home and with your family?

    It’s been okay. I’m close… relatively close with my high school friends, and everyone is back, and it’s nice. I’ve been seeing them, getting brunch, going out. My family is… we’re not particularly close, but we get along.

    What would it mean to let them in, in the way you let Thomas in?

    I don’t know.

    Okay. I want you to think about that a little bit over the next week, before we meet again. Take care, Anna.

    Will do. Anna stood and paused. Her jeans had risen in ripples on her calves, and she kicked the fabric back down with the toes of her boots, then wrung out her hands. I’ll see you next week, she said to the therapist. Thank you. She walked out of the room, past the beige chairs of the waiting room, ten minutes from her family’s home. She thought, as she walked, though maybe it was normal, maybe, she thought, it was even the point of therapy, that it was the first time she’d ever talked about it. I talk so much, she thought, pushing open the glass and white wood door — this might be the only thing that ever happened to me that I’d never told anyone about.


Madeline McFarland

Madeline McFarland is a writer and a professor of creative writing at New York University.

Madeline's Articles on KGB LitMag