Beth McCabe lives in University Place, Washington. McCabe is a graduate of the Barnard College Creative Writing Program, where she placed second in the Elizabeth Janeway Fiction Prize. Her stories and blogging have appeared in Andromeda Spaceways, Luna Station Quarterly, Liquid Imagination, Blue Monday Review, Halfway Down the Stairs, Youth Imagination, and other publications.
Mildly Anxious, Overweight
by Beth McCabe
“We’ll need an x-ray, but I’ll tell you right now: it’s broken.” Doctor Barbie flipped her hair and started typing at a laptop. “How did you do it?”
“You broke your pinky drinking wine coolers?”
“No, but if I hadn’t had three of them at the company picnic, I wouldn’t have tried to play volleyball.”
“Hmm.” She kept typing. I sent my fourth text to my husband, Wiktor, but he still didn’t reply.
Finally the doctor got up and patted my arm. “I’ll be right back,” she said.
Two hours later my pinky was the size of a bratwurst, there was no sign of the doctor, and Wiktor was still missing in action. Out of boredom I hit a key on the computer and the screen came to life with the doctor’s intake notes.
There was my name, CeCe Wodjiewski. Next, my address and date of birth. At last I saw something juicy: OBSERVATIONS. I scrolled down, hoping for a lurid description of my injury. What I saw was this:
Mildly anxious, overweight.
I flopped on the treatment table and tried to banish the image, like when you catch a glimpse of porn on a co-worker’s computer. But, as I was x-rayed, splinted, and medicated, those three little words followed me like pigeons waiting for crumbs. Mildly anxious, overweight.
I had always known there was a better, calmer, thinner CeCe living inside me. Even an overworked intern could see it.
When I was ready to leave, the nurse told me someone was waiting for me. Oh good, I thought. Wiktor is here. But when I got to the waiting room all I saw was a terrifying apparition in a babushka and support hose.
“Mama,” I croaked. “Where’s Wiktor?”
“Wiktor is wery important man at University. He has no time for your foolishness.” She clamped a malformed claw onto my arm, sending arrows of pain into my damaged hand. “Come. We take bus. Taxi is too expensive.”
But I’d already summoned a Lyft. Off we went into the Chicago rush hour, me woozy with pain and medication, Mama vibrating with fury over my extravagance. When we got to my apartment she made me a tea from nettles and mushrooms. When she flew back to her cave to feast on the bones of innocents I poured it into a houseplant.
Therapy, I’d decided, curled up in bed like a boneless chicken on an opioid cloud. That was the ticket. The time honored talking cure would bring out the new improved me.
When Wiktor came home from his lecture, I didn’t say anything about that. Shrinks were verboten in the Wodjiewski clan. Apparently, something had happened to Mama’s brother, Uncle Stanislaw, in an asylum in Warsaw. Not that they ever talked about it.
Wiktor inspected my pinky, nodded, and went off to read some abstruse physics journal. Compassion is not his strong suit, but I love him anyway.
Two days later I found a therapist on a website. People recommended him highly for his calm, soothing manner.
“Off to Book Club,” I lied on the day of my appointment. I shouldn’t have bothered; Wiktor was deep in the madcap antics of quantum particles. “Mrrrfff,” he replied.
I boarded a northbound bus, picturing Uncle Stanislaw on a cold metal table with electrodes stuck to his head. We arrived at a sketchy stretch of North Halsted. I craned my neck to check building numbers and got off at a Korean take-out place. I pressed the buzzer in the doorway. When it buzzed back I mounted a flight of decrepit stairs.
My new therapist met me with a wide smile. We settled into rust-colored Ikea armchairs and I took a deep breath.
“Doc,” I said, “before we start. If you call me and my husband answers, say, ‘Wrong number’, OK?”
“Do you feel you can’t tell your husband that you’re seeing a therapist?”
“I could tell him. Just not yet.” (Not ever.)
“I see.” He scritch-scratched on his pad. “CeCe, I’d like to make sure you have a support network, especially if you don’t feel comfortable sharing your process with your partner. Do you have family? Close friends? Church, synagogue, mosque?”
“Atheist. No family. Of course I have friends. Well, a friend.”
“Are you in close touch?”
“Yes, definitely! Well, occasionally. Christmas cards.”
He tapped his posh incisors with his pencil. “Do you have a congenial work atmosphere?”
“I’m a web designer. I do most of my work at home in the middle of the night.” (Pause for dramatic effect.) “But Rolf hangs out with me while I work.”
Dr. Soothing Vibes looked hopeful. “Rolf?”
“A stuffed dog that I picked up at a flea market—get it? Flea market! Rolf is excellent company. He doesn’t drink wine coolers or play volleyball.”
“It’s a valuable gift to be able to offset uncomfortable situations with humor,” Dr. Vibe said. “But I’m thinking group therapy might be a constructive treatment venue for you.”
Ugh, I thought. Bare my soul to a bunch of losers? But I found myself mildly anxious to please Dr. Vibe.
And dying for a doughnut.
The following Wednesday night I squeezed into Dr. Vibe’s office along with two other people who, as far as I could see, shared nothing except a penchant for dubious wardrobe choices. I helped myself to a cup of weak coffee and some cookies. With the same hopeful look he’d gotten when I mentioned Rolf, Dr. Vibe asked me if I’d like to tell the others a bit about myself.
I wondered if it was too late to go for antidepressants. “Not really.”
“OK. Who’d like to start?”
Skinny Guy in Checkered Sport Jacket leaned forward and propped his elbows on knobby knees.
“I was down in Frisco last week,” Skinny said, “and I saw some of my former associates. I nearly ran for it. It’s not really safe to quit my line of work, you know?”
Dr. Vibe nodded encouragingly. “Did you speak to them?”
“We said hello, no big deal. The boss owes me so they left me alone. But I’ll never stop looking over my shoulder.”
“Nick, did this encounter bring up your feelings of anxiety over the incident?” Dr. Vibe asked.
“You mean, did I have flashbacks about that kid watching his dad get beaten up?”
“Hold on,” I said. “You beat up a guy in front of his kid?”
“No, no. I was involved in an incident. It was an associate of mine that did it. It gave me panic attacks so I quit my job. Russian Mafia.”
“You don’t sound Russian.”
“I’m Italian. But they own the game now.”
What had I gotten myself into? I zoned out until I heard Dr. Vibe say, “Our time is up.”
The following week I again demurred from Dr. Vibe’s invitation to spill my guts.
“I’ll go,” said Too Small Pink Pantsuit.
I pegged her for maybe thirty-four. She looked like an overstuffed Pepto-Bismal burrito topped off with a ginormous Charlie’s Angels hairdo. The TV show, not the movie. Jaclyn Smith, not Farrah Fawcett.
“Sheri,” the doc said, “why don’t you give CeCe a brief recap of the events that brought you here?”
“I have a little trouble with body image,” Pink said. I tried not to snicker.
“When I look in the mirror,” she continued, “I see a beautiful princess. I know that’s my true self and I wish to share my destiny with those less fortunate.”
Dr. Vibe: “And what happened when you were at Disneyland with your family?”
“I attacked Snow White. I tried to rip her dress off and screamed at her for stealing my clothes. My family was mortified. I still feel like that’s the real me, you know? But I had to agree to counseling.”
Well. Pink’s body image problems were evidently a little different from mine.
“What’s been happening this week, Sheri?” Dr. Vibe asked.
An extra chin or two waggled and Pink started to sniff. “My husband told me he wants a divorce. He says he’s tired of living with a nutcase. He’s threatening to take the kids.”
“Everyone, let’s tell Sheri that we support her.” I mumbled along with Skinny and Dr. Vibe. Next thing I knew, the doc was telling us our time was up.
On the way out I stopped to talk to Skinny. “What happened to the guy and his kid?”
“The guy’s fine. He was no angel. I hear the kid’s OK. And the asshole who did the deed did his time.” He gave me a look. “So what’s your story?”
“No story. Just in for a little mental health tune-up.”
“Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave my heart into my mouth.”
A mob goon who quotes King Lear?
He laughed at my expression and grabbed a handful of cookies for the road. “You’ll talk when you’re ready,” he said with his mouth full. “G’night, Cordelia.”
I almost said G’night, Skinny, but then I remembered his name.
“Good night, Nick.”
Captain’s Log: Week Three. Nick raised his hand but when he tried to speak he choked up. He was sweating right through the horrible sport jacket.
“It was me,” he said. “I beat up the guy. I had no idea his kid was there until after, I swear. I sent the kid’s mom some money but I’ll never forget his little face.”
Fat man tears rolled down Nick’s cheeks. He said, “I wouldn’t give the boss up to the cops and that’s why he let me disappear.”
Pink turned on Dr. Vibe. “Did you know?”
“Yes. But it wasn’t mine to tell.”
Nick wiped his face with a huge cotton handkerchief.
“That was very brave, Nick,” Dr. Vibe said. There was some more chit chat back and forth, and then the doc said, “Our time is up.”
Of course, I was terrified that Wiktor would figure out that I was in therapy and get mad, or worse, blab to Mama. I wanted to get the confession over with, but when I tried to script it my mind skittered off until I went back to designing web sites or looking up recipes that I would never prepare.
Being in therapy while married to Wiktor had done wonders for my avoidance techniques.
In our next session Pink—Sheri—raised a plump hand.
“What’s up?” Dr. Vibe asked.
“If Nick can tell it straight,” she said, “so can I. I never told you guys what really happened at Disneyland. I left the kids with my Mom at the park and went back to the hotel for some quality time with my husband. On the way in I saw him with my sister in the bar, sharing a giant mai tai and swapping saliva. I went nuts. I started acting crazy, claiming I was a princess and going after that poor Snow White. Once I’d started, things got kind of blurry and it was hard to stop.” She stared at the floor. “I never meant to hurt my kids. I know I’m not a princess. I’m a fat boring Walmart clerk.”
“Honey,” Nick said, “you’re not fat, you’re curvy. The Russians would kill over you.” His forehead creased. “Wait, is that like a Me Too thing?”
Sheri shook her head and flashed Nick a trembly smile. “Thanks.”
The day after the session I received a registered letter from the Illinois Psychotherapy Licensing Board.
It is our understanding that Mr. Elias Conrad has been treating you as a patient. Please be advised that this individual is not a licensed psychotherapist and is not eligible to practice in the state of Illinois. We have ordered him to cease activities immediately and to refrain from contacting you. You will be notified of any further actions taken in this matter.
I was stunned. Dr. Vibe – an imposter? I took out my phone and touched the photo of him laughing with Nick. My hand shook as I listened to it ring.
“You shouldn’t have called, CeCe,” he said.
“What’s this crap?”
“It’s true. I never had the money for grad school.”
“But I’m ready to talk! Do you have time now?”
He snorted. “You haven’t said a word in the past month. And now you’re ready? Listen. Don’t call me again.”
On Wednesday night I paced the apartment like I was waiting for a lover. As our usual meeting time neared I threw on a jacket and went out for some air. I got on a bus that just happened to be heading up Halstead. At Dr. Vibe’s block I saw two people on the sidewalk. I jumped out at the next stop and ran back.
“Hola,” Nick said.
“What are you guys doing here?” I asked.
“Something just drew me,” Sheri said. “Like I couldn’t believe there wouldn’t be a session.”
“Likewise. Maybe there are some good shrink vibes floating around in the ether,” Nick said.
I said, “There’s a pie place nearby.”
“Real pie?” Nick said. “I don’t eat hipster pie.”
Nick got blueberry. I got banana cream. Sheri got a monstrous apple fritter. We all got coffee.
“He was such a great shrink,” Sheri said sadly.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I tried to talk to him on the phone and he was kind of a poopie-head.”
“Poopie-head…” Nick stroked his chin. “Is that a Freudian or Jungian term?”
Sheri said, “If it’s either one of those my four-year-old is a hell of a lot smarter than I figured.”
Just then I had a terrible thought. “Sheri, does this screw up your counseling requirement?”
“I got cleared by the court shrink a while ago. I just liked coming to group.”
“How about custody?”
“My rat-ass husband realized if he got the kids he’d actually have to take care of them.”
“Hey,” Nick said, “at least we got everything off our chests before the Good Doctor got caught. No offense, ladies,” he added.
“We did,” Sheri said. “CeCe didn’t.”
I blotted my mouth with a flimsy napkin and opened it to make my usual speech. Just along for the ride. Everything’s cool.
“My mother left when I was eight,” is what came out of my mouth. “My father never said another word about her. My husband is brilliant but he can be cold. And don’t get me started on my mother-in-law.”
Sheri and Nick let me cry into my coffee.
“One more thing,” I sniffled. “We forgot to have kids.”
“Well, CeCe,” Nick said finally. “I guess you really don’t have any problems.”
I laughed and mopped my eyes with another napkin. Sheri patted my hand.
My banana cream pie, so inviting in the case, looked like yellow Play-Doh covered with soap suds. I pushed my plate toward Nick. Sheri passed him the fritter she’d hardly touched. He piled it all up and tucked in.
“I called you Skinny before I learned your name, Nick,” I said. “If you keep eating like this I’ll have to come up with something new.”
“You gave us nicknames?” Sheri clapped her hands. “What was mine?”
I didn’t want to tell her she was Too Small Pink Pantsuit. “I called you Jaclyn Smith. You know, from the original Charlie’s Angels. You look a little bit like her.”
Sheri misted up.
We hung out a while, speculating about Dr. Vibe. Nick polished off the last crumb of the Tower of Pie and said, “Ladies, I’m afraid our time is up.”
We cracked up.
“Next week?” Sheri said. Nick and I nodded. We got up and hugged and I headed for the bus.
When I got home Wiktor was exploring the nature of space and time with Mr. Peabody and Sherman.
“Wiktor.” He opened his mouth and laughed soundlessly at Mr. Peabody dressed as a Roman legionnaire.
He muted the TV and looked up.
“I’ve been seeing a shrink. Only, he wasn’t really a shrink but it doesn’t matter because I made friends and now I don’t need one anymore.”
Wiktor heaved a sigh. His heavy eyebrows descended like thunderclouds. I held my breath.
“I have a confession to make too, CeCe,” he said. “I’m taking Prozac.”
“Have you met Mama?”
He shuffled over and gave me a big bearish hug. “I’m sorry you didn’t think you could tell me about your shrink.”
“That’s OK. I’m sorry you didn’t think you could tell me about the Prozac.”
“Hungry?” He showed me the dinner that Mama had brought over. It looked like innocent stuffed cabbage. But I knew it was a pan of evil fat-laden torpedoes seasoned with a curse on the head of every living thing.
“No thanks,” I said. “I had pie.”
Copyright 2019 by Beth McCabe