Read An Anonymous Girl Online

Authors: Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen

An Anonymous Girl (9 page)

“Not about his profession,” I shoot back.

“He seemed cool,” Sanjay says. “He’s opening a little restaurant a few blocks away.”

I flip over the card and see the message:
Taylor, Good For One Free French Toast. Call To Redeem.

Lizzie comes through the door just then. I jump off my stool and give her a hug.

“Happy Birthday,” I say, palming the card
so she doesn’t see it.

She pulls off her jacket and I catch a whiff of the new leather smell. It looks a lot like the one I wear, which Lizzie has always admired, but I got mine at a thrift store. When I go to touch the fur collar, I see the label:
BARNEYS NEW YORK
.

“It’s faux fur,” Lizzie assures me, and I wonder what she read in my expression. “My parents gave it to me for my birthday.”

“It’s gorgeous,” I say.

Lizzie lays it across her lap as she settles onto the stool next to me. I order us vodka-cran-sodas and she asks, “How was your Thanksgiving?”

The holiday seems like a lifetime ago.

“Oh, the usual. Too much pie and football. Tell me about yours.”

“It was awesome,” she says. “Everyone flew in and we played a giant game of charades. The little kids were
hilarious. Can you believe I’ve got five nieces and nephews now? My dad—”

Lizzie cuts herself off as Sanjay slides the drinks over and I reach for mine.

“You never wear nail polish!” Lizzie exclaims. “Pretty color!”

I look down at my fingers. My skin is darker than Dr. Shields’s, and my fingers are shorter. Instead of elegant, the color looks edgy on me. But she is right; it is flattering.

“Thanks. I wasn’t sure if I could pull it off”

We chat through another two drinks, then Lizzie touches my arm. “Hey, can I borrow you Tuesday afternoon to do my makeup? I need an updated headshot.”

“Ooh, I’ve got a sess—” I cut myself off. “A job way uptown.”

During our first in-person meeting, Dr. Shields had me sign another, more detailed confidentiality agreement. I can’t even
mention her name to Lizzie.

“No prob, I’ll figure it out,” Lizzie says cheerfully. “Hey, should we get nachos?”

I nod and give the order to Sanjay. I feel bad that I can’t help Lizzie.

And it feels strange to hide things from her, because she’s the person who knows me best.

But maybe she doesn’t any longer.

CHAPTER
TWELVE

Tuesday, December 4

You were unsure of the burgundy nail polish, but you wear it today.

This is evidence of your growing trust.

You also select the love seat again.

At first you lean back and fold your arms behind your head; your body language signals your increasing openness.

You don’t believe you are ready for what will happen next. But you are.

You have been groomed for this; your emotional stamina stretched, similar to how a methodically planned increase in endurance prepares a runner for a marathon.

A few perfunctory warm-up questions about your weekend are asked.

And then:
In order for us to move forward, we need to go back.

When those words are spoken, you abruptly adjust your position, pulling your arms down and crossing
them over your body. Classic protective posturing.

You must already sense what lies ahead.

It is time for this final barrier to come down.

The question you shied away from during your very first computer session in Room 214 is presented once more, this time verbally, with a gentle but firm inflection:

Jessica, have you ever deeply hurt someone you care about?

You curl into
yourself and look down at your feet, shielding your face.

The silence is permitted to linger.

Then:

Tell me.

Your head jerks up. Your eyes are wide. You suddenly look much younger than twenty-eight; it is as if a glimpse of your thirteen-year-old self briefly emerges.

That is the age when everything changed for you.

Every lifetime contains pivot points—sometimes flukes
of destiny, sometimes seemingly preordained—that shape and eventually cement one’s path.

These moments, as unique to each individual as strands of DNA, can at their best cause the sensation of a catapult into the shimmer of stars. At the opposite extreme, they can feel like a descent into quicksand.

The day you were watching your younger sister, the day she fell from a second-story window,
was perhaps the most elemental demarcation for you thus far.

As you describe running toward her limp figure on the asphalt driveway, tears stream down your face. You begin to hyperventilate, gulping air between your words. Your body is retreating with your mind into this emotional chasm. You release one more anguished sentence,
It was all my fault,
before you succumb to violent trembling.

When the warm cashmere wrap is gently tucked around you and smoothed over your shoulders, it has the desired calming effect.

You take in a shuddering breath.

You are told what you need to hear:

It was not your fault.

There is more for you to share, but this is enough for today. You are nearing exhaustion.

You are rewarded through words of praise. Not everyone is brave enough
to face their demons.

You absently stroke the taupe-colored wool draped across your shoulders as you listen. This is self-soothing, a signal that you are now in the recovery phase. A new, gentler conversational rhythm eases you into safer terrain.

When your breathing has steadied and your cheeks are no longer flushed, you are given subtle clues that the session will soon end.

Thank
you,
you are told.

Then a small reward:

It’s so chilly out. Why don’t you keep the wrap?

You are walked to the door, and when you leave, you feel the brief pressure of a hand squeezing your shoulder. The gesture is one that conveys comfort. It is also used to express approval.

As you exit the building, you are visible from three stories above. You hesitate on the sidewalk, then
you reach for the wrap and loop it so that it hangs like a scarf, flipping one end over your shoulder.

Though you have physically departed, you linger in the office for the rest of the day, through the final client scheduled for twenty minutes after your departure. Maintaining focus to assist him on reining in a gambling addiction is more of a challenge than usual.

You are still there
as the taxi weaves through congested Midtown traffic, and in Dean & DeLuca while the cashier rings up a single medallion of beef tenderloin and seven spears of white asparagus.

You don’t award confidences easily, yet you yearn for the relief that comes with the release of a secret.

Presenting an unremarkable facade to the outside world is the norm; superficial conversations comprise the
majority of social encounters. When an individual trusts another sufficiently to expose the true self—the deepest fears, the hidden desires—a powerful intimacy is born.

You invited me in today, Jessica.

Your secret will be kept in confidence . . . if all goes well.

The front door to the town house is unlocked and the bag from Dean & DeLuca deposited on the white marbled kitchen counter.

Then the new, ecru cashmere wrap that was purchased only hours before your session today is removed from its bag and placed on a side shelf in the coat closet.

It is identical to the one you are now wearing.

CHAPTER
THIRTEEN

Tuesday, December 4

The air is sharp and gray; during the short time I’ve been in Dr. Shields’s office, the sun has dropped beneath the skyline.

I should have worn my heavy peacoat rather than my thinner leather jacket, but Dr. shields’s wrap keeps my chest and neck cozy. The wool holds a faint scent of the clean and spicy fragrance I now associate with Dr. Shields.
I inhale deeply and it prickles my nose.

I stand on the sidewalk, at a loss about what to do. I feel drained, but if I go home, I doubt I’ll be able to relax. I don’t want to be alone, yet calling Lizzie or another friend to meet for dinner or a drink has no appeal.

Even before I realize I’ve made a decision, my feet begin to move, taking me toward the subway. I ride the 6 train to Astor
Place, then exit the station and turn west on Prince Street.

I pass by the shop windows displaying designer sunglasses and cosmetics in jewel-like cases. Then I arrive at the French restaurant.

This time, I go in.

It’s still early, so it is fairly empty. Just one couple occupies a booth near the back.

The maitre d’ takes my jacket, but I hold on to the wrap. He then asks, “Table
for one? Or would you prefer the bar?”

“Actually, how about that table near the window?”

When he leads me to it, I select the chair Dr. Shields used when I followed her last week.

The wine list is a thick, heavy document. There are nearly a dozen options for glasses of red wine alone.

“This one, please,” I tell the waiter, pointing to the second-cheapest. It’s twenty-one dollars
a glass, which means dinner tonight will be a peanut-butter sandwich at home.

I never would have found this restaurant if it hadn’t been for Dr. Shields, but it is exactly what I need. It’s hushed and elegant without being stuffy; the dark-wood walls and velvet-topped chairs are comfortingly substantial.

It’s a safe place to be anonymous but not alone.

The waiter approaches. He’s wearing
a dark suit and balancing my glass of wine on a tray.

“Your Volnay, miss,” he says, setting it down before me.

I realize he’s waiting for me to approve of it. I take a small sip and nod, like Dr. Shields did. The burgundy liquid is a perfect match for my nail polish.

When he leaves, I glance out the window, watching people pass by. The wine warms my throat and isn’t overly sweet, like
the stuff my mom drinks; it tastes surprisingly good. My shoulders relax as I lean back into the soft leather of my seat.

Dr. Shields finally knows the story I haven’t even shared with Lizzie: It was my deliberate negligence that ruined the lives of everyone in my family.

As I sat on Dr. Shields’s love seat and stared at the soothing blue waves in the painting on her wall, I described
how I was supposed to watch Becky that summer while my parents went to work.

It was late on that August afternoon when I decided to go to the corner market, the one that sold penny candy and
Seventeen
magazine. The new issue had recently come out. Julia Stiles was on the cover.

I was tired of Becky; I needed a break from my seven-year-old sister. It was a long, hot day toward the end of
a long, hot month. In the past few hours alone, we’d run through the sprinklers and made ice pops by pouring lemonade into ice-cube trays and sticking in toothpicks. We’d caught bugs in the backyard and made homes for them in an old Tupperware container. And still, my parents weren’t due back from work for a couple of hours.

“I’m bored,” Becky had whined as I’d tweezed my eyebrows in the bathroom
mirror. I was worried I had overplucked the right one and now wore an awkward quizzical expression.

“Go play with your dollhouse,” I said as I turned my attention to my left brow. I was thirteen, and newly concerned about my appearance.

“I don’t want to.”

The house was warm, since we had only two window air-conditioning units. I couldn’t believe I was looking forward to going back
to school.

A few moments later Becky called out, “Who’s Roger Franklin?”

“Becky!” I yelled as I dropped the tweezers and ran into my room.

I snatched my diary out of her hands. “That’s private!”

“I’m bored,” she whined again.

“Fine,” I told Becky. “Don’t let Mom and Dad know, but you can watch some more TV in their room.”

My parents had a one-hour-a-day rule, which we routinely
exceeded.

On that long-ago afternoon, I put three Chips Ahoy! cookies on a paper plate and gave them to Becky as she lay sprawled on my parents’ bed. “Be neat,” I instructed. On the screen, Lizzie McGuire began telling a friend to stop mimicking her. I waited until a glazed look came into Becky’s eyes. Then I crept outside and hopped on my bike. Becky didn’t like being alone, but I knew she
would never even notice I was gone.

I’d done this a few times before.

I’d also locked the bedroom door, so Becky couldn’t get out. I thought it would keep her safe. But I didn’t think to lock the second-floor window that was just a few feet away from where she lay watching her show.

I’d pulled my gaze away from the painting on Dr. Shields’s wall when I got to this part. It was difficult
to speak because I was crying so hard. I didn’t know if I’d be able to continue.

I saw Dr. Shields looking at me. The compassion in her eyes seemed to give me strength. I choked out the awful words.

Then I felt a sudden warmth and softness cocoon me.

Dr. Shields had removed her wrap from around her shoulders and placed it over mine. It still seemed to hold the heat from her body.

I realize I’m absently stroking the wrap again now as I sit in the dim restaurant.

Dr. Shields’s gesture felt protective, almost maternal. Immediately, the tension in my limbs had begun to ease. It was like she somehow pulled me out of that dark moment and back into the present.

It was not your fault
, she’d said.

I take the last sip of wine, listening to the classical music playing
over the speakers, thinking that of all the things she could have said, these seem like the only words that could have truly comforted me. If Dr. Shields—someone so wise and sophisticated, someone who has spent her career studying the moral choices people make—could absolve me, then maybe my parents could, too.

There’s something they don’t know about that day.

My parents never asked where
I was when Becky fell. They just assumed I was home in another room.

I didn’t tell a lie. But there was a small, still moment at the hospital when I could have spoken up. While a team of doctors tended to Becky, my parents and I waited in a small private area just outside the ER. “Oh, Becky. Why were you playing around with that window?” my mother wondered aloud.

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