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Authors: Suzy Vitello

Tags: #FICTION/General

The Empress Chronicles

BOOK: The Empress Chronicles
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The Empress Chronicles
Suzy Vitello
Copyright

Diversion Books
A Division of Diversion Publishing Corp.
443 Park Avenue South, Suite 1008
New York, NY 10016
www.DiversionBooks.com

Copyright © 2014 by Suzy Vitello
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

For more information, email
[email protected]

First Diversion Books edition September 2014
ISBN:
978-1-62681-309-0

Also by Suzy Vitello

The Moment Before

For Patti—the wondrous Mrs. Dot
&
For Maggie—who continues to amaze

Chapter One

Dr. Greta hands me another food diary. This one, the fanciest yet. The cover is leather, or some material that looks like leather. Gold swirly-cues mark the corners.
One more thing to pack
, is what I’m thinking. “Thanks,” I tell her.

She sits back down, a whisper away from me. We are in her ancient office with high, cracked plaster ceilings and flickering lights.

“Write your feelings about the food you encounter. Write your actions. Did you eat? How much? Did you touch, smell, taste the food?”

Dr. Greta’s accent deepens when she’s making a point and “food” sounds like “fute.” She’s bathed in pale light from the window behind her, and the blond-white of her staticky hair gives her a mad scientist look, so odd next to the grandma sweater and pearls she’s wearing.

I run my hand over the tooled bumps on the cover. Close my eyes. Open the diary and take in the new paper/fake leather smell. The pages squeak a little, they’re so stiff. As keepsakes, I love food diaries. My life is filled with them. Most of them are perfectly empty. “I
am
eating,” I lie, “way more.”

My stomach makes an air-in-the-pipes sound. Okay, today hadn’t gone too well in the food department. But I’m not counting steps, calories, telephone poles and breaths as often as I was a month ago. I’ve kept my hands out of hot water since last week. My burned-off hair is growing back and my ribs don’t show quite as much. This past Tuesday I actually ate an entire sandwich. With regular mayonnaise. And I’d kept it inside.

That had been hard.

“This morning I had a whole bagel. With cream cheese.”

This, too, is a lie. I scraped off the cream cheese after having a panic attack spurred by the acne of the counter guy at the bagel shop. The leftover skin of melted and hardened cream cheese glistened on the bagel, and I tossed the whole thing in the trash. Even the plastic basket-plate, which I knew was anti-save-the-planet, but I did it anyway.

Dr. Greta nods and scribbles something on her notepad. Dust dances in the light behind her. My stomach makes another noise. I feel it somersault.

“How are you doing with
the dirt?” my therapist asks me, raising her gaze from her notes.

Horrible.
“Okay, I guess.”

“We discussed the desensitizing steps last session, remember?”

I nod. I was supposed to have attended a pot-throwing class with Mom. Wet, slimy clay. But thank God, Mom cancelled. She was too busy with packing, with the details surrounding her new job as the Director of Customer Relations at Euroventure Cruise Lines. She would be gone for the next six months, and I was moving in with Dad and his girlfriend.

Dr. Greta leans forward, her crystal blue eyes on mine. “You have a big change ahead, Lizbeth. I know this won’t be easy for you.”

The cover of the food diary comforts me with the sharpness of its ridges. My fingers trace the bumps, making a figure eight over and over until Dr. Greta punctures my trance. She repeats the part about
big change
.

“I still don’t understand why she has to leave,” I mumble.

“You feel very sad, don’t you? That’s understandable,” says Dr. Greta crisply. “But life will always be unpredictable. It’s important, Lizbeth, that you do the exercises we talk about. That you find out that the consequences of touching doorknobs, soil, the hair of a cat, that those activities will not cause you harm. That you will not be poisoned by drinking a glass of milk.”

Dr. Greta sounds like Mom. In our last conversation, Mom told me, “I think this is what’s best for you, Liz,” as she traced her lips in deep burgundy liner. “I see now how the constant moving around these past two years has contributed to your issues. You need to spend time with your father. Experience a slower pace out there on the farm.”

Now, the day before Mom’s departure and my move to a goat farm on the outskirts of Portland, my therapist is gearing me up for the switch. She has that intense look in her eyes. These past two months since my discharge from the hospital, I’ve gotten to know her patterns pretty well. Dr. Greta is trying to make me talk about food and filth. Soon, she’ll be commanding me to visualize spreading butter on an English muffin. She’ll make me describe what I saw, smelled, touched. This is desensitization: the road to normal.

It isn’t that I don’t want to be normal. I desperately do. I
want
to be that girl in tenth grade, a couple of months from now, the one who other girls smash up against, displaying the latest sexy text from their boyfriend or a funny Vine. I want the hundreds of likes on Instagram that other girls have. The invitations to parties and to weekends at the beach. If I could reinvent myself, I’d be like Jewellee King—popular, outgoing. Not afraid to walk up to a complete stranger and smile, flirt. Someone as at home on a softball team as she is dressed in a strapless gown at prom. I want to take a huge bite out of a drippy, greasy triangle of pizza and not even wipe my mouth. Just leave the grease sitting on my chin. This is Dr. Greta’s goal for me, too. To turn me into
that
girl.

There is no way it’s going to happen.

The clocks on the wall behind me tick. A spear of sunlight stabs its way in the window behind Dr. Greta and hits the glass curio cabinet against the far wall. It makes a rainbow of color, and for a moment my brain feels quiet.

“This morning, your last morning at your mother’s,” Dr. Greta says. “You must have been anxious. Tell me about that.”

Mom. Packing. The wretched bagel. I don’t want to go there. I want to cram my earbuds in, drown the world out with piano. Violins. Schubert, Mozart, Wagner. The louder, the better.

“What has caught your fancy?” says Dr. Greta.

“Huh?”

“The glass case? Something in there?” She points toward the endpoint of my gaze.

The rainbow pulses, dancing in the dust. The cabinet matches everything else in this office: decrepit, ancient, fading. Inside, a row of old books is sloppily propped between prancing horse figurines.

Dr. Greta places her notepad on the small table next to her chair. She rises and walks over to where I sit, her hands feeling the bony ridges of my shoulders, her face trying to hide alarm. She says, “Do you know anything about the Austro-Hungarian Empire?”

We studied the Habsburgs last year. I mutter, “Franz Joseph.”

“Yes!” she says. “And his wife? The empress Elisabeth?”

“They called her the Lonely Empress,” I vaguely remember. “Also, she was cousin to Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria. The Wagner patron.”

“They’re doing a good job with the history at that school of yours,” Dr. Greta says. “Did you know, then, that the empress had an eating disorder?”

I hate hearing those two words glued together:
eating
and
disorder
. Sure, I have issues, I do, and sometimes I vomit. But really, what I have more than anything is a
repulsion disorder
. In restaurants, the school cafeteria, even at home, I can’t get past wondering if the cook has washed his hands after going to the bathroom. Or if someone’s dripping snot had made its way into the soup.

“I’m not anorexic,” I blast, annoyed at having to, once again, remind my shrink of my official diagnosis. “I have obsessive-compulsive disorder with secondary anorexic
symptoms
. So what does Empress Elisabeth have to do with me?”

Her breath is honey cough drops, her pearls jangle a little against her collarbone, and she narrows her eyes as she launches into explanation. “The empress suffered from neurosis. Her need to control surpassed reason. She ritualized her life to paralytic proportions.” The sunlight behind her glows like a halo, emphasizing a dandelion fluff head, and then she takes a step back, searches the jagged cracks of her ceiling for something before returning to piercing eye contact. “In the nineteenth century, women didn’t have the choices we have, Lizbeth. They were essentially sold for political gain.”

She has specks of silver fillings throughout her mouth, and I try not to count them. She continues, speaking softly now, convincingly, as though saddened by a family member going through a hard time. “I happen to know that when she was a girl, the empress was filled with life. She worked very, very hard to carve her own path within the limits of her day.”

Mom is always railing on about the glass ceiling and how things are stacked against women being successful. She
needed
to take this job, she told me. She wouldn’t get another opportunity like this. Dr. Greta is about to launch into a similar feminist rant; I can smell it.

“In that cabinet,” Dr. Greta says, her chin aiming in the direction of the now-faded rainbow of light, “there are some historical texts. I could share some passages with you if you are agreeable.”

The bleached-out books themselves, tattered and dusty, look as enticing as this morning’s bagel, but I nod. The Austrian Habsburgs bring to mind frilly petticoats and ladies-in-waiting. Castles, and the formal perfection of court life. Most of all, the music.

Dr. Greta walks to her desk, opens a drawer, and takes out a tiny gold key. She wiggles it into the filigreed lock of the cabinet, and reaches into her glass curio of old books. “You’re a breath of fresh air,” she once told me. She loved that I loved Wagner, Handel, Beethoven, Mozart. She gave me permission, as a step in my therapy, to listen to trios and sonatas when I felt anxious. Now, she fishes her hand around the jumble of books. They lie against one another so messily; I wonder if she’d let me straighten them up.

“Here we go,” she says, choosing a small, brownish-red book. She pries it open carefully, like it might fall apart if she lifts the worn cover too fast. “This journal is one handed down to me from family. My ancestor was a baroness, a governess for Bavarian royalty.”

My finger continues to trace the cover of my own diary, journal, log—whatever it is. I try not to hear the metronome of clocks, inviting me to count in fours. In threes. In twos.

Dr. Greta clears her throat and begins to read with a poetic rhythm, “‘I am Sunday’s Child.
Die goldnen Strahlen wand sie mir zum
.’ Translated from the German means ‘her golden rays she wove into my throne.’” Dr. Greta looks golden herself. So animated as she reads. “You see, Lizbeth, our empress-to-be knew she was blessed. She was a robust little
Fraulein
.” She shakes her dandelion head and sighs, then carefully closes the diary and sticks it back on the haphazard shelf. “At fifteen, she was betrothed to the most powerful man in all of Europe.”

Fifteen. Like me. I couldn’t imagine being engaged—I’d yet to be kissed by a boy. It makes me curious. “So, was she really my age when she got married?”

Dr. Greta chuckles. “Yes, Sisi was forced into marriage at an early age. And it’s a shame, really. It all but killed her inner spark. I see this same spark in you, my dear. A wild energy that you try so very hard to suppress.”

“Sisi?”

“Everyone called her that,” Dr. Greta says, waving it off as if I should have known. Sometimes my therapist acted like royalty herself.

The clocks behind me tick and tock. Our fifty minutes will soon be over. I don’t feel very wild or full of inner spark. I feel exhausted. I want to go back to the apartment for my very last night in a tidy concrete box. But something about Sisi calls to me. I close my eyes, trying to bring into focus the picture on the cover of the
Lonely Empress
book I glanced at in the library when I researched the Habsburgs for class. My index finger and thumb reach above my ear and try twirling the bits of hair that are just now growing back. “She had hair that reached her knees,” I say.

Dr. Greta smiles. “We need to finish,” she says. “Let’s talk about this next very important week, yes?”

And so we do. We talk strategy, coping. My new food diary is a place where I can record my obstacles. My victories. Log food, sleep, arguments. How many times I wash my hands. What I do when I feel overwhelmed by the filth I will no doubt encounter at the farm. Dr. Greta isn’t too hip on my Luvox cocktail, I can tell. There has to be a psychiatrist on my case in order for her services to be paid for—and that means pills. She cringes when she has to discuss the meds but tries to hide it. At this last session before my move to the farm, we do as we always do. Save the last three minutes for the pill talk.

“You are tolerating them okay?” she asks.

“I’m less nervous, more hungry,” I say agreeably.

“Of course,” she finishes, “the goal is to wean you off of them. Eventually. And in order to get well, it’s most important that you learn to engage.” Dr. Greta erupts, slicing into my space-out. “For if you do not, the world will write what it wants upon you. Do you understand?”

I nod and shoot up from the chair, careful not to touch the armrests.
But
how will I
engage
when I’m about to be plucked from my clean, organized life
?

I don’t say that, though. I say, instead, “See you next week.”

“Yes,” she replies softly. “Good luck, Lizbeth.”

I turn around once more, before the door closes, and watch Dr. Greta stare beyond the glass of her cabinet.

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