I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
You are a color-blind social worker in a small town and your secret is you stopped giving a fuck. A man you loved more than you knew was possible has left you, but so what, right? He wasn’t even tall. Wasn’t all that handsome. Zero tattoos. Before him, these were the things that mattered to you. But you’ve been the listener your whole damn life, always listening to people’s troubles way before you started earning a living off of it—because you figured at least make money—and then this man came along who knew how to listen, knew just the questions to ask. Really he could have been an excellent therapist, but he chose to be a poet. A poet! In this day and age! You bit your tongue those first few weeks, thinking if you asked about practicalities (was he making rent writing poems?) you’d sound like his mother, and who wants that? Later you learned his mother was the kind who believed her children could do no wrong, which made sense because that’s exactly how people ended up as poets. Still later you learned he actually did get by on his poetry. He got grants; they have grants for poets, you learned, and he kept getting them, more and more of them, until he stopped thinking of those lucky breaks as windfalls, he said, and learned to accept that the universe supported his work. Meanwhile, the universe wasn’t supporting your work quite so much—you were slaving away, seeing eleven people a day, which is a sure way to forget who’s who and what you talked about last time (you took notes, yes, good notes, but still you got confused a lot and it wasn’t your fault). Point is, with him, you felt like someone else was doing the listening, and you got to talk and be your full self and blah blah.
So, who’s to say: you were heartbroken and had nothing left to give your clients once he walked out? Or he was a catalyst at best, and really you’d just been working yourself to the bone for too long? Either way, yours wasn’t the kind of job where you get away with a punching-the-clock attitude. It was getting dangerous. Then: a guy shows up at your door. He’s tall and tattooed and his face reminds you of Jesus. You know right away this isn’t about sex. He says, “You’re talented, but you’re burnt out and can’t go on.” You say, “I don’t know who you are, but you are not wrong.”
He’s in your living room now. He says, “If you’re done with your life—truly done—I have an offer you might find interesting.”
“Okay,” you hear your voice say.
“I have to know you’re really ready to leave all of this,” he says, nodding in the direction of the philodendron while tapping the sofa with the toe of his boot.
“Leave?” you ask, and the word sounds strange, as if you’ve repeated it a hundred times until it’s lost meaning.
“Yes,” he says, “depart—but that’s only one way of looking at it. You’ll also be arriving.”
You’re starting to feel sweaty and dizzy, so you try your usual tack because that’s where you go when you’re nervous. “Hmmm,” you say. “I’m curious about the way you phrase things. I’m sensing you like to present as mysterious. Can I help you work on being a little more direct?”
The man lies down then. He really does just lie down on the couch, with his black engineer boots dangling over its arm and his head resting on the hugging pillow—and his shirt rides up, and you see a tattooed belt of thorns just above the waistband of his jeans and a line of feathery dark hair that crosses it vertically, starting at his navel and disappearing behind his top button. For a moment, you wonder if maybe this is about sex, but no. That trembling in your body isn’t desire, and it’s not fear, but then what the hell is it?
“Clare,” he says.
“Yes,” you say, sitting down in your armchair, trying not to stare at the tattooed thorns.
“It’s time to recognize that you’re trapped,” he says, “that you’ve been trapped for three years, since Sakinah and Mary Ellen.” You stop breathing then, right between an inhalation and an exhalation.
“Thank you—bye!” you say. What the hell what the hell what the hell. You jump out of your chair and head to the door, but it’s locked, though it’s never locked, so you jiggle the handle a few times, and when you turn around, he’s gone.
You knew you were burnt out, right? You knew you had become absentminded, putting the car keys in the freezer and the cell phone in the microwave. You kept telling yourself this was because of the poet, the abandonment, the radio silence, the too-many-people every day, the times we live in, with information overload, texting, email inboxes, social media, and everybody expecting you to get back to them instantly, without time for a breath. But really you’ve known all along: it’s about what happened three years ago in Peoria. The thing that made you move to this small town. The thing you talked about, at first obliquely, then openly, and then almost eagerly to the poet. He even wrote a poem about the thing.
Sakinah and Mary Ellen. You would never have told them, of course, but they were your favorite clients. They were easy and fun. Sometimes you’d have to work hard not to smile at their adorableness. They’d come in acting like they were in the middle of the biggest crisis in the world, and it would turn out to be a minor disagreement, something about where to go on vacation or what kind of pet to get. They were always sandwiched between the suicidal wife of the Schlitz exec and the OCD dude who only wanted to talk about his comic books. You found yourself anticipating their sessions more and more as time went by, not only because they made you smile—while other clients made you want to slam your head against something hard—but for some other reason you felt but couldn’t name. Should you have treated it as the kind of countertransference that requires attention? Explored it with Elda in supervision? If you’d done that, would they still be alive?
You called the police that morning, of course, after you’d heard the voicemail from Rodrigues. He was talking about shooting people again, but even though he’d tried to do it once before—years ago, when he was living in Colorado—and even though you didn’t think this was a real risk, you notified his psychiatrist and the cops. He was sweet natured, Rodrigues, and even when he talked about killing people—once or twice a year, when his medication needed some adjustment—it was to help them “transition to the next layer,” like we all lived inside a life-and-death cake. As far as you could understand, it seemed he believed the life-and-death dichotomy was a fallacy, that human existence was comprised of an infinite number of “layers,” and that often people got “stuck” in a layer for various reasons. It was hard to imagine him causing real harm. But you followed protocol. Then, just before Sakinah and Mary Ellen arrived, as you were wrapping up with Lucinda, who was doing slightly better, a bad feeling rose in you. It mostly went away once they were sitting in front of you all safe and sound, talking about their new cat, and yet the truth is unavoidable: you wanted to warn them before they left—just in case—and you didn’t. You wanted to mention, without alarming them, that a well-intentioned but sick individual may or may not be driving his green pickup around the block with a semi-automatic. You would have ended with “Just stay alert.” They got up to leave, Sakinah handed you their check—they always paid by check like it was 1989—and you started saying, “Ladies…” when you got confused. Was Rodrigues’s truck green? This was memorized information—what people call green and blue and a host of other colors appear to you as something you describe as gray but privately think of as colorless. Was green the right word? They looked at you—Mary Ellen trying to hide her impatience the way she always did and Sakinah amused by your sudden flabbergasted state—and you considered for a quick moment going ahead with your warning and simply adding an explanation about your color blindness, saying, “So it might be best to watch for any color vehicle.” But that sounded silly in your head, and you didn’t want them to think you were silly. And what if you’d referenced colors with them at some point in the past? Then you’d appear to be untrustworthy, a liar. So you said nothing.
You walk over to the kitchen after sexy Jesus is gone, grab an ice pack from the freezer, turn around, and lie down on the living room couch where you made love to the poet that first (brief!) time. You put the ice pack on your head. Because you’ve seen people do that in movies? Because you’re still in a daze? That’s what you do. The plastic brick starts sweating cold water onto your face and you try to accept that you just had a psychotic episode, or perhaps a PTSD-induced hallucination. But somehow it doesn’t feel like that’s what happened.
By ten o’clock that night you know you can’t work the next day. You call clients one by one and tell them you have the stomach flu that’s going around. (Every time you tell this lie you knock on wood because your grandmother told you never to lie about being sick.) This will give you Friday and the weekend to figure shit out.
You never have the heart to do full-on exposure therapy or even EMDR with your clients who suffer from trauma, and you suck at getting them to relive their traumatic experiences. Yeah, it works, but it all just feels a little cruel. You kind of developed your own methods over the years, actually, before you began to burn out, and you keep meaning to write an article about your techniques. And while your approach has to do with getting clients to treat themselves with the loving kindness they would give a baby or toddler—to become their own parents, who will protect and nurture them—now is not the time for that. Hot Jesus appearing out of nowhere requires new tools.
On Friday morning, early, you drive three towns over (small-town social work means the constant danger of running into people you treat) and buy supplies: soup, coffee, a five-pound bag of carrots for juicing, a chicken, half a dozen Greek yogurts, and a bottle of Wild Turkey.
Then you do what you haven’t done before: you relive that day. For real. Not looking at it as if between your fingers, peeking at the facts, making a linear list of the morning’s events and hammering yourself with guilt and regret. No. You set up your living room as if it’s your old office. You put on a work outfit. You drink your coffee. You sit through an imaginary session with an imaginary Lucinda. Her daughter is not talking to her again, and Lucinda is crying while playing with her diamond pendant. You’re nodding and smiling and taking notes, and you look for a way to reframe this as an opportunity.
This feels awkward. You’re embarrassed, even though there’s no one there to witness it. You stall when it’s time for Mary Ellen and Sakinah to arrive in the reenactment. You recognize your embarrassment is probably a smokescreen for extreme dread. You take a break. You eat yogurt. You make carrot juice. You start again.
You try over and over until you’re almost numb. You stall at the crucial moment each time. You roast your chicken. You cover it with foil and put it in the fridge. You drink a couple Wild Turkeys and go to bed.
You force yourself to start up again the next morning. You sip your coffee. You have your mock session with invisible Lucinda. Around noon, you do it: you get back into the session. The cat discussion. The wave of nausea. The confusion about Rodrigues’s truck. Then it comes to you: nobody handed you a check. They usually did, but this time they’d left the checkbook in the car. Sakinah went out to get it. But what the fuck happened to Mary Ellen? This question comes like a kick in the chest. You can’t breathe. It seemed plausible, what everyone said: Sakinah had been murdered in the parking lot, and Mary Ellen had been taken somewhere else and killed. Her body has never been found, but there was something in the forensics, or the autopsy of Rodrigues’s body—you’ve never allowed the details of any of this to stick in your mind—that supported the theory. But right now, you know. You know as if the beautiful tattooed man is breathing truth into your ear: Mary Ellen is somewhere else entirely. When you close your eyes you see Rodrigues, and his mouth is moving. He’s talking about layers again. This time you listen.
Three days later, you stop for coffee on your way to the dentist—so what if you’ll have sour breath?—and the barista says “Hello, Clare.” You’re pretty certain you’ve never been to this store before, but he does seem familiar, and for a moment you wonder if he might be an old client, except he looks too young to be an old anything.
“I’m sorry,” you say, “I’m not sure?”
And he says, “I’m a friend of Messiah’s,” which isn’t helpful in any way. You can’t figure out if he believes the two of you share a mutual friend named Messiah, or if you somehow attract psychosis and delusion, even on your way to the dentist. Except: somehow, clearly, this man knows your name. You squint at him, confused, and he says, “Didn’t you hang out with Ruben the other night at your place?”
He nods a few times when he sees your stunned eyes. “Ruben is a friend of Messiah’s too—he told you, right? And told you you’d be meeting me?”
You stand there staring at him, dividing and multiplying his words in your head. Then he comes around the counter. He’s standing next to you now, and he slowly moves his hands to your arms. Somehow, this is not surprising.
In supervision, you never told Elda what you started doing a couple of months into the relationship with the poet: he and you were eating Pad Thai and watching some shitty procedural, and someone got shot, on the show, and you were—Christ, you hate this word—triggered, and you broke down into uncontrollable tears and felt you had left the present and your body. He just turned to you and put his hands on your arms, and squeezed them gently, pressing them close to your torso. In an instant, you were calm. You asked him how he knew to do that and he said, “I don’t know, I’m weird that way.” You laughed and said, “Are all poets weird like you?” He hopped up, and moonwalked over to his beer.
“What would you like?” the barista asks. Is he talking about coffee? You mumble that you would like an almond milk cappuccino, and he nods the same nod, as if this part of your exchange is just as meaningful. There’s no one else at the store, no one to be delegated your cappuccino, so he’s moving over to the coffee machine and the steamer begins to roar. Something about the texture of time, the rhythm of it, the who-knows-what of it, feels altered. How long have you been here?
“Clare,” he says, and even though you can see his mouth moving, it also feels as if the words are emanating from inside your own brain, and even though you are clearly here in this coffee shop, you are also somewhere else, and even though this is happening right now, it also has not happened yet, and has happened dozens, thousands, millions of times before.
“Clare, certain kinds of trauma are a form of death.”
Is it a matter of point of view, of your choice of angle—like how sometimes, after years of knowing someone, you tilt your head and notice the shape of their eyes? Is that how this moment just changed? Because the young man was never a barista and this was never a coffee shop. No dentist is waiting for you. Your hand itches; you look down, and it’s clenched around something. “Ticket?” he says. You open your hand and see a crumpled ticket stub. “Hold onto it, Clare,” he says, “you’ll need it again.”
Shelly Oria is the author of New York 1, Tel Aviv 0 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014). She recently coauthored the digital novella CLEAN with Alice Sola Kim, commissioned by WeTransfer and McSweeney’s.
Nelly Reifler is the author of See Through and Elect H. Mouse State Judge (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013). Her work has been published in McSweeney’s, jubilat, and Story, among others. An editor at Post Road, she teaches at Sarah Lawrence College.
“Trigger” is part of Dead is the New Alive, a collection of linked stories Oria and Reifler are writing together.
Originally published in
In the process of putting together each new issue of BOMB, we often come across distinct resonances between interviews—shared themes, creative preoccupations, and even specific phrases crop up time and again within otherwise disparate features. In these pages, artists discuss their expansive notions on collaboration. Their practices tend to split, reapportion, or redefine authorship, privileging process over individual intention and encouraging unique partnerships with spectators, local communities, film subjects, and one another. These willful acts of reaching out and beyond are as vital as ever, and worth emphasizing here.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee