Short story: Next time


A short story by Maria Lee

I arrive about forty-five minutes early, and park next to the theatre gardens. I walk up to the street and find the building I'm supposed to go to. Along the way, my eyes check for possible parking places for the next time.

I feel comforted by the presence of the women who are standing outside the hospital for women. Their eyes follow me with interest. My body takes me through a car park right beside number 15. My brain tells me that the car park is private. My eyes register a wire fence around it and a toll booth with a small boom gate. I check the road signs outside the building. I am satisfied that there are no parking restrictions after 5pm.

I make my way to the gardens. A man is sitting on a bench in a wide open space close to the road, his back toward me. I pass behind him and walk up to a path coming from the intersecting road and find a bench surrounded by tall trees to hide myself. It is quiet and pleasant sitting there.

I pull out my watch and place it on a wooden slat, then I look to the left. I see a woman with a small, black dog. She is making movements with her hands and the bright-eyed dog makes small jumps. They both look very happy. A woman pushes a pram from the theatre, her body purposefully moving forward. I look up into the trees and search for the birds. A person walking toward me from my right catches my attention. She is dressed casually in shorts, T-shirt, sports shoes and hat and has a small back-pack. She walks leisurely past without looking at me.

My watch tells me that it is ten to six so I get up. I would like to stay in the gardens with all the green growth, but it is imperative that I go. I move my car uncertainly to two car lengths ahead of a parked car in the street of number 15.

My headlights are still on, engine still humming, as a car with two women in the front draws in front of me hesitatingly. It stops a couple of car lengths ahead. I kill my lights and engine. I watch the women look at each other before their car is immobilised. I ignore them, get out of my car and hurry to the door of number 15. It is a fly-wire door. The inner wooden door is swung back far on its hinges invitingly.

A woman comes down a hallway. With a warm smile she lets me in and says. I say hello and tell her who I am. She shows me to a warm, inviting room with beautiful looking seats. I am pleased with the seats and choose a white wicker style with a bright cushion to sit on.

One woman is already there seated on a black two-seater. I smile at her, say hello, and we introduce ourselves. A different counsellor from the one at the door appears. She introduces herself, then asks me if I want to pay my five dollars, as I have taken the money from my purse in readiness. Another woman arrives and sits on another black two-seater.

I am at right angles to them both, closest to the first lady, whom I immediately liked, and who appears to be the same age as me. The second lady is older, and she talks to the counsellor and the first lady.

The counsellor asks me if I work and if I came straight from work, to which I reply yes. Then she addresses the woman next to me. A third woman arrives, and presently three more, two together, come. The lady who came second is talkative. The first counsellor enters the room and sits next to her colleague.

All the visiting women look normal. They are normally dressed, their expressions calmly serious and expectant. We decide to wait for more women to come, and I innocuously scan the faces present for more information. I read in them apprehension and longing. I get up for a drink of water and find a newcomer in my wicker seat. She immediately half rises, saying, "Oh, sorry, is this your chair?".

I immediately respond, "No, don't worry. I'll sit somewhere else", grab my handbag and walk across the space to a similar wicker chair almost opposite the old one. I am now sitting next to the two women who arrived together, at the end of a half-circle. The counsellors are on my other side.

I don't feel comfortable with my new location. I want to get up and move across the room to sit next to the woman who had arrived first. From there, I would be facing both counsellors, able to draw support from their faces. However, one of the counsellors begins to talk, and I feel that it would be rude to disturb the group if I move now.

A counsellor thanks everyone for coming, and tells us that this is our room and to make ourselves comfortable. A woman makes a small sound and bursts into tears. The counsellor silently picks up a box of tissues and places it on the floor next to her. The woman uses some tissues, and I notice that the watching faces look either unhappy or distressed and concerned.

The woman wipes her eyes, and explains that it is not sadness that has made her cry, but relief. Just knowing that there is this much support for her is overwhelming because she has always managed on her own. The counsellor nods agreement, and the tears stop.

The other counsellor runs through tonight's program and briefly mentions the next five weeks, but I am only half listening. She gets us to introduce ourselves by giving descriptive names before our first names, like Messy Martha and Eager Yvonne. The counsellor also says a little about herself, and the others follow suit, all declaring where they were born, whether they are married or single and working or not. Three of the six are married, two with children. All appear to range in age from late 20s to mid-30s. Most of the voices sound cheerful and positive giving their names as novelties, then become solemn when outlining tiny slices of their lives. Two women say they were born overseas.

As they talk, I feel that what is happening is not real, and an edge of panic creeps in. I think these women have had their lives screwed up, but they all look as though they should be at a pleasant get-together, in charge of their normal, happy and fulfilling lives.

The woman who cried, the one who sat in my seat, says that she has always coped on her own with the childhood sexual abuse she suffered. She is trying to love her body by being kind to herself and carrying out different relaxation techniques, but sometimes she feels out of her body. The woman suddenly cries, "Oh, god, I'm out of my body now". Her eyes turn upward in panic, until someone gently encourages her, "Come back". The woman feels better, and says, "I'm not married, though I would like to get married some time", then stops talking. I feel momentarily at one with her.

The next woman, the first who arrived, quietly says, "I'm always cautious, so can I call myself Cautious?", and the counsellors nod agreement. After her, the talkative and oldest woman in the group says that she was abused 25 years ago, and it hadn't bothered her until something really bad happened to her a couple of weeks ago which brought it up. The woman says, "I thought, how can that still be affecting me now? Then I realised that I need help to sort it out."

At length she says, "The abuse is stopping me from developing a good relationship with a man, and when this is over, I am going to have a good relationship with someone". I look at her, and say to myself when what is over. Subconsciously I feel that if she means the support group, it can't be as easy as participating in the six group sessions to heal the wounds that were inflicted on innocent children.

My attention is brought to the next woman, who says, "I came here tonight so that when this is over, I can have a better relationship with my husband". When will what be over, I ask myself again. I am confusing the two women's wants with my own. I am really not sure yet specifically what I want from this group. My explanation to the coordinator for coming tonight had been general. I am normally a sociable person, and I had a strong desire to be with others who have had similar experiences to me, and have similar feelings to mine.

The other three women speak. One says that she has just got married and her husband is fully supportive of her seeking therapy. Another has three small children and states that her husband is a wonderful man. However, he doesn't understand her a lot of the time and she wants to understand what has happened to herself so she can tell him. She has nine brothers and sisters. The woman says that it is hard to get by with a family of her own. The lady who was out of her body says that life is also hard for her without a family.

It is my turn, last to speak. I don't hesitate, but I feel a little nervous and unhappy. I hurriedly say where I was born, that I am inter-country adopted, have 12 brothers and sisters, 10 of them older than me, and that I work part time. I pause, then add, "Like the other woman, I'm not married, but would like to be." We look at each other and a small smile of acknowledgment on her face connects us.

Then suddenly I feel really sad for all the women. I feel that maybe I don't belong here because the expressions of immense pain and suffering of some of them that I seem to be picking up seem to overshadow my own cold feelings for myself. I don't realise that from habit I am blocking out my own overwhelming feelings of pain.

The conflict in my head is not allowed to grow because the counsellor asks us how we felt giving our names. Someone says it was hard to think of something, and another says it was easy. The counsellor begins to talk about making up rules for the group. She says that two more women were expected to come, and how does the group feel about them coming next week. The woman next to me says that if they are brave enough to come next week, then they should be allowed to join us. The others nod or give agreement. The counsellor confirms this, and the woman says that she only came with the support of her friend beside her.

The other counsellor writes our rules on the board, which are confidentiality, be comfortable, give everyone an opportunity to talk, let someone be silent if she wants to be and don't judge.

In one of the spaces of silence, I venture to say, "I've only been to two counselling sessions, and I feel that I need to be encouraged to talk", so encourage to talk went on the board. Two women add that they had only been to one or two counselling sessions, and they also would like encouragement. I feel that what I had to say was important. One of the counsellors says that all of us are brave for picking up the telephone to arrange to see a counsellor.

The woman with nine siblings says, "I may have to leave early some nights because I can only leave my children with my husband up to seven at night. If I can't get a baby-sitter before seven, then I'll have to be at home by seven to put the children to bed and wait for the baby-sitter."

The counsellor addresses the group, "Perhaps we can hold the sessions at a different time", but there is no response. I feel comfortable with the present arrangements, but I say nothing. "Would earlier in the day be better?", the counsellor asks. Someone says, "No, because I come straight here after work, and six o'clock is the earliest I can get here". The woman with the three children and nine siblings says, no, later would be better so that I can myself put the children to bed, then leave them with a baby-sitter. The counsellor acknowledges that child-care is a problem, and says that she will talk to the lady about it afterward.

Next, the counsellor asks everyone to each give one goal to attain from the group sessions. The woman with nine siblings and three children immediately says, "I want to rationalise my thoughts". She is prompted to clarify this as wanting to understand herself in order to explain herself to her husband. The counsellor says that it is a good goal for her to understand herself for herself first, not for her husband first. The other goals are to feel normal, be myself, to relax, enjoy my sex life, separate the past and the present, learn to trust, feel real, find nice things about me, stay in my body, bring desires into my life, to make it happen, allow myself time to heal and, from me, to find a sense of who I am.

The counsellor asks do we want her to write down the rules on some paper to hand out to us, and one woman asks for the goals to be written on handouts too. The counsellor then explains that they have designed a creative exercise for us. We are to use the materials provided to create a three-dimensional picture of what each of us sees herself as being on the outside and on the inside.

After a break, we can chat amongst ourselves and sit at the table or on the floor. I help myself to cardboard, scissors, cotton wool and a brown paper bag and place them on my seat. I fetch a cup of coffee. It is lukewarm and I gulp it down, then spread my materials on the floor, thinking I don't want to talk to anyone.

The me on the outside is easy to do. The brown paper bag is shaped into a rock. It is a hard, cold stone. A fondness for my "inner child" — that is, for my sense of innocence, play and wonder — gradually replaces my feeling of hostility as I create a watering can to show my inner self. I tape together three curved macaroni pieces with bandaids to make a spout. While going to get a stapler, I look interestedly at a tumble of paper like a crazy roller-coaster that is somebody's sculpture.

A few women have left the room, and the rest sit at the table happily talking and creating. We are given another 10 minutes to finish off, during which the women who left return. Then the counsellor calls us back to our seats and asks us how we felt with the exercise. Some replies are that it was fun, hard, resentment was felt when we were called back and it was painful.

When eventually encouraged to speak, I say it was easy to demonstrate the me on the outside because I am comfortable with that, but I felt a bit angry, resentful and reluctant when starting to create the inner me, the real me. Several heads nod, showing that my conflict and lack of self-respect and openness is understood. We are to look at the sculptures next week. It will take me time to learn to nurture myself and bring this into harmony with my other-centred approach to people.

The counsellor says that the exercise was a bit heavy for our first night. Next week she tells us we are to bring something meaningful to ourselves. There is some general talk, and a counsellor says that we have to bring ourselves to feel that we are living in the present.

To finish off, the other counsellor turns out the light and asks us to close our eyes if we wish. Then she instructs us to take some deep breaths, and talks us through feeling each part of our body from our toes to our head, and feeling the space around us. We open our eyes, and the light is turned on.

A counsellor asks us how we feel. The woman who cried states she feels happier. The woman with the child-care problem states that she feels okay now, but it is a long time before next week's meeting, and now she will have to slip on her mask showing how wonderful and normal she is. The counsellors nod agreement.

We put our sculptures in one of their offices. The sculptures are real. They are like tangible, secret parts of us that we are to respect and to get to know. Next week I will use my watering can on myself. In time, the strength and flow inside me, symbolised by the watering can, will help dissolve my idealisations and defence mechanisms, and some of the pain.

I am first down the hall, and find the security door locked. Someone else tries it. A counsellor appears saying brightly, if a door is locked then you need a key to unlock it of course. She unlocks the door. I head out first. I look back and call out goodnight to anyone who is listening. A few voices call out goodnight in return.

I see the dark and my car. I run toward my car. Two women flee to their car. We start up our vehicles. I follow the car. I watch it moving fast and sliding to a sudden halt at a stop sign. With tears in my eyes, I think there is no stop for any of us.

As for times of struggle, there will be a next time ...

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