Gathered together in her office, we are a mysterious centrifugal force dispersed around the bland interior. Earlier, each of us had a separate session of our own. Now, the therapist sits in our circle, trying for eye contact to reassure us that she is with us for the long haul.
To be here, my husband needed to inform his secretary to hold this time open, to arrange a continuance on the Haythorpe case, to leave work without a bulging briefcase that keeps him in our downstairs study past my bedtime, preparing briefs and citing precedent past midnight most nights, lights blazing.
To be here, our daughter had to deign to emerge from her bedroom whose canopied bed is hung with mosquito netting she refuses to discuss, emerge from behind dark glasses, from under headphones, arms crossed over a Marilyn Manson t-shirt, one of thirty on the floor.
To be here, our son was subjected to another fatherly, lawyerly outburst no longer effective, although my husband hasn’t figured this out yet, so I threatened cancellation of the DSL line, and the withdrawal of help with college applications scattered around his bedroom where he sleeps beside his monitor, all lights on.
To be here, I needed to make the appointments, write my husband a reminder, watch my daughter write the time and place on the palm of her hand, and stick a post-it on my son’s computer. I needed to leave my rosewood desk where I write my weekly column on new restaurants, to forego meditation, to leave my book on the guest room bed, where I frequently sleep or daydream of the ghost who wanders through the house, long skirts swishing against hard-edged Danish furniture, lantern held yearningly high in her search for something or someone. I needed to entice the family to assemble, cajole us to arrive today at the same time to hear just where we go from here.
But first, the therapist says, she has one other thing to say. Then she laughs, a tinkly laugh she surely would have stifled had she realized how dismissive she sounds about the only thing she could have said to send us out of her office forever, not cured—cured of what, anyway?—but a family again.
Giggling, my daughter rises to announce, “That settles that.” Her brother follows her out the door asking, “Was it pearly white?” and then their father stands and looks around as if precedent has somehow failed him, but he’ll give it another chance. He follows the kids, calling, “Let’s all go to lunch.” The therapist is clearly feeling left out, but what can I do but eventually pay her bill? As I gleefully join my family, I replay what the therapist said, moments ago, when we were still gathered in her circle, before we became a family again, hysterical with complicity and relief.
She said, “Before we begin, I want each of you to know: you have all seen the ghost.”
Copyright © 2005 Pamela Painter
My favourite story from the 2005 Vestal Review archive is Pamela Painter’s Family Therapy from Issue 23.
I first read this story in Randall Brown’s A Pocket Guide to Flash Fiction, where Family Therapy is reprinted and analysed. I remembered the last line instantly on finding the story in the 2005 Vestal Review archive: ‘She said, “Before we begin, I want each of you to know: you have all seen the ghost.”’.
The narrator dreams of the ghost: a figure that walks the house with a ‘… lantern held yearningly high in her search for something or someone.’ This is a story of a modern family described through the things they have had to give up or postpone, to attend their therapy session. The first half of the story lists odd details that are strangely familiar.
Why is the family attending therapy? If the family hadn’t all seen the ghost, what would have happened?
For me the ghost symbolises the common belief that keeps the family unit together, rooting for each other, when the world is tearing it apart. Finally, the family is ‘hysterical with complicity’. This piece was my pick because it is a story of belief and family.