[TW/CW: self-harm and suicide]
“What was his birth like?” the guidance counselor asked.
“Was there trauma?” she added.
“Is there history of mental illness or substance abuse in the family?”
Phyllis weighed her answer. She enjoyed a drink with dinner, cocktails with friends. Could it be considered a problem?
The guidance counselor sipped from an oversize plastic cup of water with a built-in straw. Her cheeks and neck glowed pink like a teething baby’s. Frizzed coils of hair formed a halo around her head. The school system made the support staff work over the summer, but wouldn’t pay for air-conditioning.
“Does your family have any cultural traditions?”
Each question got closer to the point: Was she a bad mother? Phyllis couldn’t think of any traditions. They didn’t go to church. They celebrated Christmas and Thanksgiving, sometimes colored Easter eggs, but those seemed too generic to be considered cultural traditions.
Each question got closer to the point: Was she a bad mother?
She’d spent the last six months answering questions from therapists, nurses, doctors, and school officials. She’d collected a growing vocabulary of words related to suicide: ideation, urge, active, inactive. At the same time, she’d lost her ability to conjure enticing marketing copy. She’d missed a deadline during Cal’s weeklong hospitalization. Her boss offered her unpaid leave in compensation. He presented it to her like a gift, like acceptance wasn’t a question.
“Try not to overreact to the cutting,” the doctor at the hospital told a support meeting full of parents. Phyllis was pretty sure there was nothing over about her reaction. This was her baby’s flesh. She called 911 the day Cal sliced deep enough to draw dripping blood. “Look,” he’d said, holding up his arm. He looked serene. Proud.
“Take my cell phone number. Cal can call me from anywhere in the school and I’ll come find him,” the guidance counselor said. Papers on her desk flapped in the breeze of a portable fan.
“We’ll get him through the chaotic first weeks of school,” she added.
Phyllis nodded and stood to leave. The hallways, usually a pinball-machine gauntlet of bodies and backpacks, admonished her with their silence. She planned to go home and cook her grandmother’s Polish borscht. Or stop to buy some pierogis. She’d institute some tradition.
She sat for a minute on the metal bleachers, relieved to have them to herself. The district budgeted for maintenance, so groomers pushed machines across the field in slow motion, even though the artificial turf remained shiny and clean and a uniform height.
Lori Barrett is a writer and editor in Chicago. She's contributed to The Wall Street Journal, Time Out Chicago, and Chicago Magazine and her creative writing has appeared in BrooklynQuarterly.com; Entropy Magazine; and New Horizons, a journal from The British Fantasy Society. She is an assistant fiction editor for Pithead Chapel.
Illustration by Meghan Irwin.