© Paige Turner
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This complete short story contains strong language and sexual references. Please pass if such things offend you.
Asterisks flanking a word or phrase signify *italics* – actual italics, for those new to this site, not being an option.
Warragamba Dam is the primary water source for Sydney, Australia.
OTHER INTERPRETATIONS (revised)
Oblivious to the waiting chair, she stops in front of the framed print of a sixteenth-century triptych. Most clients walk past it.
‘You know it?’ Joel asks.
‘Know it?’ She tosses her long, tousled hair. ‘Bosch and I are old friends.’
Joel peers at the print but the glass reflects glare from the uncurtained window. ‘My fifteen-year-old thinks it’s obscene, calls it “Renaissance porn”,’ he says.
‘Yes.’ He motions Zoë to sit. On the tea table between their chairs, his metallic red laptop, running four programs, waits where he left it when the bell rang.
She gazes out at coastline, ocean and a white-licked rocky island. ‘That’s a view to die for,’ she says.
That view once lured Joel into debt. Today, smog veils the horizon. Yet the island looks exposed; the tide must be abnormally low. He opens a new document. ‘Why don’t we begin with what brought you here?’
Underscored by shadows, her eyes meet his. ‘I used to believe life would mean something once I could learn how to read it — thought of myself as central, not as some disposable object destined to be swept aside by vast, impersonal forces. But since turning fifty . . .’ She plucks a tissue from the box on the table and twists it, sobbing, while Joel types her name, the date and time and, on a new line, *Depression*. He saves the file in his Clients folder, then looks up to find her eyeing his laptop. ‘My case notes are private,’ he assures her. ‘You can say what you like here.’
‘It’s hard to know’ — she blows her nose — ‘where to start. But the last few years’ — her voice quavers, climbing in pitch — ‘have been difficult.’
He types *& anxiety*. ‘How so?’
She sniffs. ‘Aside from Jen, who recommended you, I’ve lost all my friends. Either we’ve argued or just drifted apart. And meanwhile, though I’ve resisted, the internet’s filled the gap. You know what they say? Technology abhors a vacuum.’
As she curls both legs under her, like a mermaid, Joel checks his emails: two friend requests from Facebook. ‘Who says that?’
‘My partner used to play my guitar,’ she says, ‘on our nights together. But now he brings his laptop over and just trawls what-do-you-call-it . . .’
Joel deletes spam (F*ckbook, viagra) and minimises the window. ‘Porn sites?’
‘Recording software sites.’ Her lower lip quivers. ‘It’s been so long since he’s had a hard-on, I’ve begun to feel invisible.’
‘How long have you two been together?’ Joel types *Menopausal?*
‘Thirteen — no, twelve years.’
‘And when did you last have sex?’
She shrugs. ‘In my dreams, but with others. And I often dream about waves. At times, both themes coincide, with me saving some strange man from fast-rising seas. Or there’s another kind, a tidal wave I can’t escape, which I’ve dreamt about ever since childhood.’
*Nightmares*, Joel types. ‘And that wakes you up?’
‘No,’ she says. ‘Mostly my upstairs neighbour.’
‘The dream wakes him or her?’
‘No, *she* wakes *me* — by flushing her toilet.’
Joel beams. ‘A simulated flood?’
‘My partner jokes about her plans to drain Warragamba Dam single-handed — sometimes she’ll flush at ten-minute intervals, often without having pissed, just to fuck with me. She can’t stand the sound of water running,’ says Zoë, ‘unless it’s her own, so it’s always worse if I’ve done any washing the previous day. It’s my punishment.’
*Delusions*, Joel types. *Persecutory*. ‘Difficult to prove.’
She points to her head. ‘See the grey? Hair grows at the rate of three inches a year. How long do these look to you? Nine inches? They only appeared after Stacey moved in.’
‘You don’t have that many.’ Fewer than Joel has; he touched up his roots before last night’s date.
‘Maybe not.’ She checks her watch. ‘But you know stress turns hair grey?’
Shaking his head, Joel types *Magnifies negatives*. ‘There are other interpretations.’
‘Maybe,’ she says. ‘But you can’t exclude Stacey. I can count on one hand the times my partner and I have made love since she’s lived above me.’
‘You mentioned other factors in the decline of your sex life . . .’ Joel clicks into Facebook. One of his 200+ friends has posted new photos. ‘Feeling unseen —’
‘By my partner.’ Zoë’s hands clutch her armrests. ‘He only half listens to me at home. He’ll even jump out of bed at an intimate moment if Stacey’s door opens, to run to the peephole to film her with his phone.’
*Voyeuristic boyfriend*, Joel notes down. ‘Does that make you jealous?’
‘It might if he had a fetish for Brueghel’s peasant women.’ Zoë giggles. ‘But Stacey makes rude gestures at my door and he’s gathering proof of harassment.’
Joel shifts the cursor back and deletes *Delusions*. ‘What sort of harassment?’
‘Covert.’ Zoë lowers her voice. ‘Our flats have the same layout, and if I turn on a tap or wash dishes, she copies me. If I use a knife, she starts chopping. When I hoover, she follows suit. If I play music she does too, but waits till I’m sleeping and pumps up the volume. My partner and I watch TV with headphones on so it won’t set her off. Some nights she sneaks downstairs and listens at my door. And when my partner drives away, she pulls her curtain aside to spy —’
‘So in practice,’ Joel says, ‘you and Stacey watch each other.’
‘Only in the last few months.’ Zoë’s cheeks flush. ‘It’s self-defence. Since I’ve complained, she’s been warned four times, but public housing controls are slack and anyway, Stacey just changes tactics. Before, she used to rant all night, but there’s no law against displacing water.’
‘Threats might provoke her.’ Joel covers a yawn. Yelling neighbours spoilt his sleep-in this morning. ‘Have you tried changing your focus?’
‘Constantly. But,’ says Zoë, ‘she’s got nothing better to do than monitor us. Even though she can’t hear our TV, she stomps overhead when we watch, and she doesn’t just stalk me from room to room, she anticipates my movements, like flushing her toilet just before I do, until I want to scream. All my problems have deepened since they stuck her in Number Eighteen. I can’t reverse the ageing process, but I’d probably live longer with all the sleep I’d catch up on if I could just get rid of her.’
*Magical thinking*, Joel adds to his list, then rechecks his inbox. A bill, a petition and an email from his unstable date. He winces.
Last night, after coffee, they fucked like there was no tomorrow. This morning, though, an old-fashioned ringtone woke him. So they fucked again before breakfast, but as he was poaching eggs, she reached between her legs and daubed her forehead with blood. Joel ordered her to plug herself up and get dressed, then drove her straight home despite her protest that she was ‘just joking’.
‘Emergency’, her subject reads; he deletes the email. ‘We can’t just wipe out whoever offends us.’
‘No, that’s how wars start.’ Zoë laughs. ‘And I have so much to be thankful for. But Stacey’s flat’s got an even better ocean view than mine, and it’s wasted.’
‘Ocean views in public housing?’ Joel blurts then clears his throat. ‘It’s not my place to assess a client’s neighbour. That’s a job for the relevant authorities. I can only evaluate you. And you’re exhibiting some of the more disabling symptoms of sleep deprivation. Have you given serious thought to moving?’
‘Of course.’ Zoë leans forward. ‘But fair’s fair. I was there first, for seven years, and things were fine. Besides, if I couldn’t see the sea from my window, I’d die.’ Tears swamp her eyes.
*Catastrophising*, Joel types. ‘You wouldn’t want a share flat near the beach?’ Not that she’d be suitable for his son’s old room.
Her knuckles whiten. ‘I can’t live with others, and not for want of trying. But I fantasise about killing Stacey because she won’t leave me alone. She never goes out for more than an hour or two and then only in daylight — she has no contact with family, no kids and no job. No commitments. The main difference between us, besides her being single, is that I’m sane.’
‘Have you always felt uneasy with people?’
She nods. ‘Ever since school. I’d watch TV shows about outlaws or freaks with weird powers. Hated the news.’
Nodding too, Joel types *Social phobia?* ‘So you identify with outsiders?’
She hesitates, watching him sign out of Facebook. ‘Your laptop looks like a bivalve — those shells with a hinge, that a creature lives in?’
Joel cracks a smile. ‘The concept of life existing inside it bothers you?’
‘As if. And soon we’ll be just as soulless.’ Zoë rolls her eyes. ‘TV’s replaced visions. Mobiles mimic telepathy. And who needs out-of-body travel with virtual reality?’ Her laughter grates, dry and hollow. ‘Would you have any water? I’m parched.’
When Joel sets down two tumblers of water Zoë returns from the window. ‘The headland’s deserted for a Saturday,’ she says, distracted.
‘You were saying?’ he prompts, once she’s drained her glass.
She blinks up at him.
‘About feeling excluded.’ It feels like a test to see if he’s listened. ‘Yet wanting to live outside the system. And not knowing how to give your gifts . . .’
She repositions the cushions, blushing. ‘Jen said you were good. But even if I keep seeing you, there’s nothing keeping me here. If I disappeared off the face of the Earth tomorrow, like Stacey, no-one would miss me.’
He googles *Zoë Ryder*, scans page 1 of results, then clicks on Images. No references to her, or none he can spot, come up. ‘Not even your partner?’
‘Except for him. But’ — she bites her lip — ‘we’re not married. And though I’d happily live with him if we could afford to share a flat, whenever I mention that, he gets defensive.’
‘Maybe he’s scared of losing you.’ Joel brings up her file and types *Suicide risk?*
‘What were you just doing,’ she says, her voice strung taut, ‘on your laptop?’
Joel stiffens. ‘No more nor less’ — he aims for an even tone — ‘than what’s appropriate.’ Was her thirst a diversion, so she could nose into his notes? ‘It’s a therapist’s job to compile a detailed profile on each client —’
‘Don’t patronise me,’ she says. ‘It’s not as pure as that. You’ve been online ever since we started’ — her voice drops — ‘and you still are . . . Aren’t you?’
‘If my job is to understand a client, I’d think they’d want me to conduct whatever research seems relevant. So why should it matter whether I do that in their presence or absence? In fact, the sooner I get an overview of a case,’ he says, ‘the better.’
Her gaze flits out the window then back to him. ‘How do you mean, “research”?’
‘Each of us is shaped by complex factors.’ Joel keeps eye contact. ‘Local environment, family history — nature and nurture if you like — and more recently,’ he says, touching his laptop, ‘social media.’
She groans. ‘You forgot “global warming”.’
‘That too, naturally . . . But we rely on media to inform us.’
She turns her head this way and that like someone surfacing from a long sleep. ‘Okay, let’s see if I understand. You were researching me online while I was telling you firsthand how I am. Sorry if it’s not entirely clear to me why I need to be here.’
Sweat tickles Joel’s armpits. ‘More than once,’ he says, elbows clamped to his ribs, ‘you’ve shown a distrust of digital culture sufficiently global in scope to meet the criteria for a phobia. And yet you say you’re here because you’ve missed the boat, so to speak. Therapy’s a waste of time if you want to live on a desert island. But you can use it to confront your aversion. Therapy’s not an escape from the world.’ He closes Google, refraining with effort from skimming the week’s top news. ‘What it does is replicate the world on a scale small enough to work with.’
‘So let me get this straight,’ says Zoë. ‘The whole time I’ve been baring my soul here, you’ve been surfing the net — checking your emails, for all I know.’ She stretches and leans back. ‘But it’s for my benefit?’
‘Why else would I turn my phone off,’ says Joel. ‘If the world is changing, and us with it, we only suffer more by resisting. What signifies is our interpretation.’
Zoë’s lips compress as if she’s sucked on a lemon. ‘So reality’s just the story I select. Is that what you’re saying?’
‘It’s a pity — no, a missed opportunity — if that story doesn’t serve you.’
‘So therapy’s all about serving myself’ — Zoë’s lip curls — ‘and fuck the Earth?’
Joel checks the time on his display — no client has ever seemed so obstructive — and squirms with barely disguised impatience; he’s received two new emails in the last few minutes. ‘There’s no virtue in suffering for its own sake. You shouldn’t beat yourself up.’
‘You use the word “shouldn’t” as if I choose to feel pain.’
‘I meant that you’re free to reinterpret how you see —’
‘So I can be more like you and not have to feel?’
‘So you can be more like *you* and not have to feel like a textbook cliché.’ An impulse to shake her grips Joel for a second. He exhales and counts to ten.
Zoë inches forward. ‘I’m not some character in your story. You can’t just modify my behaviour.’ She rises, looming above him, then stalks over to the print. ‘Five centuries ago, this obscure Dutch painter knew more about the soul than you do. See, in the right wing, those burning buildings on the horizon? And the bondage to manmade objects? Technology?’ A smile kindles her eyes. ‘At fifteen, when I’d look at prints of *The Garden of Earthly Delights*, the central panel made my genitals wet. But — and this might sound fucked up — I got more turned on by the details of hell.’ Now her face is luminous; she could be ten years younger.
Warmth suffuses Joel’s groin, a sudden rush of blood. He shifts his pelvis, grateful that she can’t see her effect on him (good old countertransference). She needs to prove she’s still desirable. Joel’s mother was Zoë’s age when his father died, with Joel at just fifteen too young to repel her. He resists an urge to twist around and study the print. *BDSM*, he types. Three more emails have reached his inbox but Zoë won’t cope if he opens them.
‘Bosch understood more than you, ‘she intones, ‘and he didn’t have Google . . .’
At this point during a date, Joel would want to assert control: by showing his guest the door or, at a late hour, chauffeuring her to her own door. But clients don’t tend to give him lip (or hard-ons, though it’s already wilting), and Joel remains vague on protocol. If he ends the session early, Zoë won’t be obliged to pay him; and he’s never worked harder for his fee. To still the tremor in his hand, he rests it on his keyboard. ‘If you can reframe a view that causes you pain, why wouldn’t you?’
‘Because’ — she flings her arms wide, bumping the print — ‘that’s what’s wrong with this culture. We only see what we want to. I came here assuming you —’
‘Would share your view?’ Joel suggests, mindful of his heart rate.
Heels pounding the polished boards, she saunters toward the door, which to his confusion stands ajar. ‘I don’t need fixing, like a machine . . .’
The thought that she might walk out on him leaves Joel breathless. It’s not just his pride (or sexual ego) at stake now but his next mortgage payment. Even if her rent weren’t subsidised, her low income went without saying when they discussed the Medicare rebate. But what if she intends to renege on her share of the treatment fee?
‘Zoë,’ he says in a low voice, ‘what do you need?’
She pauses by the door, hands clasped at her back like a dancer. ‘You’re asking *me*?’
‘From a therapeutic perspective’ — Joel shakes his hands; his fingers are tingling — ‘your ego isn’t the focus for treatment, as much as it may produce symptoms.’
‘What is the focus?’ Her cocked head hides the sea mirrored in the glass on his Master’s degree hanging behind her.
‘The whole self,’ says Joel, flicking his wrists as the tingling intensifies.
Zoë edges forward. ‘You look like a shaman casting out spirits. What is it?’
‘It’s nothing.’ His chest feels constricted. He inhales with effort. ‘Poor circulation.’
Her face contorts into a mask of concern. ‘You’ve gone pale.’
Joel stands up and stamps, feeling light-headed.
‘What do you need?’ she echoes.
‘This isn’t about what *I* need.’ And yet he’s itching to check his emails.
She circles back to her chair to face him. ‘Are you sure you’re okay?’
‘Fine, thanks.’ He shuffles his feet, debating whether to take a Xanax.
‘Because you seem to think I’ve got every disorder known to psychiatry.’
‘You read my notes out of context.’ He slaps his hands against his thighs.
‘The context of my life?’ She’s staring transfixed out to sea.
He risks a step toward her, drawn by the depth of her absorption. ‘We could reframe those syndromes as “seer” or “wounded healer” to placate your ego. But,’ he says, ‘how would that help you to deal with reality?’
‘Sh . . .’ All traces of fatigue have fled her face. ‘Can you hear that?’
Joel follows her gaze beyond the window ledge, out over the hillside, past the coastal path curved like a scythe, only now hearing the shriek of sirens. Something is missing. The island has been swallowed by the horizon.
‘How far above sea level are we?’ She sounds utterly calm, unsurprised.