“I can’t stop thinking about her. I mean, we hardly know each other, but… it’s like I’ve known her all my life. I know it sounds stupid, but it’s true. I just… I don’t know.”
“Why don’t you just ask her out then?” His eyes flick up to meet the therapist’s, intense and irritated.
“You’re joking, right?”
“You never know-”
“Oh, don’t give me that ‘you never know until you try’ bullshit. I mean, shit, I already know you’re a therapist; you don’t have to keep throwing out cliché’s like that, especially stupid ones. You and I both know why I can’t ‘just ask her out’. You of all people know that best.”
“If that’s what you think. Personally I disagree, but…” he shrugs. “I just think you shouldn’t give up so easily. Who knows? She might surprise you.”
“Even if… look, even if by some miracle she did feel the same way, I’m not… ready for a relationship. I can’t… I wouldn’t be able to handle that kind of emotional stress.” His speech is littered with sighs and huffs, like the breaks in an old record that just keeps playing the same song over and over, desperate to be turned.
“Fair enough. So what do you plan on doing then?”
“I don’t know, doc,” he says, glaring. “That’s kind of why I’m talking to you, isn’t it? So you can tell me what to do?”
“Actually, no. I’m just here to listen, and to offer up suggestions where I see fit. But I already gave you my suggestion for this particular problem.”
“Alright, well give me another, why don’t you?”
“You’re certain you don’t want to be in a relationship with her?”
“Of course I want to be in a relationship with her, but I also want to commit suicide, remember? Sometimes what we want isn’t what we need. Or don’t need, in this case. I just… I want to stop having feelings for her. For anyone, really. I can’t take it anymore, alright? At this point I’d rather feel nothing than feel anything at all.”
“That’s certainly a bold statement to make. Are you sure that’s how you feel?”
“No!” he shouts, pounding his fist on the desk and making the therapist’s pens shake in their mug. The therapist, having seen it all before and worse, does not so much as blink. The boy takes in a shaky breath, slumping back in his seat once more with an air of defeat. “No,” he says again, this time whispering the word. The expression on his face is indicative of hopelessness and exhaustion, as though the outburst has drained him. “Don’t you get it? I’m not sure how I feel. I’m not sure of anything. That’s why I don’t want to feel anything; then I would know. Then I wouldn’t have to be sure.” The therapist is silent for a moment.
“Have you been to The Arboretum yet?” he says eventually, picking up one of his pens and idly, casually fondling it.
“The Arboretum. It’s a lovely park east of campus. Beautiful this time of year. Late enough into autumn that the trees are all colourful, but early enough that they haven’t fallen yet. Not to mention it’s still fairly warm out. It’s a wonderful place to spend some time alone, to reflect on things and whatnot. I’d highly recommend it.”
That was how he found himself standing at the entrance, looking down the path to the other end. Almost as if the therapist’s words had been prophetic, it had turned out to be a beautiful day: the air was still, the sun was out, and there was only the faintest hint of a chill in the air, the promise of the coming winter. He looked out over what he could see of the park, and decided, somewhat begrudgingly, that the trees did indeed look beautiful.
It was the fifth week of university, and things had started off surprisingly well. His old therapist had warned of the dangers of a change in surroundings, of experiences, of his life as a whole, but he had also mentioned that the change might do him some good. The problem was that with such a drastic adjustment things would either go one way or the other, and for people suffering from depression things hardly ever went in the up direction.
“Call me whenever you need to talk,” his therapist had told him on the day of their last session. “You still have my number, right?”
“Good. Good.” He had clasped the boy by his shoulders, giving him a quick once-over, trying to hide the worry in his eyes. “You’ll do good. You hear me? You’ll do good. You’re a good student, as long as you apply yourself, and the change in scenery might very well do you some good. Just keep your head up, and remember to call me the moment you feel it creeping in. Don’t try to be brave; you’re already brave as it is and you don’t need to prove it to anyone. The second you feel it creeping in you call me. Do not wait it out. Okay?”
“Okay,” he had said, fighting back the sob waiting in his throat, eager to be heard.
“Good boy. You’ll do fine.” He had hugged him then, which might have been a little unprofessional, but as his therapist of all of four years he doubted anyone could have blamed him. And now the tears did come, and he gave a little sniffle, his face buried in the shoulder of his therapist’s coat. He had felt safe, protected. And then they had separated, and he saw that the therapist’s eyes were misty too. He gave him an apologetic smile, and they shared one last laugh. “Be good to your new therapist, you hear? We went to university together; he’s really quite a good guy. Give him some time. Let him in. Don’t make him go through the entire painstaking process of prying you open that I had to go through. You hear me?”
“Yes,” he had said, his head nodding. “Yes.”
Yes. But he’d been unable to keep his word. His new therapist had turned out to be nothing like his old one. He wasn’t funny, or sympathetic, or amiable. He was detached, distant, cold, calculating. And even if he had been better, the boy didn’t think he would have been able to see past the feelings of resentment he harboured for him, simply for not being his old therapist.
But even after the bad first impression with the therapist, things had still been good. Better than they had been in years, in fact. He had made new friends, settled in to his residence comfortably, enjoyed his classes. Most of the time he was so busy that he would completely forget that he suffered from depression, that he had a mental disorder, that he was different. For the first time in his life, he felt like he belonged.
Then he had met her. They were in the same residence, and had several classes together. He had seen her around several times before, and something about her had made an impression on him. It was inevitable, really. Eventually, quite by chance, they struck up a conversation. It was on the way back to their residence after a class that they found themselves walking beside one another. And before he even realized what had happened, he was in love. The revelation came to him two days later, lying in bed at night and staring up at the ceiling, which one of the previous residents of his room had covered in dozens of those sticky glow-in-the-dark stars you could buy at the dollar store.
It was when he realized that he was in love that the real trouble began. Suddenly he couldn’t stop thinking about her, couldn’t think about anything else. When he was with her things were great, better than great, but like a lantern in the night when she was gone the darkness would descend upon him and swallow him up, making him feel more alone and lost than ever before. It was as though he had finally gotten used to living in the dark, and then suddenly she had come into his life and changed all of that, reintroduced him to happiness, to the light. And when she was gone he was all the more aware of the darkness, once more susceptible to its effects, the effects he had just gotten used to, had begun to learn to cope with.
And then suddenly things weren’t so good anymore.
The wind picked up, scattering several yellow and red leaves across his path. He shivered, an unconscious reaction that had nothing to do with the temperature, and stirred from his thoughts. Okay, he told himself, don’t think about any of that. You’re here to distract yourself from your problems, not rub them in. He started to walk without knowing where he was going, simply allowing his feet to take him down what appeared to be the main path. The road broke off into smaller trails in front of him, but he kept on going forward, deciding he would make it to the end first and then see about exploring the smaller ones later.
He passed by people walking their dogs, couples walking hand in hand or arm in arm, with eyes for nothing but one another, old people bundled up tight in weathered coats and jackets that you could tell had seen them through many winters, their faces obscured by oversized sunglasses, joggers whose hot and heavy breaths stained the air like miniature clouds that dissipated into the world they were born into only seconds after their creation. Some of the people he passed would give him a smile, and before long he was returning those smiles, sincerely if not consciously.
He stopped for a moment to watch the antics of three squirrels, chasing one another up and down trees, back and forth in the grass. He knew chances were they were probably fighting over food or territory or something, but he told himself that they were just playing.
Eventually he came to a pond in a small sectioned-off area of the park, hosting several signs that warned of the dangers of stepping on the stones, which were allegedly unstable. He made his way over to the bench in the middle of the area, sitting down and closing his eyes. He sat like that for a moment, each deep breath of cold air like a cleansing wave that swept over his mind, erasing all his thoughts until his head was clear. When it felt right he opened his eyes, looking around as though expecting some sort of visible change to the world, but finding nothing. He stayed a moment longer before standing, the joints in his legs complaining from the cold.
Further along he found a fountain, hidden behind a wall of hedges that ran alongside its border. The pumps were still running, but he decided they would probably shut them off once the temperatures dropped low enough for the water to freeze. There were four statues standing at each corner of the fountain, and it seemed to him that they were watching over it, cold sentinels indifferent to the water’s antics. He looked at each of them in turn, and then took his place among them at the head of the fountain. He watched as the water shot upwards into the air, breaking off into individual droplets but still a part of something greater, never wholly separated from the water as a whole, always readily accepted back into the masses once their flight ended, cascading back down through the air and getting lost in the sea of thousands of droplets just like them, inescapable from the masses.
He walked down the smaller paths, among hedges and flowerbeds and modern art and benches dedicated to people long gone. He wondered what they thought of that, that their legacy was summed up in a plaque on a bench in a park, a name that might be ignored by those who sat there or read by others but almost always forgotten, always lost in a sea of names, all indistinguishable from one another without a face, a hand, an identity to nail it too, and he wondered if they thought anything of that at all, or if there was nothing to think.
He walked under the trees, under the beautiful canopy of colours, the light filtering through and colouring the world around him in a sea of hues, all warm colours despite the chill in the air, in his bones. He wondered about the irony of that, and decided that if he had been a writer he could have found a good metaphor in there somewhere, but as it was decided not to look too deep into it, and left it for some other poor sap to find, to ponder.
He marvelled at the beauty around him, of the tiny snapshots of life, and suddenly it occurred to him that he wanted to share it with someone. And of course he thought of all the couples he had seen pass by, and he thought of her. He reached into his pocket for his phone, what he would say already taking shape in his head.
And then he stopped.
And then his grip loosened, then released entirely, and he let the phone slip from his hand back into his pocket.
And he continued to explore the park, alone.
Six days later he found himself sitting in his therapist’s office, staring at a painting hung on the wall directly above and behind the psychologist’s head. The painting is abstract, but sometimes we don’t need to understand something to know what it means.
They’ve been sitting in silence since he came in, the boy staring absently at the painting and the therapist staring intently at the boy.
“You knew,” the boy says eventually, his voice soft.
“You knew it would… change me.”
“…How?” The therapist shifts in his chair, and the resulting sound of leather rubbing against leather is reminiscent of an awkward childhood that no one will ever talk about, that no one will ever acknowledge, will ever make eye contact with. Sometimes it’s just too late for a wound to be bandaged. Sometimes when it heals it becomes a callus, and nothing more ever comes of it.
“It’s what you wanted, isn’t it?”
“I didn’t know what I wanted,” the boy says, his voice quiet and submissive and indifferent. “I didn’t know.”
Eventually, maybe in another week or two or even three, The Arboretum will grow cold, and people will stop coming, and it will be empty. And even when spring rolls around again, something will have changed, something that the returning warmth will never be able to thaw.