I stood behind the one-way mirror and watched Shannon sitting on the couch. With the dull hum of rain hitting the window behind her, she absentmindedly flipped through an issue of Business Week, no doubt making mental notes. It was 8:57 A.M., and she was scheduled for a 9 o’clock appointment. I’d invite her in at 9, and we’d end at 9:50, promptly.
After thirty minutes of her catching me up on her previous week, she dropped this gem on me. “I hate the Starbucks culture.” She picked up her coffee cup from the end table. “Look at me. I’m sitting here drinking a Starbucks coffee because it is popular and convenient. Sure, it tastes great, but it was overpriced. And that’s annoying.” She sat tall in the chair. “It almost makes me purchase a more inconvenient, poorer quality coffee just to avoid it. But what really gets me, you know, what really gets under my skin? It’s the casualness of everyone there. The lattes, the laptops, the flip-flops … I can’t stand it. Especially how everyone looks ‘too cool for school’, like ‘I know I could be using my time more productively, but I choose to sit here wallowing in the aroma of roasted beans just because I can.’” It took her a moment to catch her breath. “Mostly though, I’m jealous of their ignorance. It really is bliss, you know? Some people just live life on such a superficial level,” she said shaking her head with squinted eyes. “That luxury has not been afforded to me.”
She had a way of going on about nothing sometimes, but it was her dime. “Is that what you want to discuss today? What you have missed out on in life?”
She looked up and to the right to find her answer. “Here is my real issue. I’ve always been a person full of drive. I’ve accomplished everything I’ve set out to do. But I’m turning 25 next month, and I’m stuck. Frozen.”
“Okay, let’s explore that. What does being ‘frozen’ mean to you?”
“I’m not sure how to explain this … well, have you ever seen that movie Jurassic Park?” I looked up from my notepad and peered at her over my frameless glasses. I didn’t make any audible reply; I just sat, legs crossed, trying to suppress that quizzical look I make sometimes. “Well, that’s kinda what my life has been like. I mean, not the dinosaur amusement park thing, but how they made the dinosaurs in the first place.”
“Mmm hmm,” I hummed.
“Remember? It was all possible because of fossils. They found mosquitoes fossilized in amber and used the DNA they had in them, plus extraneous reptile DNA, to recreate dinosaurs.” Shannon always spoke as if she was 100% confident in what she had to say, even if she wasn’t. Most people probably couldn’t pick up on this, but then again, I am a professional.
“Yes, but how does this relate to your feelings about your life?”
She huffed as if I had interrupted her in the middle of a rehearsed speech. “I’m getting there,” she said. “I grew up in L.A. I loved life and I loved my family and friends. My mom and I were really close. I still remember how she would sometimes sit me down to cornrow my hair on weekends. I’d fidget while strategically positioned on a pillow between her legs, and we’d talk about a million different things.” As she reminisced, she slightly cocked her head to the left and leaned forward off of the hulking leather chair. There was a vulnerability that I hadn’t seen from her before.
Progress, I wrote.
“She never missed any of my basketball games and she’d let me help her make dinner as long as my homework was done. That kitchen was so small that our butts would rub up against each other if either of us moved.”
“Okay,” I said. It could get painful listening to her diatribes and waiting for the point.
“Anyways, everything changed my junior year of high school. She thought she had finally found love.” Shannon paused, waiting for a response that I didn’t have. “She thought she found love, and he didn’t want me.” Her voice trailed to a whisper. The warmth drained from her face. “She had what she wanted, and it was like I had just become an obstacle to that.”
“How did that make you feel?” I said, leaning forward a bit in my chair.
“I was just lost for awhile. The pain was just too much and I didn’t know how to manage it. Then I went numb.” The braids on the top of her head started to fall over her face and she quickly pulled them back. She wrestled them into a ponytail as she continued. “I mean, she told me that I had to go. That I could take care of myself now. That I was grown. But, I didn’t have anywhere to go. And you can’t really support yourself on wages from an after-school job.”
“So what did you do?” I asked, a little bit more excitedly than I liked.
“I left California. Bought a bus ticket and headed to my aunt’s house here in Seattle. I still had goals that I wanted to accomplish and they had to take precedence over everything else. So, I turned myself off, set my sights on college, and threw everything else out the window.”
“That’s an amazing testament to your strength. Not to mention maturity.”
“I affectionately refer to that time as my ‘wilderness years’. My aunt wasn’t ready or even in the position to raise a child. She was rarely there. But she did keep a roof over my head. And at the time, that was the only thing I couldn’t do for myself.”
“Fascinating. How do you cope carrying that around with you? I’d imagine you’re not over it yet. It’s still so fresh.”
“I’m a new person now though,” she said straightening her shirt. “None of that means anything to me anymore. And to tell you the truth, I don’t even remember most of it.”
“I might do the same if I were in your position, but what about the life that you had built and had to leave behind? Seems there was a lot there that you cared about.”
“I basically had to let that life go. It wasn’t mine to have anymore. And that’s where Jurassic Park comes in. I’m a recreated version of me, with a few improvements. As far as I’m concerned, I was born at age 18.”
Peering over her head, I noticed that the clock read 9:54. “I’m glad you brought that full circle. We’re out of time right now, but I want you to think about this for next week. Does what happened to you affect you at all anymore? As people, we can suppress or hide a lot of things from ourselves and not even know how much it still affects us. Spend at least an hour this week just thinking and writing about how you feel and why. I’d really like you to fully come to terms with what you have experienced.”
She stood from her seat and extended her right hand. “Thank you Doctor Simms. I think this was a productive session. I always feel a little bit better after we talk.”
As I drove home through the Seattle rain that evening, I replayed the clients I had in my office that day. Kenny was having a hard time socializing and being honest with his co-workers. Sheila was having some struggles within her marriage and was contemplating divorce. Jonathon was just scared of life as a retiree. All of these cases were the usual. I’d seen people just like them before. All they really needed was an impartial party to help them get to the root of their feelings. Deep down, they already had the answers they were seeking.
Once I thought about Shannon though, I felt a little bit of a rush. She was a challenge. She was the test that I had been craving over the past few years since my practice had fallen into monotony. To anyone that might interact with her on a daily basis, she would seem perfectly exceptional. A faultless high-powered business woman in the tech industry. But underneath it all, there was so much unresolved and uncharted. Even with her success, she still felt that she hadn’t done enough. She still felt stagnant and bored with life. She needed a challenge as badly as I did and I was determined to crack her façade.
I stewed in silence for most of dinner. “Do you like the stroganoff, honey?” my wife Alicia asked.
“Yes. It’s lovely.” Half of the meal was still on my plate, but I hadn’t raised my head to look at my wife since I sat down. And she didn’t question me on it. She was nurturing in that way.
Even after dinner, once I moved to my office, she made sure to keep our 3 year old Maurice on the other side of the house. I appreciated the calm. I turned on some Mozart to help sort out my thoughts. And the nagging thoughts that I kept going back to were of my own childhood in rural Virginia.
Where I grew up, all of the homes had large plots, and my family had its own little farm with rows and rows of cornstalks and an assortment of fruits and vegetables. I have the most vivid memories of sitting on our front porch and inhaling the sweet aroma of our blueberry and raspberry bushes. And at the back corner of our house there was a peach tree that hung in a fashion that formed the perfect enclave.
I spent a lot of lonely humid afternoons under those branches, reading books, eating freshly picked peaches, and wiping the corners of my mouth with the back of my hand after each bite. There, I could retreat from a world that had not accepted me.
I always wanted to stick my nose in a book and my classmates wanted to rip and roar down the dusty dirt roads. I missed the boat on Motown and funk music. I wasn’t into sports, and I would have shook my head at talk of sneaking into the city to see a Blaxploitation film. On top of all of that, my mother insisted that I wear my brother’s hand-me-downs.
Even still, I wanted to belong. There was this whole culture and set of customs that I didn’t feel a part of, yet there was a daily reminder in the mirror telling me that I was supposed to. I wanted to be black like everyone else.
But I wasn’t. I wasn’t accepted.
One evening my father came home late from work at the factory. I could smell the beer trail behind him as he walked by me. I continued washing dishes, careful not to look his way. He pulled a bottle of beer from the refrigerator and popped the cap off.
“Antoine, come with me out back,” he said walking through the screen door. My father wasn’t much of a drinker, and I knew that this would not end well.
He was leaning against a post on the back porch looking out into the distance.
“Do you know what people say about us?” he asked.
“What do you mean?”
“What people say. You know, the sounds that come out of people’s mouths. The talk around town.”
“I don’t really pay attention to what other people think.”
“Don’t lie to me boy. You know one thing I can’t stand is a liar. You know full well what everyone around here says. And I’m getting tired of hearing it.” I watched him speak into the evening air and kept my hands clasped behind my back. I wondered how many drinks he had before he came home. “I hear people laugh under their breath at work. I see the strange look in people’s eyes when I go to the store. You’re too damn smart to not notice those things too.”
“Yes, sir. I’ve noticed.”
“And you don’t do anything about it?” He turned and started pointing at me with the beer bottle. “You just march along like this is normal?”
“What should I do sir?”
“What should you do? The smartest kid in the county is asking me how to solve a problem?” I wanted to take pride in that statement, but all I could feel was disappointment. “I love you, son. But you don’t make no sense. I was the captain of the football team for God sakes. I don’t understand how something like you came out of me.”
“I could try to be different. Maybe I can try out for the track team next year. Or at least be an aide for the sports teams. Momma promised to take me clothes shopping this summer too.”
“Nevermind. It’s no use. You are what you are. No sense in making the situation worse by forcing it.” He walked back to his post. “Dear God! Why couldn’t we have a normal child? Out of all the men in the county, how in the world did I get the white kid?”
I swallowed his words down to my gut. “Sorry, Pop.”
That night, those words repeated over and over in my head while I tried to sleep. They hurt, but my father was right. No matter how badly I wanted to be like everyone else, I wasn’t. And I was stupid to think that anything else could ever be the case. There was nothing I could do that would change who I was.
So when I left for college, I shook my father’s hand firmly before I boarded the Greyhound bus. I looked him right in the eyes and studied his face so that I would always remember it in that moment. We both knew we would never see each other again.
I had decided to embrace my lot in life. I still didn’t know how “Blackness” figured into my framework, but if I couldn’t understand myself, I could at least try to understand everyone else. I turned to the study of the human brain and social behavior. I stopped trying to understand what it meant to be Black and accepted the fact that I might be something else. Just like Shannon, I let my old life go. Antoine became Tony, and I built a life and a name I could be proud of.
“What’s on your mind, honey?” Alicia asked. We sat in the bed together while the 11 o’clock news played. I had been reading a book while she was talking back to the screen. “I know something is rattling around in there.”
“I was just thinking about my childhood. I had a patient today that triggered some memories.”
“Is there anything that you can share with me?”
“You know the rules,” I scolded. “Confidentiality. I can’t discuss it. Let’s just go to bed. It’s really no big deal.” I turned off the TV and we settled under the sheets.
It was two weeks later when I saw Shannon again. For once, the perennial Seattle showers had dried up and made way for simple overcast. There I stood with my hands behind my back, staring through the one-way mirror. Shannon sat on the couch with her legs crossed, rocking her leg back and forth like a metronome.
In the two weeks since our last session, I had been wrestling with myself, trying to think of the correct manner for handling this session. I’d been completely preoccupied with Shannon’s story, to the point that I would call it an obsession. Frequent, compulsive, and unhealthy. I needed relief.
“Doc,” Shannon started, “we had a really good session last time, and I really listened to what you had to say.”
“Ok, so did you do the activities that I asked?”
“Yeah, you said that I should take an hour to think about things by myself and write about it. So I did.”
“And what came out of that?”
“Well, I figured that I could just read what I wrote. That’s probably the best way to do it.” Shannon was more sheepish than usual.
“Ok. I think I would like that very much.”
She leaned down and pulled a folded piece of paper out of her purse. She slowly unfolded it and started reading. “I’m coming to realize that my past does affect me. Since I turned 18, I’ve tried to turn my back on all of the negativity that I’d been through. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that there are so many good things about those years that I’m blocking out too. And at the same time, all of those bad times still affect how I act. I still have a tough time with trusting people and I don’t share myself with anyone. As long as I try to block it all out, I’ll never really be myself. I’m just half of myself. Just a shadow of the real thing.”
“So, to use your terms, not a real dinosaur but just a clone.”
She chuckled. “Yes, you could say that.”
“This is very good progress. Now you need to figure out how to achieve what you just laid out. Are you comfortable with exploring that?”
“It makes me nervous to unlock that part of myself, but I know that if I don’t, I’ll never get better.”
“You are very courageous to face your problems head on like this. You should be proud.”
“I just realized that if I’ve been strong enough to weather my life and still be so accomplished, I am strong enough to deal with this. I can move on now.”
“Okay,” I smiled. “Now let’s go about the job of digging up the DNA.”
That night in bed, Alicia and I sat next to each other reading. But I could hear the words Alicia was trying to hold in through the silence. She had been steadily rubbing her feet together for the last ten minutes.
“If you do that any longer you are going to spark a fire,” I said.
“So, out with it. Go ahead and say what you want to say.”
She took a moment to respond. “I just wish that you could share your day with me like a normal husband, you know? Tell me about what you did, who you talked to, how you felt, any interesting happenings … I feel like there is so much of you that I don’t have access to.”
“How many times do I have to tell you? I took an oath of confidentiality. My work is private.”
“That’s not what I meant.” Alicia turned away from me and huddled under the covers.
I stared at the back of her head for a moment, then closed my book and put it in the drawer of my nightstand. I switched off the light and slid into bed. “Some things are just hard to let go of, you know?”
“It’s because you’re not really supposed to let anything go. When it’s all said and done, all we are is what we’ve experienced. You just diminish who you are when you try to separate yourself from some parts of your life. You should know that better than anybody with your line of work.” I didn’t like her attitude and I didn’t like that answer. I wanted to do much more than separate myself from my past. I wanted to erase everything that has hurt me. But she was right about one thing: my training has taught me how unhealthy that would be. “My mother always told me not to let anything go. To accept everything. She’d say, ‘You can throw away as many of your old things as you like; you’ll still hold onto them in your heart’.”
We laid there in silence for a few minutes, and I watched the VCR display blink. “Have you ever seen Jurassic Park?”
“Jurassic Park. The dino-amusement park movie.”
“No, I always thought that was a dumb idea for a movie. Why?”
“It’s just … fossils are really intriguing. Through all of the wear and erosion and years of turmoil that they go through, they still end up being a great snapshot of the past. They don’t change and become something new; they are just a frozen moment in time.”
“What does any of that have to do with you opening up to me? I just want a whole husband.”
“Give me a sec. It all makes sense once I lay it all out.”
“Nevermind. Let’s just talk about this tomorrow, Tony. I’m tired.”
But I knew tomorrow would be just like the days before. We wouldn’t talk about it because I wouldn’t want to. Alicia would concern herself with our son or the groceries. Life would move on. But I would be stagnant. My father’s words would still sting, that final image of him would still stare back at me in the mirror, and I still wouldn’t be able to identify with it.
That was when I could finally see myself clearly, just like I could see my patients. I was stuck because I refused to move. And I still hurt because I wouldn’t let my wounds heal. I’d always wanted acceptance, but didn’t know what it would mean. And I was petrified.
As I laid there caressing my wife’s ivory arm, I wished that I had Shannon’s courage. I wished that I had dealt with my issues sooner, before they had become so deeply entrenched. If I had been able to become a whole person, I wouldn’t be living in this perfect prison of complacency as Tony the psychologist. But this is the life that I built, constricted by and compensating for my complexes. I try to prove my worth and establish my superiority, but a major part of me is still about to board a bus, looking my father in the eye and yearning for his approval. I am still Antoine. And under the stiff, cool sheets, I feel just as I did then: hurt, lost, indignant, confused and fossilized.
Daren W. Jackson is a budding writer and an aspiring novelist. Hailing from the USC business school, he works in market research by day and cradles a laptop by night. A few years ago, he jumped ship to attend UCLA’s Writing Program which he completed in 2011. Now, he is working on several writing projects including a novel and a few short stories. His critical analyses of music, fiction, and movies are hallmarks of his complex character while his writing prowess rivals that of many a published author. You can find his work on his blog at Water Cooler Convos.