"Good morning, Misty," Doctor Marlowe's sister Emma cried from the circular stairway after their maid Sophie opened the door.
Emma wore one of her flowery oversize dresses. Her hair was cut with razor-perfect precision at her earlobes and her bangs looked painted over her forehead and glued down a strand at a time. She kept her hair dyed coal black, probably to smother any signs of gray; however, the contrast with her pale complexion made the skin on her round face look like tissue paper. She froze on the steps, waiting for me to enter as if she thought I might change my mind.
Sophie closed the door behind me. From somewhere deep in the house came Mozart's Symphony no. 40 in G Minor. I'm not an expert on classical music; the only reason I could identify it was because we were practicing it in the senior high school band. I play the clarinet. My mother thought it might ruin my orthodontic work, but Mr. LaRuffa, our bandleader, practically signed an affidavit that it wouldn't. Mother finally put her signature on the permission slip.
My father forgot to attend this year's big concert, even though I had brought my clarinet to practice while I was at his new home the weekend before. Ariel, his twenty-something girlfriend, promised to remind him, which I thought was amazing in and of itself. She looked like someone who had little mirrors in her brain reflecting thoughts, bouncing them back and forth accompanied by little giggles that reminded me of tiny soap bubbles.
No matter how obvious I was with my sarcasm, Ariel smiled. I guess Daddy was comfortable with her because she looked like a Revlon model and never challenged a thing he said. Whatever pronouncements he made, she nodded and widened her eyes as if he had just come up with a new world-shattering comment. She was quite the opposite of my mother, who today would challenge him if he said good morning.
Mostly, Ariel gave him sex. According to my mother and her friends, that's all men really care about.
"The doctor will be with you in a moment or two," Emma said as she stepped down the carpeted stairs, taking each step with the same precaution someone walking across a muddy road might take: tiny, careful steps followed by a tight grasp on the balustrade. I wondered if she was an alcoholic. She wore enough perfume to cover the stench of a garbage truck so it was hard to tell from her breath if she drank or not, but she had gained at least forty pounds since I had first started with Doctor Marlowe and when I told that to Mommy, she said, "Maybe she's a closet drinker."
It better be a walk-in closet, I thought.
"How are you today, dear?" Emma asked when she finally stood before me. She wasn't much taller than I was, perhaps five feet one, but she seemed to inflate like a balloon replica of herself, her heavy bosom, each breast shaped like a football, holding the flowery tent out and away from her body.
I wore my usual costume for these mental games with Doctor Marlowe: jeans, sneakers and white socks, and any one of a dozen T-shirts that annoyed my mother. Today's had a beached whale on the front with a stream of black liquid drooling from its mouth. Under it was written Oops, another oil spill.
Emma Marlowe didn't seem to notice what I wore, ever. She was as nervous as usual in my presence and pressed her thick lips together as she smiled so that it looked more like a smothered little laugh.
"The doctor wants you to go directly to her office," she said, her voice thin and high-pitched like someone on the verge of screaming.
That's a relief for both of us, I thought.
"Anyone else here yet?" I asked.
Before she could reply, the doorbell rang and Sophie, who was standing to the side like some doll on a spring, sprung into action. She opened the door and we all looked out at a tall, attractive black girl with braided hair. She wore a light-blue cotton sweater and a dark blue skirt. I immediately thought, that's the figure I hope I have someday when my stupid hormones decide to wake up.
"Oh, Star," Emma Marlowe said. She looked back toward the music as if she was hoping to be rescued. "Come in, come in," she added quickly.
Star? I thought Doctor Marlowe meant that was her last name when she told me that was the name of one of the girls. Misty was hard enough to carry around, but Star? Doctor Marlowe had left out a small detail, too, that she was black.
Star smirked. It was a clear look of disgust, the corners of her mouth tucking in and her ebony eyes narrowing. She stared at me. For a moment it felt as if we were both gunslingers in a Western movie waiting for the other to make the first move. Neither of us did.
"I'm sure the doctor wanted to do all the introductions, but this is Misty," Emma Marlowe said.
"Hi," I said.
"Hi." She looked away from me quickly and practically dared Doctor Marlowe's sister to try to make small talk.
Instead, Emma made dramatic gestures toward the office and stuttered.
"You two can...just...go right on...in."
We walked to the office. Neither Star nor I needed any directions. We had been here enough.
The room was large for an office. One side of it was almost a small living room with two large brown leather sofas, some matching cushion chairs, side tables and a large, round, glass center table. The walls were a rich oak panel and there were French doors facing the rear of the house where she had her pool and her garden. It was facing the west side so if you had an afternoon appointment, the office was as bright as a Broadway stage. Morning appointments not only didn't have the direct sunlight, but when dominated by overcast skies required more lamplight.
I always thought the moods we experienced in this office had to be different on brighter days. You carried your depression and anxiety like overly loaded suitcases into this office and hoped Doctor Marlowe would help you unpack them. Darker days made it harder, the depression heavier.
I used to believe bad memories were stuck to my brain with superglue and if Doctor Marlowe pulled one off, a piece of me went along with it.
Sometimes, Doctor Marlow sat behind her desk and spoke to me while I sat on one of the sofas. I thought she might believe that if she was a little farther away, I would be more open. She did lots of little things like that to test me, and I couldn't wait to compare notes about her with my fellow OWPs.
I went right to my usual sofa and Star paused. I could see what she was thinking.
"Which one do you usually use when you're here?" I asked her.
She glanced at the other and then looked at me sharply.
"What difference does it make?" she replied. I shrugged. She remained standing.
"I always sleep on the right side of my bed. What about you?"
"Huh?" She grimaced and when she did, her eyebrows hinged and her ears actually twitched. I laughed. "What's so damn funny?"
"Your ears moved," I said.
She stared a moment and then she cracked a smile on her black porcelain face. Her complexion was so smooth and clear, it looked like a sculptor had put finishing touches on her just an hour ago in his studio, whereas I had little rashes and pimples breaking out on my forehead and around my chin practically every other day despite my high-priced skin specialist. Mommy blamed it on things I ate when she wasn't around. Doctor Marlowe said stress could cause them, too. If that was the case though, my head should be one giant zit, I thought.
"I know," Star said. "Everyone tells me I do that, but I don't even know I'm doin' it. I sleep on the right side, too," she said after a beat.
"And when you have to sleep on the other for some reason or another, it's a problem, right?"
"Yeah," she admitted and decided to sit on the same sofa I had taken.
"How long have you been seeing her?" she asked me.
I thought a moment.
"I think it's about two years," I said. "How about you?"
"Almost a year. I keep telling my granny I should stop, but she doesn't want me to."
I recalled Doctor Marlowe telling me one of the girls was living with her grandmother.
"You live just with your grandmother?"
"That's right," she said firmly. She looked ready to jump down my throat if I made any sort of negative comment. That was the furthest thing from my mind. Actually, I was envious.
"I never knew my father's parents. His mother died when he was very young and his father died when I was just an infant. My mother's parents live in Palm Springs, but I don't see them much. They're golf addicts. I'd see them more if I became a caddy."
"You know, the person who carries the clubs and stuff."
"One year I gave them golf balls with my picture on them so they could look at me once in a while," I told her, "but they wouldn't use them because they didn't like smacking my face."
Those eyebrows went up again, the ears twitching.
"Are you kidding?"
"Uh huh," I said. "I lie a lot."
She stared a moment and then she broke into a nice laugh.
"Oh," she said. "Yeah, I bet you do."
"Your name is really Star? It's not some kind of a nickname or something?"
She stopped laughing, those ebony eyes blazing like two hot coals.
"Your name's really Misty?" she threw back at me, turning her shoulder as she spoke.
"Yeah," I said. "My mother named me after a movie because she and my father couldn't agree on a name or relative to name me after. How did you get your name? And don't tell me your mother gave birth to you outside one night and named you after the first thing she saw."
Before she could answer, one of the prettiest, most elegant looking teenage girls I had ever seen stepped into the office. She had long, lush brown hair with a metallic rust tint that flowed gently down to her shoulders. Her eyes were green and almond shaped. Her high cheekbones gave her face an impressive angular line that swept gracefully into her jaw and perfectly shaped lips. Her nose was a little small, but also just slightly turned up. Of course, I suspected plastic surgery. She wore a lot more makeup than I would. Who put on eye shadow and liner for a visit to the therapist's? Actually, she reminded me of my own mother, the queen of overdress who single-handedly kept the cosmetic industry profitable.
The new girl wore a designer pants outfit and looked like she was on her way to some fashion show luncheon. I glanced at Star, who looked very disapproving.
"I'm Jade," the new girl announced. "Who are you two? Misty, Star or Cathy?"
"Misty. This is Star," I said, nodding toward Star. "We were just discussing how we got our names. Your parents in the jewelry business?"
Jade stared at me a moment and then glanced at Star to see if we were putting her on or something. She decided not, I guess.
"My parents named me Jade because of my eyes," she said. "Where's the good doctor?" she asked looking toward the empty desk impatiently.
"Getting prepared, I imagine," I said.
"You know, putting on her therapist's mask, sharpening her fingernails."
Star laughed. Jade raised an eyebrow, tightened her lips and then sat gracefully on the other sofa, crossing her legs and sitting back with her head high.
"I don't know if this is a good idea," she said after a moment.
"So why did you come?" Star shot at her.
Jade turned to her with surprise. The expression on her face gave me the feeling she hadn't really looked at her before this and just realized there was a black girl in the group.
"I was reluctant, but Doctor Marlowe talked me into it," she admitted.
"She talked us all into it," Star said, declaring the obvious. "Did you think we all just wanted to come waltzing in here and talk about ourselves to a bunch of strangers?"
Jade squirmed uncomfortably, gazed at her watch and looked toward the door. We heard footsteps and moments later, Doctor Marlowe appeared with a chunky girl who was about as short as I was. She looked older, though. Her dull brown hair lay straggly about her neck and shoulders as if someone had been running a rake through it. The loose gray pullover did little to de-emphasize her really ample bosom; she had breasts that nearly rivaled Emma's. She wore a skirt with a hem that brushed her ankles. Her face was plain, with not even lipstick to bring some brightness to her watery hazel eyes, pale complexion and bland uneven lips. Her mouth twitched nervously.
"Hello girls. Here we are. This is Cathy. Cathy, let me introduce Misty, Star and Jade," Doctor Marlowe added, nodding at each of us. Cathy merely shifted her eyes slightly to glance at us before looking down again. "Cathy, why don't you sit over there next to Jade," Doctor Marlowe suggested.
Cathy looked like she wasn't going to do it. She hesitated a long moment, staring at the seat as if it would swallow her up, and then finally sat.
Doctor Marlowe, dressed in a dark-blue pants suit, sat in one of the centrally placed cushioned chairs so she could face all of us. Usually, before a session ended, she would take off her jacket and walk about with her hands clasped behind her. Right now, she pressed her long, thin fingers together at the tips and smiled. My mother would notice that she wore no expensive rings and an inexpensive watch. Mostly, she would notice her fingernails were not polished.
Doctor Marlowe had a hard smile to read. Her eyes really did brighten with interest and pleasure after some of the things I said, but her face moved so mechanically at times, I suspected everything she did, down to her smallest gestures, was contrived for a planned psychological result. She kept her dirty-blond hair trimmed neatly at her ears. She wore silver clip-on earrings but no necklace. Her milk-white silk blouse with pearl buttons was closed at her throat.
Our therapist wasn't particularly pretty. Her nose was a bit too long and her lips too thin. Unlike her older sister, she did have a trim figure, but she was very tall for a woman, at least six feet one. Because her legs were so long, when she sat, the knees came up amusingly high. I think from her waist up accounted for only a third of her body; however, she had long arms so that she could sit back and nearly place her palms over her knees. Perhaps being so awkward had made her concentrate more on being a brain than a beauty.
My mother often commented about Doctor Marlowe's hairstyle and clothes, claiming she could do wonders with her if she had a chance to make her over. My mother believed in the miraculous power of hairstylists and plastic surgeons. In her mind they could even achieve world peace. Just get rid of ugly people and no one would argue about anything.
"I assume the three of you had a chance to introduce yourselves," Doctor Marlowe began.
"Barely," Jade replied, the words dripping out of the corner of her mouth.
"Good. I want us to do all the talking and revelations here together."
"I still don't understand what we're doin'," Star snapped. "We haven't been told much and some of us," she added glaring at Jade, "aren't exactly happy about it."
"I know, Star, but a lot of this has to do with trust. If we don't take small risks, we'll never make progress and get anywhere."
"Where we supposed to be goin'?" she demanded.
Jade's beautiful lips folded into a small smile and Cathy nearly lifted her gaze from the floor.
"Home," Doctor Marlowe replied, those eyes filling with an almost impish glee as she rose to the challenge. "Back to yourself, Star. Back to who you are supposed to be, who you want to be. Back to good weather, out of the storms, out of the cold angry rain, out from under those dark clouds," she continued.
When she spoke like this in her soft, therapist's melodic voice, she sounded so good, none of us could prevent ourselves from listening. Even Cathy looked up at her, as if she held out the promise of life and happiness and all Cathy had to do was reach for it.
"Away from the pain," Doctor Marlowe continued. "That's where we're supposed to go. Ready for that, Star?"
She glanced at me and just nodded.
"This is going to be simple, girls. You're all going to do most of the talking. I'm really just a listener, and when one of you is speaking, the others will listen along with me."
"You mean we just sit here like potted plants? We can't ask questions?" Jade inquired.
"What do you all think? You set the rules. Can you ask each other questions?" she threw back at us.
"Yes," I said. "Why not?"
Doctor Marlowe looked at Star and Cathy. Star nodded, but Cathy looked away.
"Well, maybe we should just start and see how it goes," Doctor Marlowe decided.
"What exactly are we supposed to tell?" Jade asked.
"In each session, each of you will tell your story," she said with a small shrug. "I've scheduled four sessions in a row for this."
"Our story? I got no story," Star said.
"You know you do, Star. Each of you just start wherever you want. Here you are today. How did you get here?"
"My chauffeur brought me," Jade said.
"Come on, Jade. You know what I mean," Doctor Marlowe said.
Jade sat back, folding her arms, suddenly looking impregnable, defying our good doctor to uncork her bottle of secrets.
"So who's going to start?" Star demanded.
Doctor Marlowe looked at Cathy who turned even whiter. She glanced at Jade, passed her dark eyes over Star and settled on me.
"I'd like Misty to start," she said. "She's been with me the longest. That okay with you, Misty?"
"Sure," I said. I looked at the others. "Once upon a time I was born. My parents tried to give me back, but it was too late."
Jade laughed and Star smiled widely. Cathy's eyes widened.
"Come on," Doctor Marlowe urged. "Let's make good use of our time."
She gave me that look down her nose she often gives me when she wants me to try to be serious.
I took a deep breath.
"Okay," I said. I sat a bit forward. "I'll begin. I don't mind telling my story." I looked at them all and smiled. "Maybe someone will make it into a movie and it'll win an Academy Award."
Cat Copyright © 1999 by the Vanda General Partnership
Jade Copyright © 1999 by the Vanda General Partnership
Star Copyright © 1999 by the Vanda General Partnership
Misty Copyright © 1999 by the Vanda General Partnership
The Wildflowers (omnibus)
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