“Julia tells her therapist how soft her lover’s hands are”: inside a therapy session, by Christchurch writer Laura Borrowdale
Julia remembers her father’s fingers curling around the head of her newborn baby. They are long, the nails rectangular and pared, clean, pink and white, like the baby. The baby’s head fills one of his hands and he uses the other to cradle her body neatly to him. He has his hands full, which is why, when the tears start to leak out of his eyes, he has to turn away, towards the window in the corner of the hospital room. He cries slowly into the light. Julia lies on the bed and watches them rocking from side to side in silhouette. She drifts to sleep as her father stands crying with the baby.
Julia doesn’t remember him passing the baby back. She doesn’t remember him going, but she thinks that there has always been this feeling of leaving.
She asks her therapist what is wrong with her. The therapist doesn’t answer of course, not directly. She leans back in her comfortable chair and tells Julia that it is good to ask questions. Julia would really prefer some answers, but it’s like no one has any of those.
Julia thinks about her new lover. He isn’t like her father in any way she can see. His voice turns her on. It’s like Tony Soprano on the other end of the phone, and Julia is Jennifer Melfi, or she’s Carmella, or she’s Adrianna. When she closes her eyes, she can feel the sensation of her cheek pressed into his chest, into the crease where, when he lies on his side, one pectoral muscle hangs horizontally above the other. Julia would like to put her head there every night.
Julia wants to offer her therapist a trigger warning, although she realises how silly that is, given her job. She’s already questioning the way she is trying to moderate the story that she is delivering. It’s an urge that should probably be challenged. But the therapist doesn’t say that. Maybe because Julia does not tell her that she knows she is doing it.
Instead, Julia tells her how soft her lover’s hands are, as though the skin has been buffed clean of all lines and whorls. When she thinks hard, she remembers how they feel when he slips his fingers up into her hair, pulling until Julia gasps. She is unsure if she is gasping for him, or for herself. Julia tries to explain to her therapist how relationships feel performative to her. She wonders if her urge to tell a story means that she is as performative a patient as she is a lover. The therapist just waits for her to get to the point.
So instead, Julia tells her that the roundness of her new lover’s head surprises her, that his perfect scalp is pink like her baby’s was when it was cradled deep in the crook of her father’s arm. It is the emptiest part of her lover’s whole body.
Julia tells her therapist that she doesn’t know why she is saying all of this, that the small physical details of this man are not what she came here to discuss. Shouldn’t she really be talking about the break up she’s just had? Or the one before that? Or, if Julia really wanted to get into it, maybe her father and the way he left her holding the baby?
Julia is here because there was a moment when she was thinking of one lover, of the way his dark hair is blue under the skin when he shaves it away, of how he stands in a dancer’s pose, of how he holds her body as though it is both robust and breakable, while the lover she had just left contorted and twisted himself into something demonic on the sidewalk in front of her house. Julia never thought this would be possible for her. And yet, here she is.
Julia describes this to her therapist as though she saw it from a distance, as though she weren’t there, as though she wasn’t the woman, her arms folded, her body soft in supplication, agreeing with the raging bull of a man who launched himself over the concrete, stopping just short of her. That woman clutched her sweatshirt to her chest. She said “I know,” softly, to his allegations. Admitting her transgressions was like blowing on a fire and his foot collided with her car, the panel crumpling where he slammed into it. That woman flinched and he turned towards her, his face a stranger’s. She would have cried if she could, but she was frozen.
“You whore,” her old lover screams. “I know,” Julia says.
Julia tries to give her therapist the facts as objectively as possible. She talks about herself in third person, as though maybe that’s better than first. The therapist nods. She is patient. She doesn’t state the obvious. She lets silence grow between them both, and Julia sits, with her heart breaking. There still aren’t any answers.
When Julia leaves the rooms, she gets in her car and drives to her daughter’s school. She sits in the front seat, and watches the children burst out of the building and into the street, their brightly coloured backpacks flashing yellow and green and blue as they turn and spin like dancers.
Julia can see her daughter, two plaits and a red sweater, standing on the steps. She is surrounded by other children and she laughs, her face cracking open.
Tonight Julia will take this child home. She will undo the plaits and brush out the soft tendrils of baby hair. Even while she gets everything else wrong, this part will be right.
“Father Figure” is taken from the short story collection Sex, with Animals by Laura Borrowdale (Dead Bird Books, $30), available in selected bookstores nationwide, such as Scorpio Books in Christchurch and Strange Haven at 281 Karangahape Road, or directly from the publisher.