He startles my body in ways I didn’t know it could be startled. Drinks of water, vinegar, and cayenne pepper make my stomach turn, leave me light-headed and chilled. Before I leave he feeds me tiny chocolate bars, laced with lavender and salt.
I am cleansing, or so he tells me. When this is all said and done I will be a better person, more in charge of my life than I have ever been before.
I can accept the fact that I am a person in need of cleansing. I go home at night and my apartment is falling apart around me. The dishes need washed and some of them have been on the counter for a very long time. The floor needs swept. The edges of my bathtub are turning brown with soap: blue soap, yellow soap, all of those colored bars that have washed me clean, but have never been washed off the tub. There is a leak in my bedroom roof and the floor below is always damp. I have buckets I could put beneath the leak, but I never think of them. Instead, I gaze in wonder when I come into my bedroom one day and see a small orange fungus rising from the carpet, reaching towards the sky, magnificent in its newfound life, born in a place it never imagined it would be.
The man who cleanses me asks me to refer to him as doctor. Dr. Brown. I assume that Brown is not his real name, just as I assume that he is not really a doctor. His office is in the basement of his house. His house is in a shady part of the city, a neighborhood where the houses seem to slant to the side, exhausted with their place in this life, and many of them have boarded up windows, victims of rocks and baseballs, kids who roam these streets with nothing better to do than to heave whatever happens to be in sight.
This is not a neighborhood I would ever drive through with my car doors unlocked. And yet I routinely come here, slip down into the basement of this man’s falling down house, and disrobe.
Sometimes I feel that my priorities are skewed.
More often I feel that I never really had any priorities to begin with. Everything I do has been dictated to me by an outside force: parents, friends, men I have dated who have tried to hijack my life, often with the best intentions. “Please lock your apartment door when you go to sleep at night,” they said. “You never know who could try to get in.”
I would awake on those nights, hearing their voices in my head, knowing that my door was still unlocked, and I would hear sounds, all sorts of sounds coming from the living room. Many of the sounds were in my head, but some of them weren’t. The apartment building was old with plenty of bending, creaking parts. And I would lay there listening, feeling more curious than afraid. If someone were to come in, who would it be? What would be their purpose in my apartment at this time of night?
I was never frightened.
Dr. Brown leads me down the steps into his office. It smells old and moldy, like damp newspapers and dirt, just the way a basement should. One wall is fully covered with shelves, which I imagine once held a family’s pantry. Jars of jelly. Boxes of rice. Can upon can of soup and vegetables. Now the shelves house Dr. Brown’s supplies: vinegar, pepper, apple juice, and many other bottles of liquids that are unmarked, unnamed. This is where most of the cleansing takes place.
In the center of the room there is a massage table. Dr. Brown insists that cleansing a body begins with cleansing each muscle, ridding it of all the tension a muscle could harbor. He says that he trained to be a masseuse for many years. I had never had a massage before I met Dr. Brown. I have no way of knowing if his words or fingers are telling me the truth. All I know is that when I lay down on the table, I come close to losing myself in his touch, but I have never completely lost myself, just as I have never completely lost myself with anyone. I am simply there, hovering on the edge, feeling my muscles relax, watching the flickering of the candles out the corner of my eye.
There are candles, too. There are always candles when Dr. Brown is involved.
He works in silence. I wish there could be music, but Dr. Brown says that music would interfere with the cleansing. He kneads my shoulders, the muscles along my back. He tells me I am very afraid. That is the root of your troubles, he says. All that fear.
I listen to him because he is my doctor. I drink the cleansing liquids he mixes for me in glasses painted with gaudy yellow flowers, the kind of glasses my grandma had before she modernized her kitchen and never turned back. I wait patiently as my body turns upon itself, roiling in shock as it digests the unmarked liquids it has been served.
When I am this sick, I feel apart from my body, a spirit on the ceiling watching myself convulse. I wonder if this is what it means to cleanse, to push your body so far to the edge that your soul goes running. I could ask Dr. Brown, but I don’t have the strength to speak. My thoughts break into a million pieces. Words collapse.
Later, in the safety of my falling down apartment, I consider this notion of fear. I have never thought of myself as afraid, but it might be so. There is plenty in the world to be afraid of: burglars, rapists, murderers, rare and deadly diseases, car accidents, leprechauns, death. And yet I have never really considered any of these things a threat.
I pour myself a glass of cranberry and vodka and think back.
I once stepped into oncoming traffic. There were so many cars, cars upon cars, and I was tired of waiting. Brakes squealed, horns blared, but I made it to the other side.
I once had a cat that had kittens. I remember watching her get larger and larger, her belly extending beyond her whiskers, throwing off her balance. Everyone who saw her was happy. Kittens, they told me. Soon your apartment is going to be filled with playing kittens. It’s going to be so much fun.
I didn’t see the fun, though. When I saw her waddling towards me, purring, eager to be petted, I felt only impending doom. My apartment wasn’t a place for kittens. It wasn’t even a place for me. I imagined them slipping into my soapy tub, breaking their tiny legs, and howling into the shower walls, shrieks of pain I wouldn’t hear because I would be sleeping, or worse, not even home. I imagined them climbing the curtains, shredding the material with their claws, and then falling to the floor, unaware of how dangerous a shredded curtain could be. I couldn’t follow these future kittens. I couldn’t protect them from the world or even from themselves.
And so I gave my cat away before the kittens were even born. I was sad to see her go, but I felt weightless at the thought of a world without her.
And that was nothing compared to the pregnancy scare.
When I finish my cranberry vodka, I talk to the bird who replaced my cat. I tell him all about my day, my visit to Dr. Brown, the fact that the root of all my problems is that I’m afraid. The bird doesn’t answer me. It’s not even a talking bird. It’s only a canary I bought at the pet store for fifteen dollars, a deal according to the salesman, despite the fact that there were many other canaries, each identical to my own.
I am waiting for Dr. Brown to mix me my cleansing drink when the police storm his basement. Before Dr. Brown even knows how to react, men in uniforms weighed down by pockets, so many pockets filled with radios and handcuffs and who knows what else, pin him to the wall and read him his rights. I watch the whole scene in silence. I’m not frightened.
After Dr. Brown is led away, one of the officers approaches me, asks if I’m all right. “All right,” I say. “Of course, I’m all right. That was my doctor.”
“He’s not really a doctor.” The officer looks me over. “We should take you to the hospital.”
I ignore his suggestion. “If he’s not a doctor, then what is he?”
“He’s a scam artist.”
I wonder what part of my treatment was a scam. Dr. Brown may not have been a doctor, but he made me feel better, sometimes. And he tried to understand me. Wasn’t that the first part of healing? Understanding?
The officer takes my arm. “Really,” he says. “We should get you to the hospital.”
I shake him off. I don’t want to go to the hospital. “I don’t feel sick,” I say. “We weren’t even to the cleansing yet.”
He doesn’t know what I’m talking about, but he doesn’t have to. I’m not going to the hospital and my fierce expression tells him so. I cross my arms over my chest and stare him down until he says fine and backs away up the stairs.
I am finally alone in the basement. I survey the massage table, the candles that have been blown out and are cooling, the light that tumbles through the tiny windows above. In this moment, the office has lost its magic. It’s just a basement once again, a dream rejected by reality.
I turn to the shelves stacked with marked and unmarked liquids. Without thinking about what I’m doing, I take an unmarked jar, stuff it under my shirt, and hurry up the stairs to where the police are waiting to take down my name, number, and statement. All the petty details of my existence. All the details that aren’t even worth remembering.
I don’t get in my car.
I wait for the police to drive away and then I begin to walk. The October sun shines down on me, bright, tenuous. The leaves burn red and yellow and brown. I shuffle under them, through them. I wish I could shield my eyes.
There is always too much. Too much to see. Too much to feel.
I think of the baby. The baby I thought I was going to have. I remember sitting down on the couch once I realized I was late. I remember the ache in my chest, my abdomen, the way the room swirled. I remember thinking: feet, kicking feet; hands, tiny hands; and a mind, a mind like mine.
That was what scared me the most-that mind.
I come to a coffee shop tucked into the bottom of an old brick building and without making a conscious decision to do so, I step inside and order a latte. I take a seat by the window and watch the people stroll past. A few tables over, a man catches my eye, stares at me like I am a cherry Danish.
I am not afraid of him. I am composed of nothing he can take.
I remember the day I understood my mind. I was four years old and my mom was driving me home from day care. The car windows were rolled down to let in the sunlight, the fresh summer air, and I thought: I exist. I exist and I am separate. And in the glory of that existence, that separation, came the knowledge of a whole vast world bearing down on me, a world that was never going to go away. It was amazing then. It became less amazing with time.
The man a few tables over continues to watch me. When it seems like I might notice him, he smiles. He might be the one to save me, assuming I can be saved. I don’t really assume anything. I reach under my coat, pull out the unmarked bottle. I pour the liquid into my coffee, more liquid than Dr. Brown ever prescribed for me, set the cup aside, and gaze out the window at the pressing shades of the passing day, wondering how much I must break myself in order to feel better.