The way you cut your meat

Originally published in ISSUE #6: Addiction

I wish I could say that these visits got easier – that the echo of my steps down the hallway were less ominous, that the air did not drop a few degrees with each room that I passed, that my heart did not sink halfway down my stomach whenever I stepped into the building, that my experience was any less cliché. But all of these things are true, and she said I had to accept what truths I knew.

My truth, every Wednesday afternoon after work, is this: my quick yet valiant trek into an old building just across Jalan Ampang with a faded, dull façade yet a surprisingly modern and sleek interior.

It was my mother’s idea, as such things often were. You’d think that after 20 years of being unarguably fat, she’d be pleased at my new figure. I had worked hard at it – finally listened to what she said and actually thought about the things I put into my mouth. Apparently, if you really pay attention, you can talk yourself out of eating most things. Or in my case, almost everything.

I blame my bone structure. I am my father’s daughter in nearly every respect, which means that I inherited his flat bum and broad shoulders, his incessant tick of a cough and his weak knees. More importantly, I am built straight as a rod.

I do not have the curves of my aunts and mother, that luscious hourglass figure highlighted in the numerous wrap dresses they wore in the 70s. Zaman jahiliyyah, they called it – an age of ignorance. Now they’re figures of matronly wealth, their waists having nicely rounded and protruded with each child, their abdomens bearing the scars and wounds of life inhabited. They no longer wear skintight leggings or pile their hair up in wondrous ‘dos, but they dress in the appropriate calm of shariah-compliant garb. Sometimes my cousins and I study the rows of pictures of yore in my aunt’s home, and we shudder at how hot our mothers were once, and we remember that we’re the harbingers of the same genes, those overweight shadows of middle-aged contentment.

But it is my lack of those curves that rang my mother’s internal alarm: she was concerned that I had developed an eating disorder. The very idea is ridiculous. For one thing, I never weigh myself on a scale – a childhood of being taunted by my peers taught me that knowing a number is just another way for the world to put me down. Instead, I measured my progress by the number of bones I could see. Where before I was just a singular blob of lipids and flabby skin, I could now see the bony joints of my kneecaps, my shinbones, the metacarpal ridges on my fingers, my huge clavicles. It’s not my fault that when all my bones were unearthed, I’d prove to have no more shape to me than a young sapling.

Apparently my shape was not only aesthetically displeasing – it was disconcerting. So Ibu spoke to Abah, her voice high-octaved and her words too quick to make sense, and they escorted me to my first meeting with Dr Salmah, BSc (Psychology), MD (Psychology), PhD (Eating Disorders).

Dr Salmah’s office is a dull colour – taupe in all its cold, unimaginative misery – but besides that it is rather impressive, with wall-to-wall bookshelves and warm, floor-length curtains that sweep the carpeted floor. She sits behind a long metal table with minimal decorations on it to distract; a picture of her five young children, another picture of her with her husband (a handsome guy with dark skin and greyed temples, like a slightly shorter Obama), and a paperback copy of Yusuf Ali’s Qur’an transliteration. Always constant in her hands are the mahogany beads, a beautiful rosary which was marinated during its make in rich attar oil, smelling like wildflowers. She handed them to me once during one of our sessions, and they felt as lovely as they looked and smelled. But in her hands the beads are constantly moving, passing through her fingers in silent utterance of prayer; in my hands, the rosary is still and I clutch it, pressing one bead to each thumb until I feel nothing there.

The first time I came to see her, my father spoke enough for the three of us, his chatter in nervous situations yet another thing I inherited from his side of the family. My mother interjected here and there with facts and observations, all of them somehow coming out like poorly-disguised insults. I dealt with it the only way I knew how – by being silent and pretending that none of this was grating to my nerves, that I had nothing to say. Dr Salmah had seen this, I suppose, because she made my parents swear to not mention these sessions to me once we left her office; told them that it was important for me to set the prerogative and come to these sessions punctually and by myself and to not share them with anyone, including the ones who love me most. As she said all this, her eyes were solely on mine and what I saw there made me cry. I didn’t recognise that look, and the next Wednesday I came to her office to find it again, only it wasn’t there. All she had for me were neutral smiles and silent nods, barely visible in the dim lighting and the reds and oranges of the shadows.

But today is going to be different, I can tell.

Because for one thing, Ibu had called ahead, with something to ‘discuss’. She had been rather good with her promise to Dr Salmah, not interfering, asking me only the basest questions with minimal prying. But something she’d seen in me lately had bit her tongue so hard she could not stay it – I could almost see her lips purse every time she glanced at me – and she’d made the call in front of Shafiq.

“Angah,” he’d said as he leaned against my doorframe, “Ibu called your shrink. She was frantic, you know, like she always is lah. But I thought you’d like a warning.”

Here we are. I knock at the door, clear my throat, give the salaam – the good doctor always insisted.

“Come in.”

When I enter, the curtains aren’t drawn yet, and a four-window expanse of the city moves behind her hunched shoulders and bent head, a view all metal and steel and tired souls. She writes in a fast and efficient longhand with dramatic strokes and ominous dots where the sentences stop. She never writes when we sit on her long camel velvet couch; she leaves her hands free to support her chin or to hug her knees when the office thermostat dips a touch too low. I feel she’s post-patient and scrambling to write down everything before she forgets, as she often does, and so she ignores me after shooting a brilliant smile my way, all teeth and dimples.

“Sasha,” she mutters after I’ve picked up an old Financial Times, “thank you for waiting for me. Just a moment.”

“No problem, Doctor.”

She looks up again, an apologetic smile this time. “My last patient had a lot to say.”

I try a smile. “I bet.”

“Lucky for us, you don’t usually say much, kan?”

I don’t know what to say. She’s correct – I am guarded, and only because I’m far too old to trust anyone completely and I’ve watched too much television to not know how it goes. She talks to me, finds a particularly deep wound and splits it raw again, I cry and pour my heart out, she comes with a diagnosis and a solution, I use her ten-step plan to accept my world and learn to move ahead. Yet it seems she favours the long way round; this is my sixth session with her and so far her questions have been less than probing. More time is spent staring at each other, me trying to match, if not fully return the huge grin she has on her face every time I look her way. Being that perky is tiring, or has been since I started my diet.

I hear a loud scratchy plop to my right, and I know that Dr Salmah has landed. This time she folds her feet into the lotus position, her wide trousers billowing in grey folds. She claps her hands together once and we begin.

“Let’s start with the Ummul-Kitab, al-Fatihah.”

We fold our hands in prayer. I did not expect this when I first started with her, although it does make sense – my mother and her sisters have undergone a transformation in the past decade towards the more religious, and it is inevitable that she would choose for me a psychologist who would rely on prayer as a sword rather than a crutch. I look at her diploma from John Hopkins and rebuke myself about prejudices and such.

I think I surprise her when I speak first. “My brother told me that my mother spoke to you.”

“Yes she did.”

“I don’t know why.”

“Well,” — and how does that smile never falter at all?  — “she was concerned about your eating habits. She said that you have been making some…peculiar choices lately.”

“But I’m eating more than I have eaten in over a year.”

“It’s the selection of foods, she says. Something about you craving things that are…difficult to find?” She offers her hand palm-up before saying, “You brought your food diary today?”

“I did.” I flip it open, and there’s no hiding the long gap of empty pages at the beginning. After about a minute I reach a page with actual scribbling on it, but I know what it says – Jacobs crackers, cheese, raw carrots, steamed broccoli, raw spinach – and even those lines are sparse on the yellowed and ruled pages.

“A more recent entry? Read it out loud, please.” There is something smooth about the way she knows that I know that she is only trying to instil responsibility in my eating choices by not even asking to look at the diary herself. Very smooth, but like I said, I’ve watched too much TV.

“‘Fatteh – chickpeas, tahini, toasted Lebanese bread, parsley, paprika, almonds, pine nuts.’”

Her eyes crinkle at the corners, like she desperately wants to laugh; she laughs a lot in our sessions, even when I don’t intend to be funny. “That sounds absolutely delicious. Palestinian?”

I shrug. “Arab.”

“Yes. Okay. Go on.”

“‘Had a craving for dolmeh – couldn’t logically find any vine leaves; substituted with stuffed capsicum instead.’”

She nods. “I’ve had that – not a big fan.” Her mouth quirks, and I understand – I wasn’t sure what had gotten into me that night. “Any more?”

“‘Eritrean milk with tea – boiled a cup of milk and chucked in one of Opah’s masala chai bags. Tasted near enough. Fried some falafel, had it with tahini and Lebanese bread. I miss Yara.’”

“Sorry?”

“Lebanese bread?”

“No,” she says, leaning forward. “After that.”

“It’s not about food –“

“Never mind, doesn’t have to be. You missed…Yara, was it? A friend?”

I nod since my throat seems to have closed in. I feel compelled to tell her more about Yara – to explain that no, she’s not just a friend, she’s a really good friend, one of the best, and I wouldn’t have lasted my third year at uni without her.

My silence doesn’t deter the good doctor. “So, Sasha, when was the last time you had milky tea before this?”

“Milk with tea,” I correct her. “And…maybe four years now?”

“And that would be the last time you met Yara?”

I nod again. It’s all a bit of a haze, that cold night in spring when I stayed in the little guest house in Yara’s backyard. There was a large hotplate heaped with falafel and a small radiant heater in between us, and upon seeing that my hands were empty, her mother swooped in and made me a falafel sandwich, crushing two patties of refried beans and folding it into warm leaven bread. Her big brown eyes waited for my verdict as I chewed, and I remember thinking how beautiful she looked with the large peacock green shawl draped over her head and tunic. Yara pushed a mug of milk and tea into my hand, and we sat there and talked about Bollywood movies and how they made us cry, and boys and how we (she, really) made them cry.

“Were you very close to Yara, Sasha?”

“Yes.”

She clears her throat unusually; I think, I’ve finally broken her.

“A very good friend.”

When I keep my quiet for a long moment, she pulls out a small bolster and unfurls it – it turns out to be a rolled-up flannel blanket. Touché.

There’s a knowing grin. “I’m not going anywhere, Sasha.”

“Are we really going to start with the blackmail, Doctor?”

It works. She flinches, and then sighs.

“You know that this is only so I understand you better, Sasha. I know nothing about you. I’ve got a blank slate and it’s only a quarter full.”

“What if I’m not ready to share?”

She raises an eyebrow; I add it up to her list of facial expressions. “If you feel up to facing your mother with no way to deal with it.”

I admit, I did not see it that way before. “Do you report to her nowadays?”

“No,” she says, “but I like to have options. Answers, in case she’s wondering if her daughter is getting any better.”

“But I’m not sick. You know that, right?”

There is some hesitation before she nods, which is answer enough. “So I’m not sick, but I’m troubled.”

She shrugs, her head tilting to the side, childlike. “A little. But we all are, a bit.”

“So why am I here again?” I’ve never asked this question before.

“Because, well…Sasha, sometimes I think I’m the only person you talk to.”

I shrug back at her, and when she sees my purposeful tilt to the head she laughs. This is why I distrust her – how can someone so open keep so many secrets? It doesn’t make sense to me. Not even when Aise and Hesna stopped talking to each other and started pouring all their secrets to me, each full of faith in my confidence, when I had none to spare.

“I don’t have much to say. To anyone. Really.”

I hate that she smiles as though she understands. “Well, at any rate, I find this new development in your eating habits interesting. You’ve got a rather exotic palette there. Palestinian – well, Arab – and Turkish and Eritrean. So you mentioned that Yara was the last person you had falafel with.” She waits for me to nod before continuing. “How about the last time you had dolmeh? Did you have it by yourself?”

“I don’t know how to make dolmeh. I got some from this restaurant in Bukit Bintang.”

“I mean before this. Who made it for you? Or was it from a shop as well?”

I think hard – it’s a toss-up between Nural, Hesna and Aise, although it was always Nural’s mother who fed me; she felt that I looked like someone who appreciated food, and also something about my being a student in a foreign land. She’d make this beautiful eggplant dish with mince, something like Imam biyaldi; the name comes from this story where an imam had been fed an eggplant dish so delicious he’d fainted. He’d biyaldi-ed. I could understand how Nural’s mom’s cooking could do that to someone. Some imam biyaldi, stove-cooked fluffy rice and thick, strong cay with baklava.

“I think it was my friend’s mother,” I say. “She made dolmeh using every hollow vegetable you could imagine. My favourite was the stuffed tomatoes.”

“Mm,” Dr Salmah hums, hugging herself. “I had those vine leave dolmehs and capsicum dolmehs, but tomatoes? Sounds absolutely delicious. This room’s temperature, I could use something warm. Here, you’d better be ready.”

I tuck the red flannel blanket around me and watch as the lights automatically dim in tandem with the sky outside, its orange and brown hues fusing into the room. A few skyscrapers outside seem to sparkle as they reflect the late afternoon light – too close and they would be blinding. “It’s a lovely view you have. I forget how KL can look so…”

“Desperately striking?” She glances outside. “I hope you don’t mind that I left the curtains open today. I wanted the view to keep us company. I imagine you don’t see this often from where you live.”

“No, I don’t.”

“But you’re seeing this through very foreign eyes, aren’t you, Sasha? When we talk about home and life, you sound like a visitor, merely passing through, thank you very much.”

I feel myself smile; I must be too tired. “Sometimes I feel like I am. Kuala Lumpur is just so different from Chicago.”

“Oh, I felt that way too, for the longest time.” She leans forward and rests her chin in her palm, and she suddenly looks too young for me to resent her. “When I first got back from Dublin, KL was just so rough in comparison, you know? Bustling, hectic, buildings and buildings everywhere, blocking the sky. It was a surprise, even though I anticipated the shock. Which is funny, because I grew up here most of my life – I went to BBGS, used to walk around everywhere, and now my old school’s replaced with a shopping mall too fancy for me to bother with.”

I shrug. “Chicago is a big city too.”

“True. Dublin is more quiet, a bit more rustic. You’d find it boring, maybe. But I liked it. And it was where I became myself. You know?”

I don’t reply. Mostly because I understand her question so clearly that my chest feels like it has caved in on itself, and there is nothing there except all the words I’ve refused to say for the last four years. My heart races, my blood pumps so loudly I can hear my eardrums thud, and I feel my hand move to my handbag, only of course my phone isn’t there – Dr Salmah has a no-phones policy during sessions. I’d have to cross over the sofas to get to her table, and even if I swiped it open I would find nothing there for me – no messages, no missed calls, no emails.

I don’t remember crying, and I only notice it because she’s pushed forward a box of tissues. I half expected her to be the kind to lend a comforting arm and a shoulder when her patient cries, but she never moves from her seat. Her legs are folded underneath a pillow and she wears that same smile untiring. She is still.

“What foods don’t you eat, Sasha? From what country, I mean?”

“Why?” I sniff. “Are you planning on cooking for my next session?”

She laughs, and it echoes around the huge office, bouncing off the walls into a cackle. Do her partners never complain? “Oh, my husband’s the cook. I just make desserts, but he loves me like that. Anything you can’t imagine swallowing?” She waves her hand. “Oh, just anything, off the top of your head.”

“Swedish,” I blurt.

“No,” she says, and I can’t figure out whether the look of dismay is just a show, meant for me. “Swedish meatballs?”

I nod.

“But those are the best! And with lingonberry jam too! Oh, Sasha.”

I chuckle. “It’s easy enough to avoid over here.”

“Well, yes, I suppose, although I can’t imagine going to IKEA and not having the meatballs – travesty! Did you know anyone Swedish, who maybe fed you really bad meatballs? Is that why you aren’t friends anymore?”

“I knew a boy.” Boy – a man – but really, a boy, with longish white blonde curls and deep blue eyes – people call that shade of blue ‘cornflower’ but I had never seen cornflowers in the wild, not until I had seen his eyes – and he was a man with stubble and height and muscle – but a boy with careless tongue and heartless insults – and how he rejected me – because I was stupid – and how he spewed words at me – because of my skin and how I was everything he didn’t want – and how he made me feel small – and how he wanted me to leave – and I did, I did, I did.

“Did he do anything to you, Sasha?” Her eyes and mouth are quirked and concerned.

“Nothing, really. But he did break my heart in ways I never understood until him.”

“Hm.” I can see she wishes she had something else to hold, like pen and paper, rather than her huge throw pillow.

“It totally sucks balls,” I find myself saying, “because I used to like cured salmon before him. Now even seeing the word ‘gravlax’ makes me want to vomit.”

She laughs and it is a relief. “I’m sorry I brought it up.”

“Eh. It’s okay.”

“Back to more pleasant things, then. Like this fatteh you mentioned. It sounds good and I think my darling husband would like to try it – please, please tell me it doesn’t require cooking anything over a fire.”

“Well, you’ll have to toast the bread over a grill –”

“No!”

“—but that’s about it. All the ingredients I mentioned. Just toss them together. It’s like a salad.”

“I can do a salad! Sort of. Well, not really, but Jani is so nice he eats anything anyway. My children are pickier, but whatever lah kan.” I envy the smile she wears – this new smile, which lights up her face and makes her beautiful. “Your friends made this for you?”

I shake my head. “I tried it for the first time at this Moroccan soup bar the kids all took me to for my farewell – all of them Arab in some way or other – and they forced me to do the dabke in the restaurant with them.” I sigh. “It was tremendous. I should have been sad, but I think it never really hit me that this could be the last time I ever see them.”

Her eyes are soft, and she nudges the tissues closer to me. “Is it, though? They’ll come visit you, right? And you’ll visit them?”

“It’s not the same.”

“How isn’t it the same?”

It’s a trap – my education in TV psychology tells me it is – and yet I can’t resist. “Because that moment is there and then it’s gone. And after I left Chicago, in my Facebook feed I can see them move on with their lives, even after they told me, ‘I wish you could stay, Sasha, I wish you didn’t have to go, I wish we could keep you’. And I know that when I go back – because I will go back to Chicago – things will have changed and they will be different people. We used to spend our lives together and now we’re not, and they will have so many new things I don’t know about them, half our time will be spent just catching up. I never had to catch up with them before.”

“But people move on,” she says, “it’s what we do.” The answer is so typical it’s disappointing.

I tell her so.

“Simple truths are disappointing,” she concedes. “We want our problems to be grand and complicated, and while they’re usually the latter, they’re not necessarily the former. It doesn’t make them less important. That’s why my job exists – too often we’re just avoiding the simple truths and looking for complicated answers.”

“I could use some simple truths,” I say. “I don’t think I deal well with complicated maybes.”

“I believe nobody does. The best answers are simple.”

What is simple is how much I miss Ahmed, Sara, Mahmoud, Widad and Muna. I miss them in a way that is difficult to breach with technology the way they try to feed you in advertisements – as though video calls could compare to looking people in the eyes, and that messaging each other every other minute was a valid substitute to lying in the grass, sun and sky sheltering us from every other damned thing outside the bubble of us. Every time I say hello to one of them online, I leave our interaction a little empty, like something has been taken from our friendship every time we pretend that this is one way to stay in touch. Maybe I cannot reconcile pixels with the epithelial cells that make up Widad’s shade of dark brown, and perhaps it jars me a little that Ahmed’s eyelashes can’t be seen clearly, not even with HD resolution.

“I just miss them,” I say instead. “Nothing compares to just being with them. I’m still trying to find a substitute, but I come out empty.”

“I know you’re still trying to come up with a substitute.” This time she pulls out a box of chocolate-covered almonds, and the texture of the confection is too grainy and far too sweet, but I take one anyway. “Remember what we talked about in the beginning? About emotional eating?”

“Eating my feelings.” I smirk before saying, “You know, I was fat before not because I ate my feelings – I just ate.”

She seems torn, like she wants to laugh but isn’t sure if she should; I chalk one more victory for me. “Well, yes, Sasha. But we also talked about how it’s important to not fall into the trap of eating our feelings, when we start eating again.”

“You really do write everything down after we talk.”

“Yes, I am that good.” She smiles. “So I see that you’ve taken our last few sessions to heart – very good. It’s progress. I just want you to be aware what you’re doing.”

“Oh, it’s me now? I thought it was ‘we’ that’s doing the eating?”

“You know, I can keep this up all night, darling.”

“That’s what she said.”

She laughs; another one for my victory board. “I watch that show too. It’s terrifying in a hilarious way. And you’re using borrowed humour from pop culture as a method of avoidance. Shall we continue?”

“Yes.”

“You’re eating very specific foods nowadays. I told your mother not to worry, because it’s not like you’re bingeing. I think she just doesn’t really trust you in the kitchen.”

I reply her raised eyebrows with a shrug. “She says I slice onions and vegetables too coarsely.”

“Hmm. But more importantly, I see you’re eating foods that are loaded with memories, if not some serious carbs. Look at your food diary and tell me if you see a pattern there.”

The truth is that I’ve seen it and I recognised it almost instantly. “But it’s not unhealthy, is it? I’m eating regularly, and I’m mostly cooking my meals so I know what’s in them. So I should be fine, right? I can tell my mother that I’m fine?”

“Your mother doesn’t need the reassurance that you’re fine, Sasha. The goal here is to just let you know that you’re fine.”

“I’m not the one who signed me up for therapy!”

“And yet you wouldn’t be coming here every Wednesday at 5.30pm sharp if you didn’t think that something was the matter with you,” she counters calmly. “You’re 24 – an adult with a career and a regular paycheck and a car and bills to pay. Nobody is forcing you to come to these sessions, Sasha.”

“I like to think part of my filial duty is trying to assure my mom that she has nothing to worry about.”

“But it isn’t. And you’re too smart to think that it is.”

“I am smart.”

“Yes, you are. So maybe you’d like to tell me why you’ve been actually – almost literally – eating your feelings?”

And there we are. “You tell me, doc.”

And it’s like she cannot resist. “Each meal you’ve had has a memory. You’re collating all your memories of your friends in Chicago and holding them close to you and…well, eating them.”

“I sound like Godzilla.”

“Not as lethal.” She’s got her peering gaze on and it’s all I can do to not look away – to keep my gaze on her strong, even as the city flickers and blazes away behind her with the last embers of the evening. “I believe that you’re lonely and you miss them.”

“I do miss them.”

“And you hate that you’re here, without them.”

“I don’t like being away from them, but that’s how it is.”

She pops a chocolate almond in her mouth and talks with her mouth full. “I think you’re unhappy that you’re living here, back in Malaysia, away from everything that made you grow in those four years that you were away, and now you hate living vicariously through their Facebook and Twitter updates.”

Is it the chocolate that’s keeping her from holding the punches? I wait for a while before saying, “Accurate.”

“You think the world is moving on and you’re stuck.”

“I think I just really, really miss them,” I point out. “Everything else is trajectory and assumption.”

“But it’s worth exploring, don’t you think?”

“Doctor, are you projecting your own issues on me?”

She chuckles and I’m thankful she doesn’t spit out some chocolate. “Sorry, what issues?”

“From when you were a student as you’d just returned. Didn’t you feel all these same things; wonder if I could be going through them too?”

“Everyone has different issues when they first come back, Sasha. Mine had more to do with leaving my husband for a few months while I dealt with some visa issues here, so I had a pretty specific outlet. But you – you’ve taken it out on food.”

“Sorry?”

“You’re controlling your intake. Which is good, only you’ve been going in the extreme direction for a while. And now you’re eating your emotions, which makes for your interesting food diary.”

I don’t even bother to check my anger, even as I feel it leaving me, slowly. “I only started dieting because I am sick of people telling me how fat I am and how much happier I would be if I were smaller and healthier, and now I am smaller than I’ve been in years and I’m still sick? Why won’t they give me a break?”

I expected her to look triumphant, somehow – to have a blatant display of pride on her face for having cracked me, for having me explode where before I had been so calm and so withholding. God knows I would be. But all she looks like is sad. I want to take back all my yelling.

“I’m glad you’re less heavy now, because take it from me, if you’re too big your knees start to feel the toll, and it isn’t pleasant.” She pats her own, and I notice that she has no pictures from her graduation – nothing from when she was young. “But you know Sasha, people will talk. And they will keep talking, and keep talking until they die.”

“Thanks for the uplifting news,” I mutter.

“Anytime. But my point is this: you are your life. You will never satisfy anyone else. You need to make you happy, because nobody else understands what you need and how you feel. Not even your mother, no matter how telepathic she can be sometimes – trust me, most of it is guessing and observation, just so we can strike fear of the all-knowing in our children’s hearts.”

I pick up the rosary which was on the coffee table – how had I not seen it there before? I study the beads again and memorise the swirls of the wood; weigh them in my fingers and rub them into my skin so that some of its sweet scent will stay on my thumbs.

“What if I’m still not sure what I need to make me happy?”

“Then you have to ask. And figure it out using whatever clues you have. You happen to think life just happens to you,” she states like I cannot argue it, “and once in a while it does, but most days, every day, it is a bunch of choices and a bunch of decisions.” She reaches over and touches my knee over the blanket. “Do not ever be afraid of decisions, Sasha. Very rarely are they final.”

I just nod. It’s difficult to return her smile now, and I sense that she’s done her greatest hits speech and we’re wrapping things up. The sky outside is getting darker quickly, and soon it will be the darkest blue and starless, the only flashes coming from the tops of skyscrapers so that aircrafts don’t fly into them. I know that Dr Salmah will pray Maghrib in her office, and she will invite me to pray with her while she leads, and then she will escort me to the parking, greeting each security guard on her way out by name and roping one or two to accompany us. They always oblige her, their huge bushy faces gaining determined looks as they strut next to us. I like that they all have beards; it makes a man more intimidating when you can’t know for certain when he smiles.

I hand her the rosary; she accepts it with a beatific smile, like she half-expected me to take it for keeps. “And what about my eating my feelings?”

She waves a hand carelessly. “Oh, it’s fine, keep it up. Mothers need something to worry about, and besides, it will do you good to remember that food isn’t necessarily something to think about.” She hands me my food diary. It feels a bit heavier somehow. “And for our next assignment, I want you to write to all your friends. Handwritten letters, nothing typed. Mail them all before our next session.”

I don’t ask her why. I’m smart enough to figure it out, after all.

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