The cat and the therapist
Written by DanielleRae
This work was last updated November 13, 2018
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There’s a strange pressurized feeling that comes with terminal velocity. You reach out with your hands, scrabbling against the air as if to pull yourself up by it or slow your descent. Your mind is blank; only your gut know how hopeless the situation is. It’s bracing for the final impact while your limbs, those stubborn creatures, are still flailing about looking for an escape.
If you’re like Alex Morgenstern, they might just succeed.
Alex struggled, but couldn’t see what he was struggling against. It was tight, constricting. It had blinded hmi. But not deafened. He could hear sounds; indistinct sounds that blurred together. Machine, animal, possibly human, swirling about in a buzzing chatter. He was dizzy, weak, and there was a strange feeling in his arm, like an octopus sucker was attached to it, pulling away at his skin and blood.
Waves of nausea crashed over Alex, sending him into convulsions until the acrid scent of vomit filled his nostrils. He felt no pain as he writhed, driven more by reflexive muscle spasms and the animal drive to escape than any pain. The beeping sound grew louder, the inhuman voices reached a crescendo, and suddenly hands were upon him, shaking him as if trying to wake him from a fainting spell. Alex heard his own voice, muffled, moaning something indistinct as he slipped back into unconsciouness. Just before he passed out, an image blasted itself into his mind like floodlights turning on in a starless night: the edge of a concrete roof ahead, the hard asphalt road, the clear sky above.
“And that’s all you remember?”
“Do you remember what you were doing up there?”
“I see. We found you had been working in that building for a week at the time of your fall. But you say you don’t know anything about that.”
“The last thing I remember is running out of money for my last therapist. Have you spoken to her?”
“Well, I don’t know who that was, but I’m sure we’d be able to get in touch if I could have her name.”
Alex looked away, letting his eyes wander. The cat sitting on the therapist’s windowsill was, Alex was sure, not allowed in the hospital. Its orange-and-red stripes contrasted strikingly with the sterile white walls of the therapist’s office, and the colour seemed to bleed into the walls around it, though Alex realized it had to be a trick of the light. Shadows flitted at the edge of his vision, dancing in the corners of the room then vanishing when Alex looked at them.
“Alex? The therapist’s name?”
“Winfred Russel,” he answered automatically, snapping back.
“Good, good. Now, I’m afraid there’s another patient I need to see. Go along back to your bed; I’ll see you tomorrow. In the meantime, talk to the nurse if there’s anything you need. You have the buzzer, yes?”
Alex paused for a second.
“Why the cat?”
There was no cat.
Alex refused the therapist’s offer to wheel him out, and emerged into the hospital thoroughly confused. He’d forgotten where his ward was, and wandered around trying to find it. The hospital halls were grey concrete, punctuated by heavy doors with electronic locks. Alex had a security card looped around his neck, but it could only open the doors he was supposed to go through. None of those led to the outside.
He didn’t see her coming, or know which nurse it was who found him and took the handles of his wheelchair. His neck brace kept him from looking at her. As long as she held the handles of his wheelchair, his movements weren’t his own. He had to go where she pushed him, as surely as a train on railroad tracks. She pushed him into an elevator, the metal doors sliding shut as she pressed the 6th floor button. Her hand was long,bony, with gnawed-on fingernails and a blotchy, pale complexion. The tendons were visibly tensed and framed her hand like the bones in a bat’s wing, the skin stretched over them. Her veins were visible, and Alex could almost see them pulsing with her heartbeat.
In other words, this nurse’s hands looked much like the others’. The elevator lurched upwards, the fluorescent lights flickering slightly as they ascended in the sterile grey box.
“What were you doing down in the basement, Alex?”
“Seeing the therapist.”
“The therapist in the basement?”
“Yes, doctor…” his name was at the tip of his tongue.
The elevator doors opened, and Alex was wheeled back to his bed and gently transferred to it. He lay helpless, immobile, drugged-up on painkillers. He cried himself to sleep without shedding a tear.
The therapist’s cat sat in the windowsill, licking its paws and chatting with Alex as he lay in bed.
“You know, they think you’re crazy. They think you jumped.”
“Would make sense.”
“Do you feel like jumping now?”
“Of course not. I’ve gone through too much shit to stay alive to end it now.”
The cat’s mouth hardly moved, but its tongue flicked at extreme angles as it spoke.
“You’d do better not to mention me again. He doesn’t like me.”
“Well then why-”
But Alex had already woken up. The cat was nowhere, and there was no window beside his bed.
“Are you going to take the call?” the therapist held out Alex’s cellphone. Alex ahd no idea how he’d gotten it. The ringtone when once, twice, three times, four times, then went silent.
“Why didn’t you pick up?”
“The number was my mother’s.”
“That’s no reason.”
“I don’t want to talk to her.”
“Use your reason. You’re supposed to be rational, remember? She just wants to know you’re alright. We should answer our parents when they reach out to us.”
The phone rang again. Alex picked up. Despite being in a basement, he got perfect reception.
“Alexandra? Alexandra are you-”
Alex turned off the phone, set the ringer on mute.
“I knew she’d do that.”
“Now, let’s talk about your family, shall we?”
“I’d rather not.”
“Nonsense, such a confrontation is a perfect springboard for a productive discussion.”
“What is there t o say? They always referred to me as Alex, like a nickname, until the day I came out. Then it’s suddenly a big imposition on them.”
“From nickname to affirmation. The mind reframes factually-identical acts to have radically different meanings. Beautiful, albeit destructive.”
“Where are you going with this?”
“Your mind ahs framed your life in a very chaotic, negative light. If you can reorder your thoughts, learn to think more factually, the way forward will become clear.”
“I know where I’m going; after my legs have healed I’m gonna ditch this place.”
“Your legs are a mere symptom.”
Roof, sky, asphalt. Falling. The images flashed through Alex’s head, disjointed, chaotic.
Alex looked away, glancing down at the floor as much as he could given his neckbrace. The floor was made of pristine white linoleum tiles: diamond-patterned, perfectly-clean, with black lines criss crossing between them and creating a kind of net pattern. Apart from the therapist’s chair and the fluorescent light, the room was empty.
“Look at me, Alex.”
Alex’s eyes snapped up, nand the therapist’s white suit made it difficult to look at him there, so Alex’s eyes naturally drew to the only hint of contrast in the room: the therapist’s blue eyes.
“Sorry, I just-”
“Don’t trouble yourself. It’s better if we address one another directly. Now, let us start with your parents. When did you first estrange them?”
“I dunno, they were always disapproving of whatever I did-”
“Re-phrase that. If your parents were disappointed with everything, then you’re not in control of your life. You’re a passive object if you accept that. What specifically did you do that disappointed them and what did you do that they praised you for?”
“Well, every time I got dirty, or I didn’t finish my food, or asked for more food, or when I stayed out late. There was also a time I started reading Harry Potter back when I was younger, and they said it was too high a reading level for me. They handed me Beverly Cleary. Then they got mad at me when I didn’t finish it; said I was falling behind my reading level. It was unfair!” Alex snarled, surprised that such an old slight could still bring out such anger.
“They wanted me to read, but only what they thought wasn’t too challenging for me. They set me up to fail.”
“Be that as it may,’ said the therapist, “If you’d finished the Beverly Cleary book, they would have let you read Harry Potter. And you did eventually read it anyway, didn’t you?”
“Yeah, they forgot all about it by the following year.”
“So the only one hurting you now is you. That means you can stop the hurt. It’s all in the past.”
“She rejected me five minutes ago!”
“And yet you were the one who hung up the phone.”
“She didn’t want to talk to me, she wanted to talk to her nonexistant daughter.”
“You’re framing again. If you learn to accept that you may be misframing things when it looks like they’re being unfair, you’ll be more stable. They’re usually trying to do what’s best for you.”
“So just do nothing when people screw me over, or try to make me someone I’m not?”
“If you didn't resist so obstinately, then you’d be what they wanted, and you wouldn’t mind so much. How much of who you are was constructed out of obstinate rebellion?”
Alex made a disgusted sound, then tried to turn and leave. But the tiny room and his neck brace made that difficult. After a moment he gave up, and stared defiantly at the therapist.
“Are you trying to help me or are you trying to judge me?” he demanded.
“That’s a matter of framing. Which do you choose to see me as doing? I assure you, I only want to make your life more stable.”
“Well, how does taking people denying who I am lying down have anything to do with stability? That’s just putting who I am at their mercy!”
“There are only so many people in your life you truly have to submit to. But unless you one day come to rule the world, there is always someone your identity will be shaped by, either in submission or rebellion.”
“Let me out of here.”
“Your appointment is not over, and I am under no obligation to get out of my chair.”
His expression hadn’t changed once during their conversation. His frosty eyes remained completely impassive even as Alex glared rage at thim.
“I haven’t lived with my parents since I was fifteen years old!” Alex spat at him, “I don’t need them and they can do fine without me.”
“You’re sitting in a wheelchair under suicide watch.”
There it was, gain, washing over him. He’d looked up, squinting at the blazing sun on that beautiful clear day, so much more glorious than the harsh fluorescents which dominated his life inside. He felt, even through the memory, the overwhelming joy of the moment as he’d craned his neck skyward.
Now he couldn’t look up, couldn’t turn away from the therapist’s gaze.
“So you want me to be like my parents wanted me to be?”
“I want you to leave this hospital. And I can’t let you do that until you’re no longer such a danger to yourself and those around you.”
“Those around me? When have I ever hurt anyone?”
“Your mother and father haven’t seen you in nine years. You just hung up on them while in hospital. How much suffering do you think you’ve caused them?”
“I left because they wouldn’t let me stay!”
“Did they kick you out?”
“No, but it was hell living there! They kept me away from my friends, they refused to call me by my name, they hated who I was-”
“You’re framing it as hatred. I can see why you would suffer if you believed they hated you, but what if you framed it as them loving you and not wishing the hardships of being transgender on you?”
“And taking my books, and keeping me out of theatre, and picking my friends for me? That was because they loved me?”
“You can see it that way if you so choose. And it will make you happier if you do.”
“I want out of here.”
“Giving you what you want right now will not get you what you need in life.”
“My friend Lupita didn’t question me when I turned up at her doorstep; she just sheltered me from my parents. That’s how I got my freedom, not by talking about framing.”
“And that freedom got you here. I am not your friend; I am your therapist. I don’t want you to be happy in the short term; I want you to be well. And I am afraid our appointment is up.”
“One last thing: how did my parents get my number? They haven’t had it in years.”
“They should have had it all along. Your parents should always be able to contact you.”
The door opened, and a nurse took Alex’s wheelchair handles and pulled him out of the room. She didn’t speak a word on the way up, but as she helped him into his bed, she said:
“Arguing with the therapist will do no good. He has his ways. Get some sleep, Alexandra.”
As the nurse left, Alex reached for his cellphone. If his parents could reach him in the basement, he could surely reach Lupita from the sixth floor. But the cellphone was nowhere to be found. He didn’t remember getting it or losing it. After five minutes of groping around, he gave up and went to sleep.
The sedative hadn’t worked; he was paralyzed but not unconscious, watching in horror as they sliced him open with scalpels and tiny circular saws. The smell of blood invaded his nostrils. They were pallid, blue, barely-human skeletons with masks and goggles obscuring their faces. Interchangeable, they worked around him while an insidious beeping blurred out their chatter. They were like insects clattering their mandibles at each other, clicking away as they opened him up. For just a moment, Alex could make out an exchange. One of them held up a pair of globes to the other and asked in a voice like nails scraping against a blackboard:
“Shouldn’t we be fixing the legs?”
The one they were addressing took the globes, squishing one of them slightly in his hand, then turned his frosty blue eyes and locked gazes with Alex.
“That’s a symptom,” the therapist said, “With this we’ll start addressing the disease itself.”
The therapist stuffed the globes into Alex’s chest, then sewed him up as he watched in numb, mute horror, eyes fixed on the therapist’s the whole time.
Alex awoke with a scream, hands immediately darting to his chest. Still flat; no new scars. The cat on the windowsill licked his paws. Of course, they would never perform cosmetic surgery without his consent, the nurse insisted. But the cat seemed to shake its head as she spoke, and the curtains on the inside of the windowsill whipped in a sudden gust of wind.
“Speaking of procedures, you’re scheduled for a CAT scan tomorrow. Could I get you to sign a consent form?”
“You’re gonna scan my brain again?”
“We need to determine if there have been any changes relating to your amnesia.”
He sighed and filled out the form. Had to be done, much as he distrusted them. It was just a dream, after all, more reflecting his anxieties than justifying them. At least according to another of Alex’s therapists. One he trusted.
The nurse left, her bony fingers pinched around the form. They’d be back for Alex later. Alex turned back to the cat on the windowsill, but there was only the sterile grey wall.
As the next nurse came to transfer Alex to his wheelchair and to the CAT scan room, he hastily brushed the cat hair off his hospital gown.
Alex took his daily trip through the hospital, pushed along by the nurse. They'd finally removed the neck brace, so he could look up at the windows, but the way they reflected the sun in the hall along his route made it impossible to see outside. All he got was a blinding white light.
As he glanced in the other direction, he saw a door swing open, although there was no-one pushing it. Before it swung shut again, Alex saw a stark room with bars running along its length. A pair of crutches rested on the opposite wall.
“What’s that room?” Alex asked.
“Things were much easier when you didn’t glance around so much.”
Alex was shocked for a moment, spluttering before looking back at her and saying:
“That doesn’t answer my question.”
The nurse pursed her lips slightly, but otherwise remained impassive.
“You shouldn’t get your hopes up too high. Best to forget about it. It’s where we put people with a chance of recovery to work out their legs.”
“You mean… I won’t…”
“I can’t say.”
Alex pressed her for details, but got no answer. Eventually, he quieted down, and she said in a patronizing tone:
“Now that we’re done your walk, let’s get you back. You need some rest.”
“Can I make a request?”
There was an edge to her tone, but Alex pressed on.
“I’d like you to take me outside.”
He quickly added: “If it’s not too much to ask,” his voice breaking as he mentally kicked himself for compromising his position. She quietly clicked her tongue and said:
“Well, I’ll take it up with the administration. We’ll see.”
Alex wished she’d said no. He could at least get angry at her, yell, demand, argue, but the administration was faceless, procedural, and he didn’t even know how to get there . He couldn’t yell at them if he wanted, and he wasn’t even sure he could muster up the righteous indignation to yell at them if he was permitted.
“And what good would that do?” asked the Therapist.
Alex squirmed under his cold gaze, the white walls and fluorescent glare of his office leaving Alex nowhere to shrink into.
“I’d certainly feel better about everything…” Alex mumbled.
“Would you? Or would hysterically screeching at the nurse only make your anger worse?”
“It’s better if I can at least let it out.”
“It’s unbecoming to heap abuse on a nurse trying to help you simply because you are in a bad situation.”
“They don’t respect me. They treat me like a child.”
“Did you ever grow up?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Many people, especially in this day and age, never have to grow up. They never learn that the world is not about them. They never learn why things are as they are, and so they live their lives either naively loving the world or bitterly loathing it, but either way they feel entitled to it.”
“How long are you going to try to break me down?”
The sentence hung in the air between them. The therapist shifted in his seat.
“Why do you interpret everything as an attack on you?”
“My other therapists never said I was a child, or blamed me for what my parents did.”
“Your other therapists used less effective methods than mine and failed to prevent your suicide attempt.”
“Okay, I’m withdrawing my consent for our sessions. I can’t trust you anymore.”
“Oh we’re far past that stage,” he said, his mouth twitching slightly.
“What do you mean?” Alex demanded, his voice breaking as he clutched at his chair.
“You landed yourself in a wheelchair if I’m not mistaken. You remain here until I decide you are ready to leave.”
The Therapist seemed so much larger, so much more menacing in that moment, as Alex realized he was the one person on Earth who decided his fate. The nurse, the administration, even his parents, all figures of authority in Alex’s world, seemed to melt away from his mind and distill themselves into the one pale man in the white suit before him. His mind recoiling in horror, he protested weakly:
“I can still refuse your sessions...”
“In that case I will not be able to judge when you are ready to leave,” the Therapist calmly responded, his lip twitching slightly.
“I want a lawyer…” Alex mumbled.
“Need I remind you once more of why you’re here?”
Alex stood at the precipice once again, the sun shining overhead. He looked out over the edge, the asphalt beckoning him one step more. He stepped back, the wind howled, his ears popped, and the asphalt rushed up to meet him.
Alex fixed the Therapist in the eye. For the first time, shock registered on the impassive man’s face.
“Alright,” he said, “I’ll go along. But I will speak to a lawyer, and you should know that I’m staying with your sessions not because I think they’ll do any good, but because you’ve left me with no other options.”
“You know, I can get you out of here.”
“Who are you?”
“Just a Chaotic Cat.”
“What about my legs? I need to let them heal.”
“They’ll break you by then.”
“What do you mean?”
“You rattled him in your last talk, but if you keep having that same conversation with the Therapist, sooner or later you’ll sing a different toon.”
“Having the same conversation and expecting a different result? Isn’t that insanity?”
The cat on the windowsill laughed in a dozen different voices; some human, some animal, none feline, and said in the Therapist’s voice:
“Need I remind you why you’re here?”
Then in its own voice:
“You’ll be mad when you get out. The question i: will you be their kind of mad, or your kind of mad?”
“Sanity is just never an option, is it?”
“Oh they’ll call you sane when they’re done with you. Only you’ll be able to tell the difference between you and sane people. You take my option, everyone will know you’re mad but you won’t care. Take theirs and nobody will know but you will care.”
“What do you want me to do? I can’t even leave my bed.”
The wind gusted through the hospital, strong enough to whip the curtains about and rattle Alex’s bed. A nurse staggered across the ward, grasping onto Alex’s curtains to avoid being blown away. Alex wished he could stand up, give himself to the wind, fly free for a glorious moment, away from thoughts of sanity and madness…
But he was safe in his bed, and the idea of a windstorm in a hospital was so ridiculous that, apart from the whitening of her skin and the slight bulging of her eye, the nurse made no acknowledgment that it had happened as she fixed Alex’s covers and gave him his dinner, which thankfully was in a box rather than on the floor.
Alex was left on his own the next day, for the first time since he arrived in the hospital.The nurse put him in his wheelchair, then rushed off after a cat’s shadow. There were, as usual, no other patients in his ward.
Heading to the door, he pushed it open with some difficulty, and emerged into one of the familiar hallways he’d be pushed to in his daily “walks.” He’d gotten a sense of the hospital’s layout, at least the portion he had access to, over the weeks he’d stayed there.
He went down the hall, through the ward where a comatose woman lay, out into the corridor with the windows he couldn’t see out of. Pushing his chair through the freely-swinging doors, he entered the room he’d been told to forget.
The room was an anomaly. Its light was a gentle, orange glow, its furniture homelike: a pair of armchairs with checkered upholstery and a small coffee table between them. The floor was carpeted in green. Lying against the wall were a pair of crutches, and two parallel bars were set up on one side of the room, presumably to support someone as they relearned how to walk.
Alex locked his wheels and braced his arms against his chair. Pushing himself to his feet, he shoved himself forward and stumbled to the crutches. His broken leg sent a shock of pain lancing up through his knee and hip. Taking up the crutches, he hobbled a few steps, then collapsed into one of the armchairs. The upholstery seemed to suck him in, and the pain ebbing from his body felt almost as good as bliss.
The Therapist leaned in from the other chair, speaking softly:
“Alex, you’re not well. You can hardly take three steps without falling over. And your mental state is even worse.”
“How do you know that?”
“I am your therapist.”
Alex defiantly shoved himself up, gasping in pain as he left the sweet embrace of the armchair and stumbled back into his austere wheelchair, trading comfort for power.
“You’ve never even bothered to know me. You know nothing about me.”
“I know you have a poor relationship with your parents, that you go between friends’ houses, and-”
But Alex had already left, propelling himself down the halls, which seemed to warp and shift as he went.
He swiped his illicit security card and entered the intensive care unit. The ward was barren, the equipment old and decaying, and the bed linens moth-eaten. Behind him, a sound like hoofbeats closed in, and even as he accelerated someone grabbed the handles of his wheelchair, nearly pitching him to the floor. A woman’s voice behind him said:
“You’re not supposed to be here! What are you doing?”
Alex raised his voice, and a gale-force wind blasted through the ICU.
“Let go! I’m leaving!”
Alex locked his wheels and the nurse held on to his handles, fighting against the wind, but finally relented as Alex reached back and peeled away her hands.
Alex didn’t know how, but he pushed himself forward against the wind. Just by the door out of the ward, Alex saw a spectral scene of doctors working over his broken body, and twelve hours of surgery passed by in three seconds as he stared. Then the vision was gone, and he was leaving the ICU and going down another hallway, swiping his security card and descending in an elevator to the ground floor.
At every floor, he braced himself for a nurse or security guard to come in, but they never did. He reached the ground floor and wandered through the empty expanse of the abandoned emergency waiting room unopposed.
Nobody tailed him as he wheeled out of the building, following the exit signs until he could almost feel his freedom around every corner he rounded, the fear of guards and nurses far behind him.
“Look there, Alex,” he heard the Therapist’s voice faintly whisper, “That could be you one day.”
His eyes were drawn towards the official exit down the hall. A young woman embraced her mother and father, the doctors beaming, as they took their healed daughter off to a bright future.
“The happiness you see could be yours if you just wait a little while longer,” the voice said, “all the pain of your life, left behind as you become who you were always meant to be.”
Alex looked after them as they departed, eyes stinging. For the first time he wanted to believe the Therapist. That laugher, carefree as Alex hadn’t known in over a decade, rung in his ears as the family left. Anything would be worth going back there, mending the rents between him and his parents, feeling their embrace again…
“That happiness isn’t mine,” Alex sighed, the fantasy fading away. He left through the emergency exit, not looking back until he was halfway out of the deserted parking lot. Looking back, he saw the hospital itself was abandoned, the walls thick with ivy, one of the wings caved in.
He called Lupita three times, and when she picked up and realized who Alex was she was almost too happy he was alive to hear anything he said. Half an hour later, her car pulled into the parking lot, and Alex left the world of the Therapist forever. He would find his harmony himself, Alex thought, and it would be his own.