AND WHAT DOES THE GIRL WANT, MORE THAN ANYTHING IN THE WORLD?
We must have worn our Sunday best. Even if the Joneses weren't also in the therapist's waiting room, the Ellises had to keep up with them, had to project the image of a perfect nuclear family straight out of a Sears catalog. We must have looked normal: father in a yellow polo shirt and khaki Dockers, mother in a black sundress with a fuchsia sweater, daughter in a black floral-print dress and denim jacket.
The office was in an old bungalow in Thornton Park, one of the two-story cottages built in the 1940’s and 1950’s, when Orlando was still cattle and orange groves. Three therapists in a practice had converted it into an open, inviting office space. It must have been yellow on the outside, and maybe yellow on the inside, because everything felt blue and canary yellow like the colors of my favorite soft quilt.
I folded my body neatly onto the brown leather couch, squeezed my elbows into my stomach, my knees together, as my parents sat on either side of me. I didn’t want to touch them, feel the fabric of my clothes rub against the fabric of theirs. We must have waited for a while, because I watched children run around the room playing games. They built block towers and ripped the “Goofus and Gallant” page out of Highlights Magazine and moved colored beads around a small wire roller coaster. I was the oldest child by far at fifteen, and I felt wrong. I stared at the yellow wall, not wanting to look at my cell phone and get into a conversation about who I was talking to and why I was talking to them.
The therapist must have come downstairs to introduce himself, because I followed him up the back spiral staircase off what used to be the house's kitchen but had been converted into an employee break room. He was bald and had glasses, and he must have told me his name and his credentials and where he went to school.
He must have asked me where I went to school. I told him Boone High School, but also told him that for a while I'd almost gone to private school instead because my mom wasn't a fan of public schools any more. And he must have asked me why, because I said that I didn't know. “Do you know why you're here?” he asked, pen poised on the large yellow legal pad that I found stereotypical and ridiculous. I said again that I didn't know.
I did know. I was there because it was one of the many conditions of being allowed to live back in my parents’ house: therapy with a family counselor who would help the Ellises rally again from the horror of me being gay. But I wasn't allowed to tell him that. In the van, parked outside at the curb, my mom must have turned around over the console to glare at me in the backseat. “Remember what I told you,” she must have said, her lips pursed, glasses pushed high on her nose. “This isn't about you, we're here for the family.” She must have thought the therapist would be sympathetic to my case, or it must have been about appearances, wanting to keep the gay buried, keep the word unspoken because words were power, words meant something was true. So I had to lie to the person we were paying to find the truth behind our family's dysfunction.
I focused on his stereotypical therapist look. Everything felt like a bad movie. I slid back in the brown leather armchair, looked outside at the tree through the window. It must have been a willow tree, because it dangled and wisped against the windowpane while he talked. My feet dangled above the floor even though I was tall enough to reach the ground, but I swung them back and forth and nervously picked at the hem of my dress with my fingers.
“I like to do something a little fun on the first visit,” he must have said. He must have gathered sheets of computer paper and colored pencils from one of the shelves behind his chair that matched the scuffed, dark original hardwood floors. He placed the items in front of me on a glass coffee table. I blinked at them.
He must have said, “I want you to draw three things for me, since you like to draw.”
I must have said that I liked to draw.
“Draw a house, a tree, and a girl, and let me know when you're finished.”
I drew a house: It was a kindergarten representation of a house. Yellow, with a red sloped roof and a curved driveway that matched my actual driveway even though the house looked nothing like my house. Two windows. A door in the middle. A tree that was a green swirl with a brown stick poking into a mound of yellow-green grass.
I drew a tree: My mom taught me how to draw trees that looked like real trees. I started with the trunk, two curved brown lines as reflected Js. From there, I worked on the branches, drew forks where the wood split, and then made more splits, and more, until the paper was full of branches. I drew a green cloud on top, colored it in with a light green pencil.
I drew a girl: It was also a fairly simple looking girl. Blonde hair because I had blonde hair. A pink dress because girls liked pink and wore pink. Hands behind her back because I couldn't draw hands. I put extra detail into the eyes because I was good at drawing eyes, but they ended up too big for her face. She had a simple red smile, just one line, no teeth or lipstick.
I must have told the therapist that I was done, because he took the three drawings and hmm'ed over them. “I'm going to ask you questions about them,” he must have said.
“Let's start with the house. Is the house happy or sad?”
I must have stared at him, confused. “It's a house.”
“I know,” he must have said, “but if the house had feelings, how would it feel?”
“It would feel happy,” I said. Very quickly, I realized what he was trying to get out of me. He must have hoped that I would draw a grey house with broken windows and shutters, or maybe a split level house. Maybe that would have told him that my family was split and in need of assistance. Maybe an overgrown yard would have told him that we needed to dig deeper and get to the heart of our problems, my problems. I was mad that he thought he could trick me.
“And what does the house want, more than anything in the world?”
I must have said a new paint job. Maybe that meant that we needed a different exterior to change things up.
“How about the tree?” the therapist must have asked. “Is the tree dead or alive?”
As if I would have drawn a dead tree. I felt like he was treating me like a child, like the ones in the waiting room reading Highlights. “The tree is alive.” I said. I sat more forward on the chair, planted my toes on the ground.
“And is it happy or sad?”
“It's happy, because it's alive, and it's summer so it's nice and warm.”
He must have made some more notes. Summertime may have signaled freedom from school, that perhaps I longed for less discipline, less surveillance.
“And what does the tree want, more than anything in the world?”
I must have said that it wanted people to enjoy its shade, maybe people on a lovely picnic with chicken salad sandwiches on croissants and bowls of fruit salad. That may have meant that I longed for communication and bonding. Maybe I wanted to be sheltered and protected, like the people under its branches. Maybe I stole that from The Giving Tree.
I must have been projecting my disdain for this activity. But maybe this was the moment when I became excellent at concealing my emotions.
We must have moved on to the girl then. “Is she happy or sad?” he must have asked.
“Happy,” I said.
“And is the girl dead or alive?”
I wasn't an idiot. Drawing a dead girl hadn't even crossed my mind. I didn't belong here, and I was mad that I was forced to be here, in a place where children apparently drew dead trees and dead girls and couldn't see that was abnormal. I was abnormal, and even I knew that.
“The girl is alive. And,” I added, seeing where this was going, “What she wants most in the world is a haircut.”
Maybe that meant I wanted a haircut.
Maybe that meant that the day after I was kicked out, I went to a previously-scheduled hair appointment, and even though my mother refused to talk to me, she called my grandmother to confirm I hadn't gotten a dyke haircut.
Maybe that meant I wanted a dyke haircut. Maybe that meant I wanted to shave my hair above my ears and wear flannel and let everyone know on first glance that I was a homosexual, that I would never be anything but a homosexual.
He must have asked me other questions, and I must have answered them, and he must have ended the session promptly at one hour. I followed him back down the spiral staircase and switched places with my parents, who trailed after him like ducklings.
They must have sat in the same room, told him about how I was acting out, how I wasn't the same girl I'd always been. Maybe they looked at my drawings. Maybe they colored pictures of their own, maybe in them the girl had blonde hair and a pink dress and a thin waist, and maybe she was the girl I used to be, the girl I didn't even realize had gone missing. Maybe they drew themselves, a girl with brown hair and a boy with brown hair, both frowning. Maybe the girl had angry v's for eyebrows. Maybe the boy was crying. Maybe their trees, straight and mighty like pines, wished for a different daughter.
During the hour my parents were upstairs, I must have scanned the waiting room, diagnosing the other children. I must have tried to guess which ones drew dead boys in frozen lakes with their colored pencils. Unable to tell, I sat down in front of the small wire roller coaster and moved the colored beads back and forth, back and forth, hoping that, just once, they would take a different path.
Megan Ellis is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. She is the designer for Ecotone and previously was an assistant editor of the Florida Review and an intern with Lookout Books. In addition to being a finalist for Crab Orchard Review’s 2015 Rafael Torch Literary Nonfiction Award, her essays appear in Bluestem and elsewhere.