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All That We Are by Melissa Toppen (1)

Chapter One



“Close your eyes. Yes, good. Now take a deep breath. Okay, and slowly let it out. Now, tell me what you see.” I focus on nothing but Dr. Rothenberg’s soft voice, though I don’t find it near as soothing as I’m sure it’s meant to be. Moments of silence pass before, “Harlow, tell me what you see.”

“Nothing.” I exhale, my eyes fluttering open. “I see nothing.”

We’ve been at this for nearly forty-five minutes, and I feel like I’ve gotten nowhere. I know it’s me. My inability to allow myself to open up. I’ve never been good at saying what I feel.

“Okay. That’s okay.” He gives me a gentle smile, displaying patience like I’ve never seen in my nearly thirty years on this earth. “Let’s try this. What do you feel?”

“I don’t feel anything either.” I shrug my shoulders as I sink back even further into the brown leather sofa, silently cursing myself for actually thinking I could do this.

If I can’t tell my only friend Angela how I feel, someone I’ve known for years, and who also happens to be the person I’ve been living with for the last three weeks, how am I supposed to tell a complete stranger? Hell, I’m not even sure I know how I feel.

“I think you’re missing the point.” He shakes his head, his salt and pepper hair swaying lightly against the movement. “Let’s try again.”

“I don’t want to try again. Don’t you get it? This is pointless. I feel nothing.”

“It’s not possible to feel nothing. Take for instance your posture. It says you’re tense and uneasy.  Both which are feelings.”

“Because I am tense and uneasy,” I clip.

“Well, that’s something. Now tell me what else you feel.”

“Irritated,” I snip, crossing my arms in front of my chest.  “I feel irritated.”

“And what irritates you?”


“You’ll need to be more specific.”

“This.” I gesture around the room. “All of this irritates me.”

“And yet you chose to come here today. Why?”

“Honestly,” I pause. “I don’t really know. I guess I was hoping it would help.”

“Help you do what? You, obviously had something in mind when you made the appointment. What is it that you need help with?”

“You’re the shrink, you tell me.” I inwardly cringe at my behavior. I’ve never been an aggressive person or one to take my frustrations out on someone undeserving, yet that seems to be my motto as of late.

“I can only help you if you’re willing to share with me, which up to this point you haven’t been. So, I’ll ask again. What do you need help with?”

“Let me ask you something.” I lean forward, resting my elbows against my thighs, the leather of the couch crunching beneath me. “Do you think it’s possible to not have any clue who you are?”

He raises an eyebrow and studies me for a long moment.

“So you feel like you’ve lost yourself?”

“I don’t know if lost is the right word.”

“Okay, so let’s focus on that. Tell me the events that happened before you started feeling this way.”

“I guess if I had to pinpoint a time when things seemed to shift, it was after I got married. Ever since then it’s like I’ve been watching someone else live my life through a hazy window. I know it’s me, but it doesn’t feel like me.”

“And why do you think that is?”

“Honestly, I’m not sure.”

“Do you think it has something to do with your husband?”

“Ex-husband,” I correct through gritted teeth.

“My apologies. I didn’t realize the divorce was final.”

“It’s not. But he’s no longer my husband.” I swallow past the hard knot forming in my throat.

Every time I think about Alan and what he put me through I’m not sure if I want to punch something, resolve into a puddle of tears, or, on the rare occasion, do cartwheels down the street because I feel so elated to be free finally.. But then reality seeps back in, and I remember the wasted years, the betrayal, what being married to a man like him reduced me to. A trophy wife. Something to stick on a mantle and pull down to show off when necessary but never more than that.

“Do you think that feeling like an outsider in your own life has something to do with your ex-husband?” Dr. Rothenberg cuts through my thoughts.

“I don’t know.” I shake my head. “I mean, yeah, I guess. I don’t know how I let it go on for so long, the marriage that is. He was very controlling. I just gave and gave. Never once putting my foot down or fighting for what I wanted. It was always easier to see things his way.” I let out a slow exhale, looking down to where my hand’s rest, knotted in my lap. “When I found out about the cheating I was almost relieved. How awful is that?”

“It’s not awful at all. Sometimes you need a solid reason. It sounds like he gave you one. And while it might not feel like it yet, it sounds like it was the best thing he could have done for you.”

“Yeah, I think you’re right,” I agree. “I just wish he’d leave me alone. I don’t understand what more he wants from me. I gave him six years of complete submission. Six years that I gave in to his every will and never once took anything for myself. You’d think that would be enough, but no, now he has to chase me out of Tuscan too.”

“And that makes you angry?”

“Hell yes it makes me angry.” I shift in my seat, finally letting the words flow. “Because there’s nothing I can do about it. He’s not violent. He doesn’t cause a scene. But he’s just always there. Lurking. It’s like everywhere I turn he’s waiting for me.  He knows my next step before I make it. Moving in to cut me off. I just want to be done. I want him to leave me alone. Unfortunately, moving home, back to my dad’s, seems to be my only option at this point.”

“Aside from the why, how do you feel about moving home?”

Home. God, Kentucky feels so far from home I struggle to think of it that way. Yes, it’s where I grew up, and it’s where my dad and older brother still live, but for the last eleven years, Arizona has been my home. I went to college here. I got married here. I had a life, or lack thereof, here. It’s hard to think about leaving even though there really isn’t anything left for me here. Well, other than Angela, my college roommate. Ours is the only friendship that I’ve managed to somehow hang onto.

“A part of me is excited. I’m moving back to be close to my family, and that makes me happy. But I’m also dreading it. I left home for a reason. I don’t want to be one of those people that went out searching for something more only to return home years later a failure.”

“You can’t look at it that way. You didn’t fail; life simply took you in another direction. There’s no shame in that.”

“I guess.” I sigh, wishing I felt that way about it.

“I tell you what, once you get moved and settled, call my secretary and we can schedule a session over video. I’m curious to see how you feel once you’ve had a few days to reconnect with your family and maybe some of your old friends. I think you’ll be surprised how much better you’ll feel once you’re away from all of this.”

“Time’s up already?” I ask when he glances at his watch for the second time in less than thirty seconds.

“I’m afraid so. I have another patient coming in directly behind you. Unless, of course, there was something else you wanted to discuss before we wrap up our session.”

“No, I’m good. I think you’re right. I need to get out of here, go home, and reset.”

“You’ll call and schedule another appointment once you get  settled?” He moves the tablet of paper from his lap to the small table next to him as he stands.

“I will,” I agree, taking the hand he extends to me just as I push up onto my feet.

“Good luck, Harlow. I look forward to our next chat.”

“Thanks, Dr. Rothenberg.” I give him a small smile and nod before spinning on my heel and quickly exiting the office without another word.