Unsafe Is Not A Feeling

On the morning after, I happened to have a therapy appointment. I thought about not going, because I didn’t know who’d be riding the buses or out in the streets. But I suspected that beneath the murk was a quiver of feelings I needed to uncover in order to aim or absorb them.
My therapist looked less tired than I felt. I wasn’t her first appointment of the day. She began, as she always did, by inhaling and exhaling deeply. It was an invitation to arrive. I had arrived six minutes late. “I thought I might feel unsafe on the bus,” I said, “so I rode my bike.”
My therapist finished her exhale. I always meant to notice the moment when her regular breathing resumed. “It’s a good morning for a ride,” she said. “But remember, unsafe isn’t a feeling.”
If she had told me this before, I would have remembered. She might have meant that it was something I should remember going forward. But what if she truly believed that she was telling me this for the second, or third time, and that I’d forgotten? This would mean the reason my body was beginning to feel hot was because I felt misperceived—one of the feelings, I’d learned in therapy, I hated feeling most.
“I can tell from your body language that you’re not experiencing yourself as ‘seen’ right now,” my therapist said. “Let’s dig. Do you feel scared? Sad? Threatened?”
In therapy, I was used to experiencing myself as a sieve, a bum mirror, a talking machine. My body language was typically involuntary. “Scared?” I said, though that sounded so much more specific. Around us, potted plants offered oxygen.
“Good,” my therapist said, “this is a safe space.” I took that to mean the space we were in was structurally sound. The beams would persist, the floor would hold us. Though I’d always been confused that both flammable and inflammable meant easily catching fire. I took a sip from my mug of water. I’d wanted to take a disposable plastic cup but felt guilty. I hated drinking water from opaque vessels, which gave the water a quality of taintedness.
My therapist asked me to describe some of the things I was scared of. She suggested I start at the beginning. “Well first, scary movies,” I said. “Especially when you see the back of someone’s head and they look normal and then they turn around and their face is all chewed-up and bloody. Or glowing eyes?”
“Some people enjoy that feeling,” my therapist said.
“They enjoy feeling scared, or they call it something different?” That was a question I’d always been meaning to ask.
“They’re thrill-seekers,” she said. “They’re scare-a-holics. They’ll take any name you give them. What else?”
“Fraternities,” I said. “And sororities, but a little less so?”
I could see her legal pad. She’d written down the word BEER and underlined it.
“I know some of them do community service,” I said.
My therapist put down her pencil and sat up straight. She knocked her hands, in loose fists, on her lap, and looked at me as if she really saw me. “What about being taken away in the night? And forced to wear a yellow star—excuse me—and a pink triangle on your peacoat?”
“Am I scared of that?”
How are you scared of that?”
I tried to really think about it. It wasn’t as if it was something I’d never thought about, even before it had become clear that Ohio, then Florida, then Wisconsin were lost to us. I didn’t currently have a peacoat but I’d had one, sure. Presumably I wouldn’t be the first one taken; I would see others taken first and have some way to prepare, unless I was in a bubble, in denial, or if I was strong?
“Would I have any notice, do you think? Realistically?”
“You’d be one of the ones to get notice,” she said. “I expect you’d be in that 10%.”
Was she flattering me? Flirting? I had once had a case of transference for a therapist, but that was because she wore turtlenecks that reminded me of my first grade teacher, with long beaded necklaces that signaled the fact that under the turtleneck was skin. “I don’t know if I’d want the notice,” I said. “It might be better to be surprised.”
“You’re scared of preparing,” my therapist said.
“Yes,” I admitted. “I don’t make To Do lists because I hate to find old lists with some of the items still undone.”
“I feel that way about old Kleenex…” she said, staring at a faraway point. I wondered how many clients my therapist had already asked about their fears that morning. I wondered if she was getting worn out asking the same questions over and over, but I didn’t wonder too hard, because I was scared of knowing too much personal information about my therapist.
My therapist snapped back to her typical implacability. “This is good,” she said. “This is important. Let’s keep going. Are you afraid of heights?”
“The idea of snakes?”
We were on a fast track now, as if every session with my therapist had become one super-session, as if we were a therapist and patient on a TV series and someone had assembled a highlight reel.
“Are you scared of taking a cab?”
“Are you scared to sit next to someone on a bus wearing a
“No, I said. The reel jerked. “That’s not what I was saying
“How about on a plane?”
“I’m not scared of that!” I said.
“Which water fountain do you use, the ‘whites’ or the ‘non’?”
“They don’t do that anymore,” I said.
“Let’s dig,” my therapist said.
Because I was there and because I was paying I picked up my mug and took a drink of water and I dug until I found the Black Door. It was a door at the high school I went to. The word was that if you were white and you went through the door you would get jumped. I didn’t use that door, but not because I was white or because I wasn’t black or because I was scared that I would get jumped. I didn’t live in the direction the door led to.
“I remember,” I said, hearing my voice from far away, as if I were watching the playback later, “that I wished there was a White Door. Not in the same way as the white kids in our Processing Groups who said the Black Door was racist. Those were the kinds of white kids who got sent to Catholic School when their parents heard about the Black Door.”
I paused, expecting my therapist to say something. I realized my eyes were closed.
“Not like the white kids who walked through the Black Door on purpose in order to get jumped. It was harder for girls to do that,” I said.
I heard my therapist take a sip of water. She felt close to me, as if she’d reached over and sipped from my mug.
“What I wished for was a White Door that was worse than the Black Door. A really bad door, a decrepit door that got stuck, that you had to duck to get through, that led to the basement where rats and snakes lived.” I didn’t continue for my therapist but I remembered the full diorama. Through the door were details culled from the footage they showed on TV after the white cop had shot the black kid in the elementary schoolyard—flashing lights, caution tape, something wet on the ground, later the overturned and burning cop cars. I hated the white cop, and I was closer to him.
I said, “I wanted the rats to chew off my skin.”
I waited for judgment to come down.
“In,” said my therapist.
“What?” I said.
“Now out,” she said. I watched her deflate herself, a slo-mo reversal of a flower’s unfolding. The room was pillowed with quiet sounds: the air purifier, the computer hum, the water cooler in the waiting room with the attached dispenser holding a full sleeve of plastic cups.
“I can’t,” I said, breathing.

Room 10

“The doctors don’t know which disease Niza has. Limp-handed, they lay their needles to her numb limbs.”


“'It won’t heal covered up.' She knew scars. She took off her shirt and placed his hand on the question mark circling her breast. 'Nothing between us. '”

101 Detectives

“He knew there were tricks — no — not tricks, techniques, there are techniques for getting to see what you’re not supposed to.”