It was the rainiest of Mondays, sometime in the month of the March. The clouds seemed to silently bear the weight of an entire ocean with grim neutrality, feeling neither here nor there about their hindrance of the sun’s rays. The city streets were slick with water and sludge-laced snow. Streetlamps cast little light; even candlelight seemed grey and uninviting.
Inside a neglected community center, five people sat silently, occupying themselves by doing everything possible to avoid looking at one another. Maris held a clipboard in her hands with half-hearted bullet points for discussion topics; her grey turtleneck did little to improve her pallid complexion. David’s left leg jiggled, seemingly disjointed from the rest of his stone-still body, his arms crossed, back slumped, and jaw slack. Leslie, a person of small stature, sat cross-legged on her folding chair chewing her black-painted nails, unafraid of poisoning herself, or perhaps daring it to happen. Maria’s dark, curly hair curtained her face so that only her dark eyes could be seen darting about the room. James sat with an impressive degree of comparative normalcy, except for a compulsive need to run his hand along, against, along, then against the nap of his black, spiky hair.
So, they sat and had been sitting for close to ten minutes in silence. Two folding chairs were empty on both sides of Maris, and she desperately willed them to be filled by a stranger or two coming through the door. On the yellowish wall, an analog clock struck four in the afternoon. Maris noted this and as her face dropped, she reluctantly sat a little straighter in her seat.
“Okay. Welcome, everyone,” she said, rubbing circles on the back of her clipboard with her fingertips. “Good to see you all back this week.”
Only Leslie and James looked at Maris as she spoke. The rest found the grey, black-speckled floor much more captivating.
“Who would like to start off with a highlight of their week?” She examined them all one by one, attempting to draw words from their mouths. Her gaze lingered on Leslie.
Leslie gazed back defiantly for an eternal ten seconds. “Uh,” she uttered rather loudly—startling David—knowing that she had lost the stalemate. Maris’ desperation made Leslie uncomfortable. “Well, I saw my ex in Fresh Grocer.”
James watched Leslie gnaw on her fingernails some more.
“On Saturday, I guess,” she mumbled over her fingertips.
“Okay. Did you exchange words with her?” Maris prompted.
“What did you say?”
“Well. She was like, ‘Oh my god, hey’ and I was like, ‘Oh hey’. And, like, she asked how I was and I asked how she was … and, uh. She said she had an interview for a job later. It might have been today, actually. And I said that was cool. And I told her I was going to group therapy sessions. And she said that was cool. And then we said bye.”
Maris and James listened intently. David pulled at a hole in his jeans, while Maria picked at a scab on her arm.
“That sounds like a great conversation,” Maris said.
“That’s a good highlight.”
“Yeah. ‘Cause, to be honest, she looked like shit.” A hint of a smile pulled at the corners of Leslie’s mouth and her compulsion to nibble her fingers faded momentarily.
“Well … it sounds like you’re both moving on with your lives. That’s a very good thing.”
“Nah. Seeing her made me want to shoot up again like whoa. But it made me feel good that she looked as bad as I feel.”
“Leslie, that’s not a healthy attitude. How would you feel if someone was happy to see you miserable?”
“I wouldn’t give two shits.”
“I think you would. Especially if it was someone whom you cared for. Or used to care for.”
“Amy can be happy I’m sad. I don’t care. Hell, as long as one of us is happy.”
“But is happiness at the misfortune of others really happiness or joy?”
“What else would it be?”
“I mean, there’s a German word for it: schadenfreude. Which is different from just plain freude, or joy.”
“I guess.” Leslie resumed chewing her nails.
“May I give you my honest opinion, Leslie?”
“Why the hell not,” she said.
“I think you still care for Amy and are looking for signs that she’s just as lonely as you are.”
Leslie didn’t look up from her nails and the only sound was the clicks of her teeth. Finally, she said in monotone, “I guess you’re the doctor so I guess you know everything.”
Maris didn’t bat an eye. “Not everything, but some things. You just think on that and if we have time at the end, we’ll come back to you.”
In response, Leslie slumped lower in her seat, her legs still crossed.
“Okay. Who else has a highlight?” Maris looked at the rest of them.
Maria’s scab had conveniently begun to bleed, so she got up from the circle, went over to the tissue box, and dabbed at her newly opened wound in the corner.
“David?” Maris asked.
David flinched at his name and sat up straighter with a jerk of his bony body, blinking excessively. “Oh yeah. Um. Yeah, I had a highlight.” He rubbed his nose, scratched his temple, rubbed his eye, ran his fingers through his thin blonde hair, stuttering all the while, trying to remember his highlight. His leg was still jiggling. “Oh yeah, um, I was walking home the other night and, uh, someone told me they liked … um, my, my Game of Thrones shirt.” Suddenly aware of his fidgeting, he wedged his hands under his legs. “So, that—that was nice.”
“That is nice. Where was this?”
“Um, I was coming up from the subway. The, uh, Girard station.”
“Was it a man or a woman?”
“A man. He seemed shy. Like me.”
“Great! Why was that your highlight?” Maris had almost the hint of a smile at David’s earnesty.
“It made me—made me feel good.” In between the excessive blinking, he smiled momentarily. “To, uh, you know, get a compliment from someone. From someone who, like, wouldn’t, uh, have … I mean, who, like, doesn’t know me and, you know, he didn’t have to say that. Um. You know?”
“Yeah, I do. Because he doesn’t know anything about you, the compliment simply means that he genuinely thought your shirt was cool. And that’s cool to have someone think you’re cool,” Maris helped.
David nodded quickly, blinking, and scratching his cheek. “Yes. Yes.”
James felt he was seeing Maris for the first time. Her stiff compassion was sweet, but unsettling.
“That’s wonderful, David. I’m glad you had that experience.”
David smiled at the floor, still nodding.
Maris saw Maria was still blotting in the corner. “Maria, are you alright?”
Maria turned, looking at the floor, threw away the blood-spotted tissue and begrudgingly returned to the circle.
“Well, Maria, I didn’t mean to bring you back if your arm is still bleeding. I just wanted to check on you.” Maris began drawing circles with her fingers on the back of her clipboard again.
Maria sat carefully in her seat and shook her head.
“Okay. Do you have a highlight to share?”
Maria was still. Her hands were gripping the seat and Leslie saw her knuckles whiten as she clenched harder. Black and thick, her hair masked her face except for the top of her forehead. Maris, James, and Leslie watched her for a few long moments. James rubbed his hair. Maris drew her circles. Leslie chewed her nails.
“She’s not gonna talk.” Leslie’s voice was loud and sudden.
David flinched again.
Maris frowned. “If Maria wants to talk, she will.”
“She doesn’t want to,” Leslie said exasperatedly.
“You don’t know that and you’re making it more difficult by interrupting her thought process.”
Leslie resumed her nail biting with a notable degree of attitude. Despite the fact that Leslie was in her late twenties, Maris sullenly thanked her lucky stars that she never had and didn’t want children.
“Maria?” Maris asked.
Maria shook her head.
“You sure you don’t want to share?”
“Alright.” Maris stopped, trying to think how to best phrase it: “You’ve been with us for five weeks now, Maria. I know from firsthand experience how helpful it is just to observe these kind of sessions; it’s easier when you can get your mind off your own troubles without having to contribute. But I’d like to challenge you to prepare yourself to share something next session, okay? I think it’ll really be helpful for you. It’s very healing to share something and have people really listen to you. Okay?”
Maria took an audible breath, paused for a moment, then minutely nodded.
“Great. I’m gonna hold you to that, okay, Maria?”
Maria nodded slowly.
Taking a long, slow breath in, Maris looked at her clipboard, then looked out at the weather. The day seemed to have gotten darker and heavier, and it looked like it was going to snow again. Having shoveled more pounds of snow off her sidewalk and driveway in the past two months than she had planned to shovel in her whole life, snow had thoroughly lost its appeal.
She turned back to the group, newly dissatisfied with her life. “Okay. James. Highlight?”
James rubbed his hair a few extra times. “Um.”
Maris watched him, still trying to get a read. James was her oldest member. He had been coming to her meetings for almost a year, and at every session, he gave a highlight, and sometimes even gave a low light. When she delicately tried to ask him why he came at all, he would give a vague answer about needing healing and she would move on.
The only things she knew about him was that he moved to the states when he was twenty, obtained his citizenship at thirty, was single, was forty-four, and the rest of his family was back in Cambodia. Overall, he seemed like a fairly healthy person who didn’t have a apparent need for the meetings, but she couldn’t say that out loud. She couldn’t tell him to go away. Although, sometimes he was helpful as an example of a healthy, adjusted person for the others.
“My mom called from Cambodia and we had a long chat. It was nice to hear from her.”
“That’s nice. Everyone doing okay at home?”
“Yeah, they seem to be. My sister has a new boyfriend. My brother was just hired as a bartender at a new restaurant in the city. He was even featured in an article about the growing bar scene in Phnom Penh, which was pretty cool.”
“Yeah. That’s the highlight, I’d say.”
“How did it make you feel?”
“I mean, it made me feel a little homesick, but I was happy to hear her voice and to hear about my brother. And to know that my family is doing well.”
“Great.” Maris wracked her brain for another question for James, but in the current of panic, she couldn’t. Finally, one popped into her head: “You were close with your mom, right?”
“And your father?”
“He was killed when I was very young.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t know that.”
“May I ask how old you were?”
“I was six.”
“Do you remember him very well?”
“Yes, I remember him.”
“Were you close?”
“May I ask what took him from you?”
“Oh. From the Vietnam war?” Maris knew she shouldn’t be asking so many prying questions, but couldn’t help herself. This was the first real information she had ever gotten from James.
“No. A Khmer Rouge officer.”
“A Khmer Rouge officer. It was a communist party that took over Cambodia in the late seventies.”
“Yes. The officer killed him in front of our whole family. We were hiding in closets and under beds. And they killed the majority of our village. There were only about fifteen of them and about a hundred of us, but we were helpless.”
Leslie stopped biting her nails, watching James intently. He was delivering this information so neutrally, it mystified her. David’s leg jiggling slowed as he leaned in to the conversation. He had never heard of this.
“They were led by a man named Pol Pot. He began to lead a regime of social engineering against people who were involved in international affairs, art, or politics so that his Stalinist ideology could take hold. He hated anything that educated the people. My father was a filmmaker, who spoke fluent French. Not what most would consider an enemy.”
“No, not at all.” Maris was rapt.
“Pol Pot killed about two million Khmer people in four years.”
“Oh my god,” Leslie blurted.
“I’ve never heard of this,” said Maris.
“No,” he said quite calmly.
“Why is that?” Maris asked.
“I don’t know. Cambodians rarely talk about it anyway.”
“I don’t know. I suppose we just … move on.”
“But … how can you just move on from something like that?” Leslie asked. “That must have been awful for you.”
“It was for a time. I still often think of him. My uncle and aunt were also taken. My father, uncle, and aunt and the millions of others are the reason I come here. I sometimes have such grief. But coming here … coming here helps me see that I’m not alone in my pain.”
The four others observed him from their own expanding worlds. Leslie’s hands were in her lap as she watched James brush his hand across his hair again. David’s leg was completely still and his hands were clasped, perhaps in prayer for James. Maria’s dark eyes peered out from her drapes of hair, seeming to send words to James that her mouth didn’t have. Maris was smiling kindly at James.
“I’m sorry, James,” a voice said.
All four others looked at Maria in astonishment. Maria gazed at James and he at her.
“Thank you, Maria. I am, too,” he said.
“My dad died when I was young, too,” Leslie said. “I know what that’s like and I’m sorry you had to go through that.”
“Thank you, Leslie.”
David said, “People should know about that.”
“Yes, they should,” James agreed. “But, the Khmer people are very … stoic? Is that the right word?”
“Yes. We endure our pain and move on. Many have pain. We are not alone in our pain and, in a strange way, that’s a comfort. Makes it more bearable, I think. So rather than dwell on it, we go on.”
There was a silence that seemed to glow with warmth.
Maris said, “That’s very beautiful, James. I couldn’t have said it better myself. But, may I ask … why are you just now telling us this? You’ve been with us for almost a year.”
“No one asked,” he said simply.
When the clock struck five, Maris, Leslie, David, Maria, and James adjourned and the sun ducked under the cotton cover of cloud in a golden blast of light and began to melt the first layer of sludge and snow. As the clock struck six, the sun disappeared and the clouds dissipated, whispering the promise of another sunlit day.