“Name’s Sharise.” She pronounces it with a hard ‘ch” sound. “I’m here because my man was killed during a robbery attempt. He was the cop who caught the squeal.” Her eyes fill with tears, but she steadies herself. “Motherfucker fired on him ‘fore he even had a chance to draw his piece. Been seven months now, but might as well been yesterday.” The woman to her left squeezes her hand, garnering a venomous look from the Latina who had spoken earlier. I am confused. Sharise had talked about the community earlier, so I assumed she was gay. Perhaps bi. I, of all people, should not be making snap judgments about anyone’s sexual orientation.
“Tudd.” A white woman in her late thirties with short hair and a stout neck barks out her name. She is sitting on Sharise’s immediate right. “Dad wanted a son to carry his name, Todd. Got five girls instead. I was the last one.” She pauses her gray eyes going cold. “Was raped on the way home from work. Teacher. Elementary school. Three months ago. Had to give up teaching for now.” The anguish on her face is excruciating to watch. “That’s all.”
“Jennifer,” the Latina with the wild hair, but prim lips spits out her name. She is in her early twenties, but acts like she’s three decades older. “Like Jennifer Lopez, only not such a whore.” I shift my eyes and see the cross around her neck. “I am here because, well, my father, uh, touched me until I left for college. I didn’t even talk about it the first year I was at State. When I did, the counselor recommended this group to me.” She pauses before adding, “I have to repeat that I’m uncomfortable with lesbians. It’s a sin.” There is a collective groan in the room.
“Yeah, well we’re fucking uncomfortable with right-wing bigots like you!” Ashley sneers. Even though she is not next in line, she goes, anyway. “Fuck, I’m Ashley. Like, my school counselor practically ordered me to get some help, or he threatened to throw me out of school. I don’t need this bullshit, though. Three more months and I’m out of here.” Counselor? School? She must still be in high school.
“Ashley, don’t forget to tell Rayne why you’re here,” Carol interjects gently.
“Like, fuck. So my mother fucking died a couple months ago. So fucking what? The bitch hated me, anyway.” Despite her tough words, tears gather in her eyes. She lets out a stream of curses so creative, I look at her in admiration. Everyone turns to look at the Latina sitting next to Jennifer as she is the next in line, but she stares resolutely at the floor.
“Rosie?” Carol says softly. “Please introduce yourself.”
“My name is Rosie,” she says with great difficulty. “My son, he is dead. Shot. Gangbangers think he down with Surenos. They down with Nortenos. They no bother to talk—just shoot.” She is a thirty-something year old woman already beaten down by life. “Ten months ago, this happens. I think about him every day. My sister, she works here. Tells me to come. She makes me.” She stops, her face wet with tears. She sobs noiselessly as if she’s used to holding it in. “My baby, he is only twelve. No reason they must shoot him.” I vaguely remember reading about the case; it happened not far from where I lived. There is a moment of silence before the black woman next to her speaks.
“My name is Astarte.” This is an imposing woman in her majestic green flowing robe-like garment which is swathed around her body. “I am the battle goddess; I am the symbol of fertility and motherhood. I am the goddess within each of us.” Her voice has a faintly Caribbean cadence to it as she falls into chant. “I am strong so we can each be strong.” I could listen to her recite the alphabet and be content. “There is enough love for each of us.”
“Why are you here, Astarte?” Carol interjects again while the other women roll their eyes. They probably are tired of the goddess spiel as I know I will quickly become.
“To spread the word of love,” Astarte beams. Her shoulders droop an inch as she adds, “And because my mind has had some unrest lately. I have breast cancer, but I am confident I will triumph over it.” I can feel everyone wanting to ask the obvious—if she’s so confident, why is she here—but no one asks. “Do I want to die? No, but I accept this is the journey I need to be on right now. If I can assist someone else along the way, well, even better.” She bestows us with another smile, not as magnificent as the previous one.
“Well, I guess I’m last again.” The last woman, a Latina in her mid-thirties speaks with the remnants of a Bronx twang. “Guess I’m turning Californian after all!” Everyone laughs, relieved to break up the tension. “I’m Maria. My parents were murdered a couple months ago back in New York. They were on their way to visit my sister who just had her first child—their first grandchild. That triggered off the depression from 9/11 ‘cause many of my childhood friends were in the towers, you know what I mean? So when my family died, forget about it. My aunt here, she hooked me up with this outfit. Seems to be doing some good.” She shrugs as she trails off abruptly. A hush falls over the group.
“Thank you, everyone,” Carol says with a smile. “For those of you who have been here a few months, I apologize that you’ve had to sit through this every four to five weeks. I think it vital, though, that we know each other as people and not just as strangers. For Rayne’s benefit, I’m going to give the company spiel. What’s said in the room stays in the room, much like AA meetings. Our goal is to create a safe space to talk without censure. I know that with a group, especially one this size, there is bound to be dissention. That’s great! We encourage dialogue and debate. What we don’t want is disrespect. That means no cursing someone out; no interrupting someone when she is talking; that means if you’re having a problem with someone you still treat her with respect. Understood?” Everybody except Ashley nods—it seems to me the rules were made especially for her.
“Now, about me. I have been practicing family, couple and individual therapy for fifteen years. My specialty is fractured relationships. Also, eating disorders.” I think about my coworker, Quinn, who is struggling with an eating disorder. Maybe I can convince her to call Carol. “Also, healing from within. What I mean is, each of us has the tools to heal herself. They’re just locked away somewhere deep inside. My job is to find a way to unlock that secret part and help you access those tools. To that end, I will facilitate the group, but try not be too intrusive. Finally, I’m working on a book about the dynamics of group therapy, but I want to assure everyone that I will not profile people from the group without their consent. Any questions?” Everyone shakes her head. “Let’s begin. Who has something on her mind tonight?”
The meeting is not nearly as interesting as the introductions. One woman brings up feelings of hopelessness and inadequateness. Others talk about depression and despair. Hardly earth-shattering information. I am shifting in my seat after half an hour of this touchy-feely stuff. Even though I am a native Californian, I heartily disapprove of ‘checking in’ or ‘processing’. Part of me wonders if this is all a sham—like medication. “Oh no, I feel bad. Medicate me.” I am not entirely convinced that talking about a traumatic experience helps you through it, especially if it’s just your mind obsessing over and over about the same thing. Every time I talk about what happens, I feel as if I’ve fallen into a rut from which I can’t break free. I force myself to pay attention to another of Ashley’s curse-laden, humorous anecdotes. Despite her antipathy towards me, I am beginning to like this girl.
“Good work, everyone,” Carol finally says. I pray that the meeting is over, but alas, my prayers are not answered. “Let’s take a ten minute break.” Three of the women slip outside, presumably to smoke. Ashley is, of course, one of them. The rest of us grab brownies and coffee. and try to make small talk. I find myself next to Astarte who is looking askance at the brownies.
“Do you know what you’re doing to your body with those?” She says mournfully. Before I can reply, she plows on. “So many people meditate or pray or do what they can to clear their minds without first thinking of clearing their bodies. Our bodies are indeed temples, and they must be treated as such.”
“I think the soul is nurtured by good food,” I counter. “Whether it includes sugar or not.” Especially if it includes chocolate, but I don’t say that.
“There are many wonderful vegan choices that are as pleasing to the palate as to the mind,” Astarte insists, swishing her robes grandly. She is over six-feet tall, and I am completely dwarfed by her. “Greens, up by Russian Hills is fabulous. They’re not strictly vegan, but will make the dishes that way if you request it.” She notes that I do not look impressed and hastens on. “Right here in the Mission District is the Herbivore, which is one of the few truly vegan restaurants in San Francisco.” I waver. I love Herbivore, but not because it’s vegan—because it tastes good. “I used to abuse my body. Drugs, alcohol, rich foods. Now, I jog three miles a day, lift weights three times a week, practice yoga, eat only vegan foods and drink purified water.” She bestows her radiant smile upon me. “I feel a hundred percent better now that I’m forty-five than I did in my twenties.”
“You certainly don’t look like you’re in your forties,” I say, somewhat grudgingly giving her her due.
“It’s hard, isn’t it?” Suddenly, she drops the goddess-like tones and sounds weary. Just as I’m about to dismiss her as another Marin flake, she changes on me! “Facing death. Only, I think yours must have been harder because you couldn’t prepare for it.”
“It would have been quick, though,” I protest. “No time to brood over it.” After that, I don’t mind as much when she starts in on her goddess kick again. Whatever gets you through the day that doesn’t hurt someone is ok by me. If this is what it takes for her to survive, then I am for it. The ten minutes fly by, and Carol reconvenes us.
The second half of the meeting starts out as dully as the first half ended. I mean no disrespect, but Jennifer is a prig who believes that French-kissing a guy before marriage is a cardinal sin. She sits there with her legs primly crossed and her mouth puckered up as she glares at the known queers. Everything she says is filled with God-driven sentiment. I struggle to have as much compassion for her as I do for Astarte, but it’s difficult as Jennifer just isn’t very likable in her self-righteousness. I remind myself she’s gone through a horrible ordeal, but it doesn’t make me like her any better. I prefer listening to Ashley than to Jennifer, and that’s saying something. I notice that Jennifer rubs Ashley the wrong way as well. Every time Jennifer speaks, Ashley makes a big production of sighing and rolling her eyes upwards. When Carol reprimands her for her lack of respect, Ashley just heaves another sigh. Then, just as I’m about to fall asleep, things got heated. Somehow, the subject of abortion rolls around which is guaranteed to start a riot in the best of times—which this isn’t.
“I don’t get the fucking attitude from pro-choice people,” Ashley says, tugging her baby tee down, but it barely reaches her navel—which has a thin gold hoop running through it. “You fuck someone, you mess up, you get it taken care of. What’s the big deal? That’s why it’s called pro-choice, right? Yet, pro-choicers want to fucking judge just as much as everyone else. ‘Don’t use it as a contraception.’ Why the fuck not? Better than having the brat, right?”
“You are evil,” Jennifer says, standing up. “I can’t sit in the room with this person.” Her face is very white as she clutches the back of her chair. “You speak so casually of abortion, like it’s trash pick-up or something. You will burn in hell. That’s a living human being in there. You can’t get past that.”
“Can it live on its fucking own outside the body?” Ashley shoots back. “No. Therefore it’s, at best, a potential human.”
“I’d like to comment on your earlier point,” Astarte says calmly. “It’s disingenuous to say that pro-choicers should have no problem with women who use abortion as a contraceptive if it’s a matter of choice. Contraceptive, not contraception, by the way. I don’t think it’s too much to ask for a woman to make an informed choice and not just think it’s a merry lark. However, I am staunchly pro-choice. Those two are not contradictory.”
“Bullshit! Either you’re for them or you’re against them,” Ashley snarls, leaning forward in her chair. Jennifer is hovering, undecided about whether to leave or not.
“Not that simple,” Tudd grunts. “Nothing ever that black and white.” She looks at her meaty hands as everyone waits for her to continue. “Know a woman had four in rapid succession. Finally got her tubes tied. A relief. Her insides were pretty torn up. Had to have them—better if she improved life overall first.” She stops again, her face miserable. “Never was good at talking.”
“God, listen to yourselves,” Ashley says disdainfully. “Such fucking hypocrites. It’s ok to have an abortion only if you’re really fucking sorry about it and suffer in making the decision. What bullshit.”
“It is a big decision,” Astarte insists. “I feel horror and sorrow that some of the younger generation don’t think it’s a big deal.”
“Like, get over it, old lady,” Ashley sneers. “My best friend had three of them and doesn’t sweat a single one. I also think it’s lame to try to jack a guy for cash for an abortion. I mean, it takes two to tango, right? So why should the guy be penalized?”
“What about responsibilities? It definitely takes two to tango, so both parties should be responsible as well,” Astarte says reasonably.
“Man, you would say that,” Ashley says, rolling her eyes. “Spoken like a nutty feminist. Maybe if you were getting some action, you wouldn’t be so harsh on men.”
“Ok, Ashley, that was disrespectful,” Carol intercedes quickly. True to her word, she remains relatively quiet, but knows when to jump in the fray.
“Let her talk, Carol. I can take care of myself.” Astarte waves one ring-encrusted hand. Indeed, she does look like the battle goddess or a black warrior princess. “Ashley, you’d be a pretty cool kid if you dropped the attitude.” I see heads nodding in agreement. “You can also stop trying to be someone you’re not.”
“What the fuck you mean by that?” Ashley is blustering, but her eyes have gone still. “Everybody pretends to be someone they’re not.”
“You’re not from the Mission or the Tenderloin or any place hard. Your father is filthy rich, and you live in Marin County. You go to a private school when you bother to attend, and you drive a cute little Lexus your daddy gave you.”
“So what the fuck? I can’t be down because I got the cheddar?” Ashley is shooting daggers at Astarte who is dodging them neatly. “And don’t you talk about my daddy!”
“Oh, Ashley.” Astarte shakes her head sadly, pity creeping into her eyes. This is apparently too much for Ashley who launches herself at Astarte. Astarte is deceptively nimble for a woman her size and neatly moves out of Ashley’s way. Ashley ends up crumpled on the floor, but still spitting mad.
“You fucking bitch. You don’t know what you’re talking about.” Ashley yells, pounding on the ground. “You think you’re so fucking spiritual, but you’re just hoo-hoo nuts. Your husband killed himself to get the fuck away from you.” The entire room goes still. Nobody dares looks at Astarte. Even Ashley looks stricken as if she knows she went too far. I don’t know what’s going on, but this obviously is something the rest of the women know about.
“That’s certainly true, Ashley,” Astarte finally says, her voice tight. “My love was smothering him, and he didn’t have the fortitude to say anything to me about it. Or perhaps he tried, but I was not capable of listening. So, yes, he did kill himself to get away from me.” Even as she delivers this painful admission, she still remains noble. It’s Ashley who appears petty and stupid, or at least like a foolish teenage girl.
“I didn’t mean that,” Ashley mumbles as she struggles to her feet. There is tension in the room as everybody finds her seat and sits.
“You will still go to hell,” Jennifer mutters under her breath as she settles down.
“That’s fine with me as long as you’re not there!” Ashley shoots back, tossing her head defiantly.
“Perhaps we should stop here for the night,” Carol says gently. “I feel like this is a natural breaking point. What does everyone think?” I nearly groan out loud. Why can’t we Californians close out any kind of group therapy thing without reaching a consensus? Happily, most heads are nodding. “I’d like to say a few words in closing. I know this group is for healing from trauma and certainly, that is our focus. However, when other issues arise such as the abortion issue, I like to see where it takes us. I think we did good work here tonight.” Women begin gathering their things and head for the door. I am one of them until Carol’s voice stops me. “Rayne, I’d like to talk to you for a minute.” I wait until everyone else leaves.
“What’s up?” I ask casually. I want nothing more than to have a hot shower and go to sleep. It’s only a quarter to nine, but I’m exhausted.
“I just wanted to check in with you and see how you’re doing?” Carol peers at me, her eyes earnest. I hate the phrase ‘check in’; it’s right up there with using ‘process’ as a verb such as, ‘we have to process this relationship.’
“I’m fine,” I mumble. What else is there to say? I would rather watch paint dry than return to the group? I liked most of the women just fine, but I didn’t find the group itself helpful.
“Will you be coming back next week?” Damn the woman for picking up on my ambivalence. I shrug, not wanting to turn her down flat. I wish I was bold enough to firmly decline and walk out the door, but I have the sinking feeling that she will not let me go that easily. “I know it’s been a new and perhaps frightening experience, but it’s really hard to judge the effects based on one meeting.” Still, I do not respond; I do not want to return. “Look, Rayne. I’ll make a deal with you. Come to one more meeting. If you’re not convinced after next week that I can do something for you, then you can walk. I won’t hassle you to come again. How does that sound?” I suppose it couldn’t hurt to give it one more shot. I nod my head reluctantly, then quirk my eyebrow. “You can go. I have a few things to take care of before I’m able to leave.” She flashes a warm smile at me. “See you next week!” I hurry out of the room, a bit resentful that she manipulated me into coming back next week. I see Ashley loitering outside, sullenly smoking a cigarette. I’m not up to exposing myself to more of her invectives, so I walk a different route.
“Well, how’d it go?” Paris asks me the minute I walked in the door.
“I don’t know, Paris,” I say, shrugging out of my coat. “I don’t think it’s going to do any good.”
“You’ve only gone once,” he protests, echoing the sentiments of Carol. “You’re being awfully judgmental.”
“I’m going one more time,” I inform him to get him off my back. “Then I’ll make a decision whether I want to go any more or not.”