Every Monday morning we gather on the sagging sofas, some of us crosslegged, holding cushions to our chests, and report on the week’s cases. There is the woman I accompanied to the courtroom to testify after she was held hostage by a fiancé in a cabin for three days. It took effort to ignore the swastika tattoos on her forearms. There is the schoolboy I see each year on the reservation who says, My grandfather told me not to trust anyone who isn’t Indian. He keeps telling, in spite of complicated outcomes. There is the fourteen-year-old I counseled, Christian and questioning, who found himself in a car with a middle-aged man but blamed himself, tortured with confusion, caught between beliefs. He thinks he asked for it in his sin-seeking, mistaking curiosity for consent. There is the little girl waiting to go on the witness stand who is made to listen to her father’s public defender lie: how truly sorry your dad is that you have to go through this now. There are children, like her, requested by the evidentiary nurse to go on all fours like a puppy so she can search for tiny tears or sexually transmitted diseases. There are mothers triggered by prior abuse, trying to be supportive to their abused children. There are people with emerging body memories, dissociative episodes, suicidal tendencies. There are people with schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress, multiple personalities. Someone’s “alters” take turns talking on the crisis line, including a splintered inner child I sing to sleep in an imaginary rocking chair we both visualize.
I seem to be the only one who gets the pranks, always in the middle of the night. I know he’s pretending, I tell my coworkers. I can feel it in my gut. Keep to protocol. Respond as usual…until we can be certain, I’m told by management. No one else has to hear the play-by- play, told in more graphic detail than any client would reveal. Unlike other callers, there’s never any talk of feelings, although I’ve tried to steer the conversation there. Instead, his lewd description builds to a climax before he hangs up, suddenly. I try to shove each scene into a little pocket in my brain, but my body is left with the residue. Images infiltrate my dreams. I wake with exhaustion when duty calls at 2 AM.
What would happen if you stopped doing your job? asks my therapist. I know she also means this metaphorically. I tell her about the supervisor who postponed another round of chemo so she can be on backup 24/7 for any crisis. When a coworker addresses the demanding workload—weekly on-call shifts in addition to the usual forty hours—she gets a miles-in-the- snow reply: We used to take ten shifts a month! We used to do six workshops in a day! I feel obligated to help hold things together. You should consider going to Codependents Anonymous, a friend suggests.
My boyfriend sends me to his clairvoyant masseuse. Oh, I could never do that, she says of my occupation, as if sexual assault is something I might contract like leprosy. She works with chakras and notes my lower back is blocked. That’s about your relationship with men, she says. Then she tells me about someone who had a flashback while she worked around her pelvis. I was so worried I’d tapped into wounds this woman wasn’t ready to know about. Hearing another disclosure while I’m being treated for burn-out makes my body tense back up. I tell her about my heart palpitations. I rub the jaw that feels locked. When she holds my head in her hands, everything releases. Rivulets of tears crack the mask I’ve been wearing like a shield. We often find work we need to do ourselves, she says, like a mirror to our own issues. I am annoyed by the implications.
My therapist confirms: These experiences tap into what you’re trying to resolve: namely, holding your own boundaries while witnessing another’s wounding. She asks me to select objects from a shelf and place them in a sand tray. On one side: a casket, a Tasmanian devil, a troll with beady eyes. On the other: a well, a treasure chest, a fairy with wings. In between lies a walking bridge. Your work is one of integration, she says. I talk briefly with my dad who says I sound sad. When I tell him the last few months have been hard he replies, Maybe that’s why I don’t hear from you for long chunks of time.
One weekend, friends and I build a sweat lodge of willows on the banks of a wild river. I crouch on cobbles, naked and sobbing, purging at the water’s edge. Another weekend I retreat with four hundred women who drum and dance around a fire circle into the night. In the forest stands a tall red tent with sheer walls fluttering in the breeze, its translucent skin like breath. Inside, a woman slumbers while her young daughter plays nearby—a cloth angel in one hand, a goddess figurine in the other. She is whispering make-believe. Oh, this rock is so pretty, she remarks, holding up an object from the altar table. The carved stone is shaped into a vulva. I can’t go back, I tell a friend when it’s time to leave. There is no way I can go back.
On my final call to the hospital, a teenage girl with green hair sings a quiet song. Her mother lies exposed on the exam table, circling a closed fist around her chest. Chapstick for my heart, she says. The daughter stands by her mother’s side, kissing her tear-stained cheeks. She strokes her mother’s arm above the bruises marked by a boyfriend’s grip. The woman asks her daughter to stop singing. I don’t want something so beautiful attached to this mess, she says. The girl smiles a sad smile and reaches out for my hand. I clasp mine in hers. Love breaks through all hardship, she promises.
NICOLE R. ZIMMERMAN holds an MFA in Writing from the University of San Francisco. She is a 2019 recipient of the Discovered Awards for Emerging Literary Artists, produced by Creative Sonoma and funded, in part, by the National Endowment for the Arts. Her work, including a Pushcart nomination from the South Loop Review, appears or is forthcoming in literary journals such as About Place, Hypertext Review, Halfway Down the Stairs, Cagibi, Toho, Ruminate, Birdland, Origins, and Creative Nonfiction. She lives with her wife in Northern California where she hosts writing sessions and leads workshops. https://www.nicolerzimmerman.com/
Image: “Hidden” by Yurika Chiba