The therapist is nondescript. She sits in front of Lily, nondescript brown hair hanging limply around her nondescript eyes and cheeks. The ambivalent half-whisper that emerges from her exceedingly ordinary lips is monotone. Her figure is thoroughly average, as are her dress and shoes. The pad of paper in her hands is appropriately stock, and the handwriting upon it is perfectly indistinguishable from that of every other person in the universe.
Her office is equally so. Behind her, two beige walls are propped up against each other, leaning against one another somewhat despondently. Tucked away between their collective moan, her desk heaves a sigh of dejection and its appropriate half-stacks of unidentifiably identical papers seem to be sinking with a quiet frown into the perfectly unmarked wood. Drooping from the walls are several photographs of nondescript people doing nondescript things, frozen in nondescript frames of nondescript wood, and hung in such an extraordinarily ordinary pattern that you barely notice them at all.
“Maybe a diary would help,” she says, gazing at Lily as her nondescript half-whisper wanders languidly over to the girl nervously awaiting her advice. Lily’s fretfulness is somewhat tempered by the dullness of the brown pleather armchair on which she finds herself curiously perched and on which her fingers had been, just moments before, punching out a marching-band rhythm of agitation. The chair recoils and frowns deeply in disapproval at its unexpected provocation.
Do you dare judge me, sir?, Lily conjectures wildly.
The therapist’s half-whisper leaks out again from behind her mousy brown hair. “Sometimes,” it says, “diaries help people map out their moods. People who suffer from bipolar disorder often find that they can recognize their mood patterns if they can write them down. It helps them with processing the emotions they experience.”
But what will Mac think? Lily wonders more reasonably.
Lily shifts her weight to ease the heightening discomfort collecting around her ankles. The chair erupts in a grunt of dissatisfaction. A small moment of silence ensues, in which the beige walls gradually begin to droop into the beige carpet. Like the desk, the room heaves a sigh as Lily contemplates her fate. The chair grows increasingly restless beneath her and she wonders if it is tempted to buck her off.
The half-whisper interrupts her antagonistic furniture. “Do you think that would help?”
Lily pauses quizzically. “I suppose I can try it,” she ventures.
The chair launches back on its haunches with a decidedly unfriendly “hmph!”
I just hope Mac will understand, Lily pleads silently.
“Jesus, Mac, you look like hell.”
“Nice to see you, too, beautiful.”
“Did you sleep at all?”
“No,” he responds quietly. “Not really. Weird dream.”
“Oh? About what?” Her voice is calm as they stroll down their favorite local waterside. Although Mac is distracted and Lily subdued, the stream winds coyly around them, flecked with the foam spittle of its prolonged giggle. Bursts of violet spring up from within deep green hedges stretching along the banks down to the water. The footpath stretches lazily into the distance, meandering over half-hidden benches, and the sun brushes lightly along Lily’s shoulders, burning bright across her pale shoulders.
Mac squints up at the sun. He appears to be summoning himself. He coughs.
“It was weird. There was this guy who was tied up, tied up like a hostage, yah know? Blindfold, ropes, everything. And totally unconscious. He was filthy and it looked like he’d gotten the shit kicked out of him. The whole place was dark and the only other thing in the room was this giant clock. The clock looked like it should’ve stopped working a long time ago, but it wouldn’t stop ticking. All the time, this goddamn ticking. Tick, tock. Tick, tock. So everything was quiet and serene, and creepy, and then all of a sudden there was this scream.”
Lily’s eyebrows jump. “And?”
”I woke up.”
“You heard a scream and then just woke up?”
“It was sort of like the scream woke me up….do you know what I mean?”
“Yeah, I think I got it…but I don’t really see why you’re so freaked out about it.” Her voice smiles, but the corners of her mouth slip downward. Mac pouts.
“Come on. It’s weird, right?”
“It’s weird, I’ll give you that, but maybe you shouldn’t be a baby about it.” She giggles and nudges his arm with hers, a grin cracking her thin face. Mac turns toward the water and laughs, throwing his arm around her and pulling her closer to him.
“Good to know you’re in my corner.” He smiles down at her light green eyes and chuckles, but his eyes hover for only a moment; after a beat, they return to the river, the smile behind them lost in the water.
“Oh, wow, look at that.” Mac breaks apart and reaches down for a barely-broken robin’s egg nestled against her toe. He smiles, caught by the purple swirled in with the white and blue—like a lost lollipop, half-buried in the bank. “Beautiful.”
Lily bends over and plucks it from beneath her feet, but her heart deflates when she turns it over. Beneath the blue, the smooth surface gives way to a jagged wound still stained with unfinished life. Her eyes dim.
“It’s beautiful, but it’s a total mess on the inside.” She looks at it for a moment longer, but turns suddenly and swings her hair around her shoulder. “Let’s forget about it.”
Mac frowns slightly and lets himself fall to the grass, and the two are silent as the waters gurgle by.
The room looms before her like a fish-eye close-up of a distant mountain some wandering hero has been assigned to climb. The faded white door squats in front of her—the troll guarding the waters beneath the bridge—and Lily wonders vaguely if it is luring her into a spider’s web of mutual dependence. She squints at the hastily-scribbled label suspended atop: Bipolar Support Group.
A jumbled heap of young adults is grouped outside. They all seem to be peculiarly prone to squirming. She supposes the spider’s web into which she is flinging herself is responsible. She supposes they are all caught, too, and know the eight-legged monstrosity is always close on its way.
But she supposes she should not be melodramatic.
“Hi, are you in our group?”
Lily turns and sees a bright-eyed girl with a twitching smile that seems jumpy on her lips. She’s waiting for Lily to speak.
Lily hovers. “Ah, which group?” she asks evasively.
“Bipolar,” the jumbled heap moans collectively. Lily is mysteriously reminded of The Therapist’s office and briefly wonders if everything in this building is prone to sighing collectively and sinking into various piles of self-worthlessness.
“Ah,” she says. “Yes.”
She has entered the correct password. The squat troll retreats ominously, creaking back to reveal a very cozy mahogany-toned room lined with bookshelves that are stuffed with books no one has ever read. To the right crouches a cluttered desk that seems a little forgotten. All attention is drawn to the center, where a ring of wooden chairs offers The Diseased Patients the individual pockets of web in which they may patiently await whatever spiders they periodically find crawling down their spines.
The half-whisper invites them in. They obey accordingly.
A few moments pass in which Lily envisions An Impossible Scenario that culminates in the total destruction of the very cozy room. Thankfully, these chairs seem somewhat less inclined to buck her off. They crouch around her in their little wooden poses and trap her in their clutches.
“We have a new member,” the half-whisper erupts. Lily feels twelve pairs of eyes—fourteen, including the rectangular glasses of the boy to her right—turn their morbid curiosity to her very surprised face and her heart hammers wildly in her frozen chest. It is the only part of her that seems inclined to move.
“Would you like to begin?” the half-whisper prompts.
Lily straightens up in her chair and takes a deep breath. “Well,” she murmurs, “I’m, uh—I’m Lily. Harvey. Lily Harvey. My name is Lily Harvey.”
They nod encouragingly. The boy with the glasses to her right even smiles feebly and she smiles back and continues.
“Oh, and I’m bipolar.”
The glasses nod encouragingly. Lily takes a breath as if to speak; but with a small cough, she collapses again, and she is curiously quiet.
Two nights later, Lily is standing in her kitchen doing dishes at an entirely inappropriate hour of the night. She is minding her own business when her door explodes open and Mac charges in, brandishing her spare key and some critical news.
“Lily, I had my dream again.”
Silence rings into the hollow carved by this declaration. Lily stands awkwardly at the sink, a sponge in one hand and a plate in the other. The plate slips and shatters. The porcelain shards shoot out around her slippers, but Lily doesn’t seem to notice. She cocks her head.
“Mac, what the hell are you doing? It’s three in the morning.”
Mac shakes his head, rushes to her, and seizes her arms.
“Lily, it’s the dream. It means something. I know it does.”
After several moments, Lily detaches herself, massaging her arms and frowning. She toys with her blonde braid, pink-slippered toes pointed inward.
“Let’s sit down,” she proposes.
It seems odd, the change to domesticity. Mac scowls and flings himself into a chair. Lily tries with extreme difficulty not to show any emotion, and instead collects herself and perches on the seat across from him.
“I had my dream again,” Mac repeats.
Lily closes her eyes and rubs her palm along her neck.
“Lily, it’s Kyle.”
“Mac, don’t do this.”
“Lily, it’s Kyle. Kyle is coming back.”
“Mac, we’ve talked about this. It’s been two years—and you’ve come so far—you know it’s impossible.”
Mac grunts and turns away.
“Mac? Are you listening to me?”
Mac grinds his knuckles into his chest and shakes his head again. Lily slowly leans forward and lays one pinkish hand on his shoulder. He softens into the momentary pressure, which he continues to feel even after she places her hands in her own lap.
“I remember when we first heard,” he half-whispers. “I’d just come home for spring break—and there were police cars at my house.” His voice begins to break. “There were police cars and there were officers in my kitchen—and my parents were crying and I didn’t know why—”
Lily places her hand again on his back. He seizes her hand and pulls it against his chest. She pulls her other wrist up to the light.
“This is the same bracelet you gave me that year,” she says quietly.
A smile begins to tug at the premature pockets of tissue sagging under his eyes. “You still have it?”
She grins to herself and shifts the metal chain so that it gleams in the lamplight. “I used to believe that I’d have it forever.” She smiles again, but wrests her hand free from his grasp and pulls it back into her lap. “But that was a long time ago.”
She settles back in her chair and waits for him to speak. The table sitting between them seems oddly empty, as if it is quietly twiddling its thumbs and also waiting for Mac to respond. He drops his head between his elbows and lowers his voice.
“It wasn’t so long ago, right?”
Lily toys with her bracelet and says nothing.
“I never thought it’d be over. I knew that even if we didn’t find him at first, we would find him someday. I know we can find my brother. I knew it—and I still know it—and you’ve been the only one who’s understood, Lily.” He glances up. “I told everyone, Lily, but you were the only one who ever stuck by me. You’re my lily-pad.” He smiles weakly. “Nothing ever changes with you, and I love that.”
Lily lowers her eyes. “I never said I believed you, Mac.”
“Bipolar disorder,” she admits quietly, hands determinedly preoccupied with the pearl ring so conveniently wrapped around her knuckle. The Mother doesn’t miss a beat.
“Oh, absolutely. I’d believe that in a heartbeat,” she hiccups before returning to her very quaint cup of yogurt. “How do you feel?”
Lily says something vague and non-committal. She offers a thoroughly awkward wave of her shoulders to secure her ambivalence. She stares somewhat menacingly at that quaint cup of yogurt.
“Well, if you’re alright with it,” The Mother says with an equally ambiguous shrug before returning to her infuriatingly pink cup of goo.
A brief moment passes in which Lily envisions An Impossible Scenario in which she flings the infuriatingly pink goo at The Mother’s face. Thankfully, the moment passes, and the pink goo isn’t any the wiser, and so happily continues being infuriatingly pink and quaint.
Lily suddenly remembers her last appointment with The Therapist. She had rambled for nearly half an hour about The Mother—about the eating, about the pushing, about the perpetual whirlwind of mustard and mayhem that seem to define The Mother’s entire existence. The Therapist had made an utterly average inference and the half-whisper had asked if she’d ever had an eating disorder. Lily had frowned and scowled, but the half-whisper had persisted. People with bipolar disorder very frequently have trouble with anxiety and eating disorders, the half-whisper had half-whispered. Lily had clutched her brittle arms to her chest and clamped her lips tight.
Lily is about to say something very profound, but is here interrupted by Mac.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” he says, halting halfway through the door. “I just wanted to drop by to talk to Lily for a bit, but I can come back later.”
“Oh, that’s fine!” The Mother beams quite inappropriately. Lily scowls again. She had confessed to The Therapist only a week ago about Mac—about how his little brother, Kyle, had disappeared two years ago, and about how Mac had never fully recovered. The Therapist had responded with a nod and the half-whisper asked her if she was in love with Mac. Lily had blushed and checked her watch and was glad that it was time to go.
Lily turns to Mac. “I’ll call you when I’m done, hun,” she tosses before she turns back to The Mother and The Infuriatingly Pink Goo, which is now almost consumed. Its remains are disgusting, Lily thinks. She hates watching The Mother eat. Unfortunately, this is a problem, because The Mother is eating most of the time.
Mac ducks out and disappears. The Mother turns to Lily with her bloated fish-lips puckered and pouched.
“Oh, darling!—When are you going to marry him?” The Mother seems to expand with piggy hunger. Lily wonders vaguely if The Mother is going to consume her as well. She wonders if she already has.
“I’m not going to marry him,” she says.
“Oh, pish-posh—that’s absurd,” The Mother says stoutly. “He’s so handsome.”
“I’m not going to marry him,” Lily repeats.
“You always say that, but I’ll simply never understand why, Lilypad,” The Mother draws with a wink and a wave of her hand.
Because I can’t be with anyone, Lily muses. The Mother fishes another delightful little yogurt out of her purse and smacks her lips happily. Lily takes a breath as if to speak; but with a small cough, she collapses again, and she is curiously quiet.
“Mac? Mac, are you in there? Mac, let me in, come on!” Lily shrieks outside his door as she pounds on the doorframe. She hears his chest produce a hazy groan of recognition—incomplete without a blur of curses—as he stumbles to the door.
“You’re still asleep?”
“Good morning to you, too. Wake up. I want to go on an adventure!” Lily pushes by him and marches into his bedroom. She pounces to his closet.
“Where on earth is your favorite hat?—oh my God, I’d totally forgotten about this sweater! You wore it with that green jacket and, oh! goodness, weren’t you handsome? What was that, six months ago? Oh, I can’t wait for ice skating, I have been looking forward to this for weeks and—aha, jackpot! Okay so now we have your hat, where are your gloves…”
She prances over his jumbled belongings and skips to his desk. “Oh, I’ve been doing so much, and I can’t wait to do more! And who knows what can happen? The therapist was all wrong, I shouldn’t be trying to calm down, should I?” She glances over her shoulder and winks at Mac, who does not appear to be fully conscious. “Life is too beautiful to waste!”
“Wait, Lily,” Mac grumbles through the leftover sleep sticking stubbornly to his face, “what are you doing here?”
“No, I mean, did we plan something? Did I forget?”
“Oh my God, Mac, you say that like friends can’t just come over sometimes.”
“Hey, hey, I’m sorry. I was just checking. But hey, I mean, could we postpone? Because honestly, if you don’t have an emergency or anything, I’m really tired—”
“Are you serious?”
“I mean, I’m kind of busy—”
“Are you kidding me? Are you kicking me out?”
“I mean, you didn’t tell me you were coming—”
“Oh, like you told me you were coming over at three in the morning? Oh, like you announced yourself every—single—time—you show up out of nowhere?”
Mac’s eyes widen in surprise. He stands in his pajamas and fidgets with his pants pocket.
“Seriously, Mac? You’re an asshole.”
Mac continues to stand in his pajamas and toy with his pocket. Lily glares as she dimly processes his face—once so handsome, now worn and haggard. His usually clean-shaved jaw nurtures a thick growth of neglect; deep, angry purple smears stain the gaunt skin underneath his eyes; his skin is rough, unclean, blemished with inattention.
“But whatever.” Lily flips her hair back around and continues diving through his belongings. “You’re already awake, so there’s no difference now.”
“I mean, I still have things to do…”
“Don’t pretend you have a life, Mac.”
“Lily—are you okay? You seem a little tense—”
She turns to face him. “Mac Stephens, you are an asshole.”
He pauses, and then nods. “You mentioned that.”
She crosses her arms across her chest. “You really don’t want me here?”
Mac raises an eyebrow. Lily bursts.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” Lily throws Mac’s belongings onto his desk and gestures quite unnecessarily. “After everything I’ve done for you?—Everything I’ve given up for you? God, you’re—you’re a fucking asshole, you know that?” She turns and plunders his desk. When she turns back, she is armed with a stack of envelopes.
She tosses one on the ground at her feet. “Letter from your mother?”
She tosses another. “Urgent bank notice?”
“Seriously, Lily, this isn’t funny—”
“Credit card cancellation?”
“Jesus, Lily, stop!”
“Mac…have you even glanced at these?” Her eyes are wide, alarmed—furious—and her voice is a heavy electric current, throbbing with dynamite.
Mac does not answer. There is a silence louder than all of her chatter. It answers all of her questions.
She shatters and her shriek is high and electric—“God, Mac, do you have any idea how much trouble you’re in? How far you’ve sunk—”
“Jesus, Lily, calm down—“
“This is real life and you can’t just ignore it all—“
Mac’s voice begins to strain in spite of himself. “Who says I can’t? This is my life, and my bills are my damn business—come on, Lily, calm down—this is none of your business—”
“First you refuse to even speak to your parents, and look how hard they’ve tried to reach you! Did you ignore all of these? And then you refuse to work, now you refuse to just take care of yourself—it’s like you’re a robot programmed to never glance beyond your own microscopic excuse for a life—“
“What the hell is that supposed to mean? What are you talking about?”
“Mac, you can’t keep doing this to yourself! How long is it going to take? It has been two years! You need to—“
“Don’t you—don’t you dare—“
“—get—over—it! Kyle is not coming back and you can’t just—“
“Shut up, you have no idea—“
“—waste away your life looking for someone who lost his!”
Mac seems to crack and visibly crumble. Lily’s hands shake and her eyes are black and hard.
“You don’t notice a goddamn thing, do you? Well, I’m done. You can waste away your own life. I’m done wasting mine.”
She does not look at him as she sweeps past him. The only sound is the echo of the door thudding behind her, resonating in the ensuing silence.
“So you didn’t try and calm down,” says the half-whisper.
“No,” Lily murmurs, “I didn’t.” She seems slumped today.
The therapist sits across from her. The walls droop around them and the pictures are just as unremarkable as they were, and Lily has still never noticed them. Thankfully, however, the brown pleather armchair beneath her has somewhat adjusted to her increasingly frequent presence, and seems to groan less audibly when she perches atop.
“Hmm,” says the half-whisper.
“I barely even remember it,” Lily says quietly.
“Hmm.” Lily stares sullenly at the orderly arrangement of books next to The Therapist’s desk. She has never noticed them before. She doesn’t notice this, and thinks only that they make a dull arrangement. The Therapist folds her hands across her appropriately stock pad of paper.
“I apologized, but I still feel awful,” Lily murmurs. She hangs her head and rubs her fingers through her uncombed hair. It feels like aged spiderwebs have tangled atop of her head. She sweeps them up again. “I barely even remember it.”
“Did he accept your apology?” The half-whisper seems slightly sharper today, but Lily feels it like a blunt edge grazing across the bubble in which she is inexplicably locked. Energy is impossible in the bubble. It is a haze of fatigue. Lily feels her bones, massed with muscle and flesh, sinking farther every moment toward the ground, sluggish nerves dragging her body into exhaustion.
“Yes.” She wonders vaguely if she has begun to absorb The Therapist’s office, if the brown pleather armchair has begun to seep up into her.
“Has he noticed anything? Has he noticed any difference in you, or maybe in your relationship—”
“We’re not in a relationship.”
The half-whisper pauses. “Yes, I know.”
Lily squirms. “Sorry.”
“Has he noticed anything?” The half-whisper is strangely muffled, as if it can’t quite permeate the bubble.
“I don’t know,” Lily ventures after a moment. She feels swaddled and swathed in something unpleasant, like she wants to squirm free and wash herself, but all she can do is cringe, like that will slow the shadows wriggling up her spine. “I haven’t asked.”
“Did he mention anything?”
“I think he pinned it on caffeine,” Lily murmurs. There is a pressure she can’t alleviate—everywhere but elusive, like the black spots that wander across the corners of her vision when she feels faint—and she can’t pinpoint the pressure or escape it—she simply feels it—vaguely, loosely, but heavily. “That’s what I usually say.”
“Have you ever thought about telling him what you’re going through?”
Lily pauses. “I’ve thought about it.”
“And why don’t you?”
Lily shakes her head. “He has enough going on. He’s going through a lot.”
“Don’t you think he’d want to know?”
“He can’t know what you’re going through, if you don’t tell him.”
Lily picks at a fingernail.
“Does that seem fair to you?”
Lily opens her mouth, as if to speak; but with a small cough, she collapses again, and she is curiously quiet.
“Lily? Hey, are you there?” Mac’s voice is filtered strangely through the phone. Lily smiles.
“Hello, handsome,” she chirps. She turns a pirouette on her pink slipper and closes the refrigerator door, which she’d just been cleaning. She strips her arms of her polka-dotted rubber gloves and tucks her phone into her neck. “What’s up?”
“I haven’t seen you in a while. I just wanted to make sure you’re okay.”
“Oh, yes, I’m sorry about that,” Lily says with a giggle. “Just been busy. Even my refrigerator is clean!”
“Oh, my,” Mac laughs weakly. “Well, you must be feeling alright, if you’re willing to clean your refrigerator. I just wanted to check.”
“Oh, yes, honey, don’t worry,” Lily pitches. She pulls out a cabinet and starts wildly rearranging its contents without any idea what she’s doing. “Do you want to grab dinner tonight?” She laughs and instantly wonders why it sounds starchy, like a fluorescent light thrown over a tanning bed.
“I’m, ah—I can’t tonight,” Mac’s voice falters. “But I wanted to ask you—does tomorrow night work? I’d like to talk to you about something.”
“Oh?” Lily stops rearranging the drawer.
“It’s kind of important.”
“Is everything okay?” Lily frowns. She withdraws her hands and crosses them over her arms.
“Oh, yes—yes, of course,” Mac clips. “Don’t worry. See you tomorrow night!”
Lily is about to hang up, but hears Mac’s voice again.
“Lily—wait, don’t hang up!”
“You know I love you, Lily, right?”
Lily suddenly wonders where all her limbs went.
“See you tomorrow night, Lily,” Mac murmurs. Lily tries to untangle her tongue from her stomach, but hears a click and the disconnected call ringing in its wake. She stands for a moment, wanders to her bedroom, and doesn’t re-emerge all day.
Lily hardly sleeps that night. The sensation creeping down her spine, tingling somewhere just beyond her reach, isn’t something she can define—the tiny beads of energy charging through her bloodstream, like antagonistic mines, still untouched, dangerous and threatening and pulsing against the walls of her veins.
She eventually rises from her tangled heap of sheets and pillows, draping one around herself as she does so, and wanders tip-toe across her wooden floor. She pauses on her stool, seated at her mirror, and watches her feather-rimmed eyes flutter back at her in the lamplight. She tilts her head—just slightly—watching her blonde waves spill across her shoulders and trickle down her neck; watches her neck curve white, arching up to meet the gold rippling down its half-hidden crevices; shakes her head and tosses her hair behind her shoulders, shifting her gaze slightly farther up. Her eyes roam her hairline, her silk-colored forehead, her normally worry-creased eyes smoothed into wide-open, green-dropped pearls. So she sits—curious, not vain—wondering what kind of heart is locked within those light-reflective spheres, what pieces of herself she has stuffed away and which have begun to stir again; what intangible demons have bubbled up from a shipwrecked-self and broken some glassy surface within her; wondering what chambers she might find within, dare she step through the torn-open portal and wander amongst the lost pathways through her chest; wondering what dangers lurk, what monstrous minotaur awaits an unwelcome explorer. Her eyes begin to slip downwards, roving a small, dainty nose; a delicately arched, cream-white collarbone framing full, half-parted lips; and she reaches up with fingers stretching long and white in the semi-darkness and relishes the coolness of her fingertip as it traces the gentle hills and valleys that she clamps so unforgivingly tight; the lips that seem so strangely soft now, a swirl of rose-petal pink and cream, resting quietly in a relaxed half-smile that seemed so—so inactive, so tender—so elegantly serene, peeking out from her reflection like a long-lost, center-set gem, waiting to be dusted off.
The night curls around her half-open window, spotted with the quiet murmurings of city life, occasionally reaching in to nuzzle the curtains that are otherwise stationary. Lily passes her sleepless night thus, glancing occasionally at the white sheet wrapped around her, wondering what strangely erratic pulse beats within; and she steals sightless glances at the portrait of Mac lurking in the smoky-grey clouds behind her eyelids; and she feels him slipping past her defenses and stealing into unknown chambers in her heart; and her self-sensors creep dangerously within, stepping cautiously across an ancient minefield; and she finally wraps herself up again in her bed, blankets molding to the curve of her spine, and looks up into the night sky of her ceiling and watches geometric bars of light slide across the plaster. She wonders why the bars of lights are always flickering—as if they too have trouble with stability—as if they too can’t simply stay bright or stay dark; and she wonders if all the shadows in the world can’t encompass the individual gradients of darkness she knows too well; and she wonders what shadows within herself are beginning to snarl, threatening to swell, threatening to seep into her uncontrollably restless brightness. IX
Lily dresses particularly carefully the next evening. Nothing fits—nothing is perfect—it’s a crisis! It isn’t until she unearths a never-worn, lace-layered confection from the depths of her closet that she settles on looking semi-decent, after all. She twirls in her mirror and watches reddish fabric flutter over her skin, marveling at the raspberries kissing her pearly flesh. She indulges in a single moment of panic before she coughs and blinks several times.
Why are you worried? she thinks silently. It’s just Mac. She smooths her hair and puffs out her lips. It’s just Mac. She proceeds with eyeshadow and an artistic yet entirely random spattering of perfume. Since when has he ever been just Mac? She smooths her hair again. It’s just Mac. She turns to her mirror. Does Mac like lipstick? She consults her mirror. I’m sure he does. She plucks a lipstick from her makeup bag. Wait. She shakes herself. It doesn’t matter. She smooths her hair again. It’s just Mac. She straightens her shoulders and turns away from the mirror. It doesn’t matter. She clumsily climbs into her heels and topples to the door. I wonder what he’s going to say. She opens the door and steps into the falling evening. Wait. She turns around and reappears several seconds later. Okay, don’t sweat it. The tube of lipstick clinks inside her bag. It’s just Mac.
When she arrives at the restaurant, the hostess directs her to a tucked-away table in the corner, dimly lit by a single candle and framed by two low-hanging lamps lounging on the walls opposite. Mac is already there, smiling and holding out his hands, and he is waiting for her.
“Lily, you look beautiful,” he murmurs when she stumbles up to him.
She blushes and ducks behind her hair, feeling some strange energy crawling down her fingertips and aching to pull her hands into his. She sits down and giggles.
“You look wonderful as well,” she says as she peeks at him across the table. She giggles again quite unnecessarily and coughs very deliberately and tries to focus on her menu.
“How was your day?” Mac asks, lips still twitching upwards.
“It was fine,” Lily answers, blushing and cursing herself for it.
“You look like you’re doing really well,” he says with a softer smile.
Lily tries with extreme difficulty to keep from lunging across the table. She coughs and asks if he knows what he’d like to order, and conversation proceeds unharmed. Lily is unnecessarily giggly and Mac doesn’t seem to mind, and the dinner is an undeniably wonderful affair.
“So, ah, Lily…I wanted to talk to you about something,” Mac says haltingly as the waitress finally clears away their dishes.
Lily is seized by a wave of panic and does her best to look entirely natural. “Yes?” she ventures eventually, pinching her leg under the table.
“I, um—well, it’s about the other day,” Mac begins slowly. Lily’s face drains white. “I wanted to talk to you about it, because—shit, this is really hard to say, ” he mumbles, grating his hand along his chest. He glances up at her. “Is that okay, if we talk about it?”
Lily nods silently.
“Well, I wanted to tell you that I’ve been thinking about what you said.” His voice is thick and guttural, as if the words aren’t quite fully processed as he speaks them. “And I wanted to tell you that you’re right.”
“Lily, you were—you were right about everything—especially about me.” Mac’s eyes are open and pleading. His voice gathers momentum as it rumbles up through his chest. “I’ve been wasting my life. I’ve been blind and narrow-minded and—well, I have been kind of an asshole, haven’t I?” He chuckles weakly. “And I’m sorry.” He looks up at her, sitting motionless across from him. “Lily, I am so sorry.”
Lily blinks again. She is still.
“Can you…accept my apology?” he prompts.
Lily is frozen another moment, and suddenly heaves an extraordinary gasp. “Wow, Mac,” she bursts. “I never thought I’d hear that.”
He grins. “Is that a good thing or a bad thing…?”
Lily looks up. “I, um—well, I guess it’s—I guess it’s neither,” she says lamely. “It’s okay, though. It’s, ah…thank you for the apology.”
Mac seems to be waiting for her to speak. Lily rubs her hands together and scratches her head.
“Lily, um…” He seems to be struggling to figure out what comes next. “See, I wanted to apologize, because—because I couldn’t believe that I’d mistreated you. You’re—” He scratches his left wrist awkwardly and fidgets mindlessly with his sleeve. “You’re the best person I’ve ever met, and I couldn’t believe that I’d mistreated you, when you’re—you’re the best part of my life.” His eyebrows twist into a lopsided question, asking Lily if she can believe it, if she loves him, too.
“Lily, please,” Mac surges as he thrusts his hands forward and clutches hers, “listen to me. Lily, I’ve been so blind. I’ve been so stupid. Lily, you were the only one—the only person in the world—who could have opened me back up and brought me back to earth. I’ve been crazy. I’ve been crazy—not to notice you, not to see you, not to see you so good, and so sweet, and so beautiful, and so gentle…” Mac slows. Lily notices that his eyes are wet and suddenly realizes that her vision is blurry and he is holding her hand and he has never done that before and she blinks rapidly and is frustrated that it doesn’t help.
“Lily,” Mac whispers, his hands caressing hers and leaving tingling trails across her skin, “I want to give you everything, because you have never taken anything.”
Lily feels her chest swelling and swelling until she swears it might erupt through her dress. She blinks again, and it still doesn’t help.
Mac leans forward, expectantly, and she feels her vocal chords beginning to grind into action and prepare to gush forth the words she has so often whispered alone in her head—and she leans forward and buries her hands in his and feels wetness on her cheeks and looks up—and she notices that his eyes are roving her face with the intensity of super-sensitive metal detectors convinced she has a fortune buried behind her eyes—and she realizes that there is no treasure behind her eyes, only a minefield and an unset alarm clock waiting to burst—and she shrinks—
“Lily, nothing changes with you. You’re so steady—so gentle. I love that.”
She falls and is lost in the chasm between them. She wonders why the table won’t disappear, why the obstacles just won’t disappear. She blinks again and her nose twitches and she wonders why the waitress hasn’t come back yet.
“Do you have anything to say…?” Mac whispers, his eyebrows beginning to melt into worry.
Lily takes a breath. She stretches her hand along the hem of her dress, marveling again at the soft lace brushing against her skin; she holds her fingernail tight against her palm, relishing the sharp edge cut into her flesh; she feels her heart jumping gently inside her ribs, cursing its erratic unpredictability. She places her hand over her chest and glances up at the twin lamps, wondering why they look so forlorn as they cling to the walls.
“That’s very sweet of you, Mac,” she begins with a deep breath. She glances up. She feels her tongue flop uselessly behind her lips and forces the next words out, like squeezing an anchor through a Chinese finger trap. “You’re my best friend, too.”
Mac blinks and looks away. He looks for a moment as if he would speak—ask a question, maybe—but instead, he coughs and chuckles grimly. “That’s a relief,” he says gruffly. “I’m glad to hear that we’re such good friends.”
Lily nods. They look at each other, for just a moment; and then they look away.
“And you decided not to tell him how you feel?” The half-whisper sounds almost pitying today.
Lily shakes her head. She is tucked away into a small package of folded-up bones and self-esteem. The antagonistic armchair isn’t antagonistic today; instead, it embraces her, and seems to wrap around her as she sinks into its familiar brownness. Brown never changes, Lily muses. Maybe I like brown.
“How do you feel about that?”
“I don’t know,” Lily groans. She buries her face in her folded-up limbs and wishes the bubble would burst. She is beginning to hate the bubble—the bubble, the way it creeps up in the wake of her happiness—and she squirms and the armchair adjusts accordingly.
The half-whisper sits patiently in its cave, waiting for Lily to elaborate.
“I think I love him,” Lily murmurs.
“Yes, I think you do.”
Lily hadn’t expected the half-whisper to make definitive claims. She frowns. “But I don’t know,” she qualifies.
“Let me ask you this. Do you want to be with him?”
“What do you mean?”
“Would you like to be in a relationship with him?”
“No,” Lily snaps.
The half-whisper pauses. “You said that very decidedly. Why are you against the idea?”
“How could I be with anyone?” Lily looks up, aghast, flummoxed that The Therapist doesn’t understand. “How could I drag someone else into this mess?”
“Do you think bipolar disorder is really a reason to cut yourself off from life?”
“I’m not cutting myself off from life. Just some parts of it.”
“If you’re in love with him, don’t you want him to help you with everything you go through?”
“That’s my job,” Lily scowls. “He goes through more than I do. He doesn’t need me burdening him.”
“Maybe he’d want you to burden him.”
Lily bites her lip.
“Do you think that he loves you?”
Lily glances down. Her defensiveness melts into softening sorrow. “I think so,” she whispers, toying with her fingers.
“If he loves you, wouldn’t he want to help you through this?”
Lily shakes her head. “I can’t ask him to do that.”
“Isn’t it worth it, to try?”
Lily shakes her head more violently. “I know that he would.”
“So why not let him?”
“I can’t ask him to do that.” She slips down into her elbows and wallows in a pitiable half-hug.
“You love him, and you would do anything for him. He loves you, and he’d do the same. What are you so afraid of?”
Lily opens her mouth, as if to speak; but with a small cough, she collapses again, and she is curiously quiet.