The Elbow Tree – Megan Denton

I know now that little has changed about what comforts me. I was sitting on a leather couch in this room that looked like the forest. The hardwood floors, arrogant and shabby. I could try to explain it, but I think it’d be impossible to tell you how warm I felt. I expected I’d be cold, as always, and carried closely an oversized sweatshirt as I walked down a long hallway of cypress stripes and moss. I often use this sweatshirt to hide behind or hug or clench my fists under. Mostly to hide, though. To hide my body from my father. I wasn’t always like this.


I told Mr. Steen that I sincerely don’t know what a father and daughter do when they sit on the couch next to each other. He told me he has a four-year-old daughter, and when he sits next to her on the couch, he positions himself in a way so that she can lean into him. And then my heart mourned with the thought of it.


I told my father once that I thought I needed to go to counseling. He asked me why I was sad, and I told him I was depressed. He asked me why I was depressed, and I told him I was sad. He told me (through a thick drunken fume) that he was going to take me to a mental institution on account of my indecision, and I cried as he dragged me down the hallway by my ankles, remembering the days I was young and naïve and how I used to carry my treasures around in a Crown Royal bag because the purple and the gold were just so beautiful together. I hadn’t learned yet about complementary colors. But little has changed about what comforts me.


I noticed, first, that there were only lamps, and no overhead lights. I hate overhead lights. So I let myself melt in the pretty light and noticed that there were tree things everywhere. The trees had elbows that said, “Turn here.” I let myself imagine for a second that I was a woodland nightgown pixie playing with sun lamps in my backyard and reading tree maps along the way. But then I sighed in truth and sat myself down on the leather couch, Indian style. I bunched up the sweatshirt in my lap. Folding and unfolding, am I seen? And underneath it, I think I was probably picking at the skin around my thumbs, a nervous habit my mother always tried to rid me of but was never proud of me when I showed her the progress. She is hyper, happy Hydrocodone by day and Xanax queen of the night. She fragranced my childhood with marijuana smoke, and I can still smell it on my clothes. It follows. There are no more brain cells left to let her be a mother. A filmy mucus drips slowly from her body, like the kind slugs leave behind on the sidewalk or on twigs when they mate. She is still too slimy to notice my thumbs.


In the forest room, Mr. Steen asks me what brings me here today. I nervously think of all the things I could say, and all the different traumas I could utilize to make a good first impression on him. So he won’t change his mind about me, I choose to tell him, simply, that I wasn’t able to come here until now. He asks me why, and then he let me talk for a very long time. He asks me about the alcohol. I tell him that I’ll probably talk in the plural because of my twin sister, and to please excuse me if it’s confusing. I wish in my head that I could softly disappear and write poems with these trees, but I decide to tell him the story of when we were four and saw them fighting. Daddy only had on his underwear and had little cuts all over his body. I ran up to hug his legs, tall trees, and kept asking, “Daddy, are you ok? Are you ok, Daddy?” Mom, after smashing a framed picture of us on top of his head, was standing there and had began showing signs of a black eye, but she was too slimy for me to care.


My father spent too many nights either drinking his dinner or drowning in it. And his new wife spent too much time fixing her grays and anti-aging serums and Taebo VHS tapes. She had convinced him of a lot of things, like that she was God and we were dirt and I am anorexic. They had an intervention with me once to address the eating disorder I didn’t have. But they never believed me, and so all my dinners were observed and scrutinized and watched through these obtuse binocular eyes—too blinded by their own addictions to see the real source of blame. Now I can laugh about it, though; where I once was paranoid of what they’d think if I went to the bathroom after dinner, I now promptly tell them I’m going to go throw up and will be back soon so please don’t worry about me. But, I never recovered from the night he came to my room and grabbed my arm, which was conveniently small enough for his entire hand to wrap around. One finger at a time, he slowly reminded me that he noticed. He told me, again, of the time the blood pressure cuff was too big at the doctor’s office. He asked me why I didn’t eat much at dinner. I told him that his wife is a terrible cook. He requested that I put on a bikini, please, and come show them just how skinny I really am. Well, I chose the yellow one that looked like butter and canaries, trying to find something like the sunshine behind their clouds. But the overhead lights were bright and humiliating and nothing like the sunshine at all, it turns out. I tried to stand up there proudly in the middle of our living room, even though I was crying and shivering. And my body was so pale and ugly with goosebumps. It was February, and I will never forget how cold it was. I tried to fight it, but the weight of their eyes on me made my head feel so heavy, and I let it drop, defeated. They circled around me, hands on chins, and investigated my little body. And now, I have this baggy sweatshirt to hide behind. I’m afraid I will never show anyone that I’m beautiful.


Mr. Steen told me once that what I really need is a tender man. I grinned shyly, probably blushing, as I hopped on clouds to thoughts of Jeremy. I guess for a while his tenderness made me nervous. I was used to men being mean, and violent, and drunk; a man is a patriarchy of control and un-emotion who doesn’t have time for my laughs and cries, I thought. But there was one time at three in the morning when I was certain that I was having a heart attack. I mean, I did have chest pains and it hurt to breathe, but no one can really be sure how much of that was real and how much was due to the-middle-of-the-night irrationality. I made Jeremy come over to say his goodbyes, and I squeezed his hand really tight when I thought the final pains were coming. He asked me if we could lay down so that he could hold me while I died in my sleep, and I told him, baby, it hurts too much to lay down. So he angled my pillows (an unnecessary amount) in the corner of the wall and sat with his back against them, inviting me to lean into him and sleep that way: the first true comfort of a shelter closing in on me and my long day. Mr. Steen asks me if I have trust issues. I don’t exactly have trust issues; I have another issue—a comfort issue—and it means that I’m terrified of being a burden or an inconvenience. My issue, a fear, really, is that I might be, and that Jeremy will surely change his mind about me. So, it’s very important for me to feel secure. And safe. And that is the issue, I explained. When I said all this in a matter of facts, Mr. Steen wrote it down on therapist paper and put a circle around it I think.


There’s a reason for making flowers beautiful all over the house. And, there are days I dab words of comfort on myself with cotton balls and gentle fingers, a four-year-old orphan nursing her own wounds. My time in the forest room ended, sadly, but it didn’t end without me noticing all the details of it, and memorizing the words I heard from a father who knew how to love well. I think when I was little I always hoped that my parents would die tragically and another family would have to adopt me and my sister. Secretly, I imagined sitting at the dinner table with Mr. Steen and his family as if the love itself would find its way to my skin and be absorbed by electrons in my hair and toes that stretched out, and maybe I could even play with their dog. There’s a little girl in me who wants to be a little girl. I think maybe I never got to do that. I’m a little scared to say this because I’m twenty-one years old, but my tender man lets me be free, and last night I had a cooking show in the kitchen as I explained in my most professional voice the best way to make cinnamon toast.


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