Morgan’s Story: Excerpts
MAGGIE de VRIES
Morgan stood in the kitchen door and clenched both fists, hard, nails digging into palms. She gritted her teeth, tensed her whole face, her best effort at resistance. Her attention was set on the snack cupboard, and she was doing battle over the chips and cookies. Those were for Dad and Matt, the slim, athletic ones, not for her, but if she had some, the desperation would fall away, and she would be able to settle. Or she could stick with resistance like she was supposed to. For another nanosecond, she considered heading up the stairs, hands empty. The craving reared its massive beastly head and roared. Enough of that. A handful of cookies and a bag of chips, and she was on her way to her room where the perfect combination of her favourite show and back-and-forth sweet-and-salty soothed the savage beast, for now.
Morgan was pretty sure that the therapist was Dad’s idea, even though Mom was the one who had brought it up. Two hours ago. At the dinner table. Matt had run off to soccer practice, and Dad had moved into the living room to answer a call, but Morgan saw the look he gave Mom as he rose from the table. Mom and Morgan were still seated, both poised to begin clearing. The injustice of that, the boy and the man off doing their thing while the girl and the woman cleaned up after them, roiled in Morgan’s gut. Roiled. Morgan paused over the word, ran it around in her brain. Perfect. She started to push back her chair and noticed that Mom hadn’t moved. She was staring at her plate and shredding her paper napkin. Morgan froze. “Darling,” Mom said. And stopped. The sense of injustice, the roiling, shifted aside, replaced by wariness. Mom was finding it hard to speak. “Your dad and I,” she said and stopped again, mouth open. Morgan could sense her scrambling. Morgan waited, still and silent, though every instinct told her to run. “We think it might be helpful. We think it would be good for you . . .” “What, Mom?” Morgan said. Another moment of waiting and she would tip
over her chair in her haste to escape. “To see a therapist,” Mom said and sank back in her chair. A therapist? That Morgan had not anticipated. She had expected the usual: an attack of some kind—an attack on her flesh, or, if not an attack, a proposal, a diet and exercise plan, which pretty much amounted to the same thing:
• Smaller portions.
• No more snacking.
• Minutes on a treadmill totted up on a chart on the fridge.
• Calories and daily weight totted up elsewhere.
• The measuring tape trotted out monthly to encircle fatty body parts.
• Gold stars on the calendar.
• A trainer.
• A nutritionist.
• Goal setting.
• Chew counting.
• Water drinking.
Ever since Morgan could remember, Mom and Dad had been trying to slim her down. Since she was seven or eight, they had fussed about her weight. They put her on her first diet five years ago. She was nine. She lost seven pounds and gained back eleven, but they didn’t give up. Morgan knew that her fat was bad. She knew that it meant that she was greedy, that she had no self-control; she knew that her fat was holding her back. But, a therapist? The idea of someone poking away at her, asking her about her feelings, expecting her to talk about herself, reporting on her to her parents, sent her skittering away from herself. “I won’t,” Morgan said. Her voice squeaked. Mom sat up straighter. Morgan looked at her and felt . . . empty. A sort of yawning stillness settled in her chest. Somehow the rage over being left to wash the dishes didn’t hold up when her body was under attack.
I should be angry, she told herself. Briefly, she toyed with that idea, imagined reaching out her wobbly arms, locking her fingers around her mother’s neck, and squeezing hard. “We worry about you,” Mom said. You loathe me, Morgan thought. She flexed her fingers. She guessed they were unlikely to close around anyone’s neck, ever. She knew why she wasn’t angry. It was because her mother and father were right. She was fat. She was a complete failure at losing weight, at taking care of herself. She was an embarrassment. “I’ve got homework,” Morgan said, her voice still squeaking. “I’ll call and make an appointment for next week,” Mom said. Morgan was already on her way to the stairs, but she stopped. An appointment? They already had somebody lined up? This was worse than the earnest chats with the family doctor. It was worse than the weekly weigh-ins, with her weight recorded on a sheet of paper on the bathroom mirror where Mom and Dad and even Matt could see it. It was worse than the special containers of celery and carrot sticks and cucumber and red pepper pieces, prominently placed in the fridge just for her. It was even worse than fat camp.
Now, in her bed with the chips and cookies, Morgan thought about Mom and Dad’s worry, and about all their efforts to slim her down. Why did all of it make her feel so small? Weren’t they just showing that they cared? That they wanted her to be slim and fit and happy. Like them. Maybe. But there was more. Worry meant judgement. It meant that they thought she was broken, that she needed fixing, that she was an embarrassment, a liability, a millstone. Mom might as well have said she was a burden, weighing them down with her bulging stomach and thick hips, with stolen bags of chips and late-night peanut-butter-and-jam sandwiches, burying the whole family under piles of junk food and flesh. Mom might as well have said, “We want you to go to a therapist and fix yourself so the rest of us can enjoy our lives. Stop getting in our way with that disgusting body of yours.” Chips and cookies gone, Morgan turned off the light and rolled over. She pulled
the duvet over her head and closed her eyes. And opened them again, wide. She was still in her clothes. There were crumbs in the bed. And the illicit food had not filled her up. The yawning emptiness was still there. I deserve this, she thought. Something buzzed right under her skin and up into her brain, a frantic, desperate feeling filling the empty spaces. She swung her legs out of the bed, stood and switched on the light. The buzzing intensified. Out. She needed out. She picked up her backpack and looked around the room for things to pack, picked up a T-shirt, and dropped it again. Who was she kidding? She had nowhere to go. A single sob and she flung herself back onto her bed, furious at her own helplessness. Impotent fury burbled through her, clogging her veins, slowing her blood. Again she stood, shoulders heaving, fingers curling into fists, lips pulling back from her teeth. She crossed the room and leaned her forehead against the wall by the door, pulled an arm back and imagined her fist smashing a hole right through the drywall. It wouldn’t, though. She would come away with bruised knuckles, nothing more. She picked up a polished stone egg, turned and put the mirror over her dresser in her sights, turned a bit further and considered the window, imagining the glass shattering, the family running into the room. She brought her arm back, hand high. And let it drop. She sank into the chair at her desk, picked up a Sharpie. I hate you, she wrote in big black letters across a sheet of scrap paper. “I hate you,” she whispered. Who? Who did she hate? Mom and Dad? Matt? Or herself? She tore the paper into several pieces, crumpled it, buried it in the wastepaper basket and curled up in bed and cried.
Mom drove her to her first session. “I’ll be back in an hour to pick you up,” she said, leaning over and kissing Morgan on the cheek. Morgan wiped her face as she stalked down the path. The therapist was in a house, and a sign pointed the way to the entrance at the back. She turned the corner and stopped in front of a door painted a dark forest green. It had a small window built into it, and Morgan rose on her toes to peer in, but she couldn’t see much because it was darker in than out. She rocked back onto her heels, breathed a breath
and opened the door. The room she entered was for waiting. Three straight-backed chairs lined a wall, a coffee table in front of them, bare. Morgan sat and poked her toes at the thick red rug that didn’t quite reach the chair legs. This therapist had not gone out of his way to create a welcoming space for new clients. Another point against him. The list was growing:
1. He was a man. That was a big one. Nothing against men, but in case Mom and Dad hadn’t taken it in, Morgan was not one.
2. He was old. Morgan had looked at his picture online and felt mild disgust. What was a middle-aged man supposed to know about a teenaged girl’s life in the twenty-first century? She wondered if he had any kids. If he did, he might not be a completely lost cause. Then she thought about her own parents and nixed that thought.
3. He had these big complicated theories about the brain and the nervous system. About trauma and addiction. Well, Morgan might eat more than she should, but she had never been attacked or anything like that, and she’d never set eyes on a drug except for marijuana a couple of times.
4. He couldn’t even spring for a couple of decent chairs and some decent art for his waiting room.
“Morgan, is it?” Morgan jumped and jerked her head up. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you,” he said. It was him. The man from the photo. His head was balding. His eyes were tiny. His cheeks were big and droopy, though pulled upward right now in an apologetic smile.
“That’s okay,” Morgan said. “Yes. I’m Morgan.” He introduced himself and guided her through a door. She had been sure she would be taken into a smaller, darker room, a slightly scary place without windows where clients were picked over by lamplight, but the room was big and bright even though it was at garden level. The whole back wall was glass, and there was a goodsized window in another wall as well, making the room feel like it was part garden. She was offered a choice between a comfortable-looking leather easy chair and a couch that looked firm but comfy with fat, orange cushions. She chose the couch. He sat near but not too near on a grey chair with wooden arms and legs. He opened a notebook on his knee. “So, Morgan, what brings you to see me?” Morgan sat up straight. “What did my mom tell you?” she asked. Surely Mom had laid it all out for him. Fat, lazy daughter needs to be pulled up by her bootstraps, needs to learn discipline, needs to care about her health and her future. He looked thoughtfully at her. “Not a thing,” he said. “Your mom just said that her daughter would like to see a therapist. I stopped her there, and we set up the first appointment. From now on, you and I will set up appointments ourselves. This relationship is between you and me.” Morgan breathed. In and out. Thinking hard. She was relieved. Yes, she was. Though she took note of the words “would like.” Ha. That was a flat-out lie. Trust Mom. But if this man was telling the truth, he knew nothing about her. She took another breath. And another one. “My family thinks I’m all messed up,” she said. And stopped. Waited. “And you. What do you think?” he said after several moments had passed. Morgan’s brain drained, all thoughts vacating the space as if they had never been. She was left with a vacant feeling, and with nothing to offer the man across from her. “What do I think?” she echoed. “Yes. I’m not here to help your family. I’m here to help you. They think you’re all messed up. What do you think?” Heat filled Morgan’s chest. “I hate them,” she said. “They push me around and judge me. They watch everything I do. They’re all so perfect, and I’m just wrong.” She stopped, astonished. She could have sworn her brain was empty, yet these words had flowed from her mouth like lava. He took a moment to reply, but he seemed entirely unruffled by the eruption
that had just taken place in his office. “What exactly is wrong with you?” he said at last. “You seem all right to me.” “Well, I’m not,” Morgan said fiercely. “How so?” he said. “You only have to look at me to know,” she replied. He was toying with her, pushing her to say the horrible words. “What do you think I see when I look at you?” he said. “You see a fat girl,” she said. Adjectives piled up inside her head—greedy, lazy, slovenly, ugly, gross—but she could only manage the one word: fat. It was a word she had thought countless times, but never, not once, had she said it out loud with reference to herself. So far, therapy sucked. He denied it, of course. He said that he just saw a person, an unhappy person, perhaps, but fat, thin, tall short, those were just attributes of the body. He looked beyond them—at least, that was what he said. “Do Mom and Dad know that?” Morgan asked. “They sent me here because I’m fat. Fat means broken, and you’re supposed to fix me.” “Is that what you want to talk about? Your parents’ judgement?” “Well, they’re right, aren’t they? I’m fat. I’m weak. I have no self-control.” Morgan glared at him, defiant, angry. “Tell me more about that,” he said. “What do you mean when you say that you have no self-control?” “It means I can’t control myself. I have cravings. I eat chips and cookies in my room, even though I’m not supposed to. I can’t help myself.” She was furious now. Furious and confused, like she needed to prove her own failings in defense of her parents. “What do they feel like?” he, her brand-new therapist, dared to ask. “What do the cravings feel like?” She stared at him, astonishment at his idiocy ballooning in her, forcing its way up her throat. Disgust, she almost said. They feel like disgust. But disgust was the feeling she was grappling with right then as she looked at those chipmunk cheeks and deep-set eyes. “I told you,” she said. “It feels like I have to have it. Like nothing will stop me.” A moment’s hesitation. “Those are thoughts,” he said. “What does a craving feel like in your body?”
She recoiled. Her body. What business of his was her body? Why was she sitting here talking to a man, and a self-satisfied chipmunk-cheeked one at that, about her body? How had it come to this? Fury boiled inside her. She looked at the clock. Forty minutes to go.
That was the first session, and it left her miserable. But she obeyed her mother and went back. Once each week. She came up with the name Chipmunk Cheeks that first time, and it stuck in her mind even after her opinion of him softened a bit. Just a bit. In the middle of the second month, he surprised her. “Next time you come,” Chipmunk Cheeks said, his voice, as always, quiet and thoughtful, “bring two stones.” Morgan stared at him. “Stones?” she echoed. “Pebbles, if you like. Small stones. One of them should be you. Choose a stone that feels like you. And don’t overthink it. The other stone should be them.” “Them?” Morgan said. “Not the people, exactly, but the tangle of their demands on you, your perception of their feelings and thoughts about you.” Morgan sat silent, her gaze diverted to the loose threads in the arm of the couch, the ones she always wanted to pull on. Chipmunk Cheeks fell silent too, and the room was quiet for a long moment, almost long enough to draw Morgan’s eyes up from those threads. Then, “Bring two stones,” he said again. And, “Our time’s up, Morgan. I’ll see you next week.”
It was annoying when he made her think, when someone so silly looking, someone who had been forced on her, someone who would actually be part of that second stone—part of them—captured her imagination, even just a little bit. But Morgan liked the idea of the stones. When she got home that day, she went straight to her room and got the bowl of pebbles off her shelf. She’d collected them years ago, and they were dusty now, untouched, unseen even, since she put them in that bowl and placed them there when she was nine. Maybe Mom had dusted the shelf once or twice over the years, but Morgan certainly had not. Now, she got a dishcloth from under the kitchen sink, swept aside the junk on
her desk and spread it out. As she poured out the pebbles, an oddly-shaped one caught her eye. Excitement rippled in her heart and her gut. She folded the cloth over the pebbles and took her time rubbing the dust off, feeling the pebbles one by one, searching through her fingers for the one that had stood out. At last, she felt a pebble with flat sides and a flat top and bottom, longish, the size, perhaps, of her forefinger. It tipped up at one end and kind of flattened out at the other. She folded back the cloth and took a good look. Morgan didn’t choose the other stone until the day of her next appointment. Till then, the heap of pebbles lay on the dusty dishcloth on her desk, the special one set aside. She looked at it many times that week, but, as instructed, she didn’t “overthink her choice.” She didn’t want to ruin her enjoyment by making it all about what was wrong with her. “I’ll be in the car,” Mom said, her voice stretched over the underlying message, which protruded painfully. We’re going to be late. We’re always late because of your dawdling. We’re doing this for you, and you can’t even be ready on time. Mom used to say those things, all of them rapid-fire, sharp with frustration and judgment. A year ago, she had started her new “I’ll be in the car” campaign. Morgan saw right through it. Sometimes those five words acted on her like molasses and, by the time she made it to the car, it was practically rocking with Mom’s annoyance. Today, she remembered the stones. “I have to get something,” she shouted as Mom opened the garage door. “I’ll be there in a minute.” She approached her desk and grabbed the special stone. Then she turned her attention to the heap. She needed another one. One that represented . . . What, exactly? She paused. Them. It was supposed to represent how they treated her. That was it. Some of the stones had been through a polisher. They were all rounded edges and bright colours. No good at all. Others were tiny pretty things. They wouldn’t do either. She reached down and pushed them all apart on the cloth, looking. Looking. Them. She needed a stone for them. There it was. The largest one. Lumpy. Rough. Small holes around the mid-section. It was perfect. Into her pocket it went. Keeping the special one in her hand, she dashed down the stairs and into the car. For the first time ever she was just a tiny bit curious about what was going to happen with Chipmunk Cheeks. What would he make of her choices?
He perked right up when she showed him the stones. “This one is me,” she said, holding it out on the palm of her hand for him to see but not touch. “What made you choose it?” he asked. Morgan hesitated. She looked closely at the strangely-shaped pebble in her hand. “I liked it,” she said. “It jumped out at me.” “Why do you think that is?” he said. “I don’t know,” she said. “It just did.” Chipmunk Cheeks sat back in his chair. “Describe it to me,” he said. Morgan considered shoving it in his face again so he could look at it himself, but she knew that would do no good. He had some mind-bending purpose; he wanted to make meaning. “It’s long with square edges. It’s white on top. It tips up at one end. It’s not very big. Maybe four centimetres long.” “Hmmm,” he said. “Does it remind you of anything?” It did remind Morgan of things. It had from the start, actually. That was probably why she had chosen it. It reminded her of a ship, with that tipped-up prow at one end. And it reminded her of an animal, a beaver especially. She’d thought of the ship first, but she liked the beaver best. That’s what the stone was. A beaver. Morgan had even Googled images of beavers and read a bit about them. Their lives, their lodges, their big, sharp teeth and powerful tails, all were appealing to her. She looked at the man sitting across from her. She had known him for less than two months. She was hardly going to tell him that she identified with Canada’s national animal, a fat, thick-skinned buck-toothed creature. She could just imagine his eyes appraising her, a smile pushing those cheeks high up on his face. Yes, he’d be thinking, a beaver is the perfect animal for you.
She watched him see her. She waited for his next question. How was he going to pry it out of her? “All right,” he said, at last. “I like your choice a lot. Not that that matters. It’s yours, not mine. And I can see that you’ve got thoughts about it. I think you’re finding your own strengths in that small stone.” Morgan took it between her fingers. She turned it over. Strengths. Yes.
“Let’s move on for now,” he said. “Tell me about the other one.” She picked up the other stone from where it had been sitting in her lap and looked at its lumps and bumps. “This is every nasty thing my family has ever said or done,” she said, “all stuck together.” She stopped and looked again. “And there are holes too,” she said. “Those are the things they didn’t do.” The stone felt warm in her hand. She put it down on the table in front of the couch. “Why did you do that?” he asked. “Why did you put it down?” “I don’t want to touch it,” she said. “How did it get all lumpy like that?” She put her hand on her gut. “All that bad stuff goes in, and it never comes out,” she said. He smiled, and it wasn’t a chipmunk smile. It wasn’t an I-know-better-than-you smile. It wasn’t an aren’t-you-a-silly-little-girl smile. It was a smile of recognition. “That’s it, isn’t it? ‘It all goes in and it never comes out.’”
The last week of the term was watercolour week in art class. Morgan was tentative about it. What was she even doing in art? Her misshapen clay pot and distorted pencil drawing of a still life had quickly found their way into the garbage can when Ms. Ralston wasn’t looking. She had skipped out on art a fair bit, but today, for some reason, here she was, slightly curious. On Monday, they had finished up their collage project and cleared into bins the masses of different papers and fabrics they had been using for weeks. Morgan grabbed her wrinkled, glue-spattered collage from the pile and shoved it into her bag before anyone could get a good look. It was too big to hide in the classroom garbage. On her way home, she’d have to stop by the bin behind the school. To avoid torturing herself over her classmates’ oohing and ahhing over each other’s creations, she turned her attention to the front of the room. Ms. Ralston had put out a stack of thin rectangular boards and a stack of paper. Jars of brushes followed, and Morgan almost groaned out loud. She’d already demonstrated that she couldn’t draw. Painting could only be worse. Still, when instructed, she took a board and a piece of thick paper. She found a spot at a table and when a roll of tape came her way she tore off four long strips
and dangled them from the table’s edge. Keeping the corners square and the paper smooth, she taped the paper onto the board. “Another time, we’ll wet the paper before attaching it to the board,” Ms. Ralston said, “but this is a fine way to get started. Now, you need water and brushes and paint. Take one of each of the three sizes of brush, and use the biggest one to wet the whole sheet of paper. No paint yet, just water. And not buckets, just make the paper nice and damp.” As Morgan joined the jumble of people at the front of the room, she felt a tendril of curiosity, a wisp. And, once she was seated again, the other students, the teacher, the room, faded, as she wetted her wide flat brush again and again, and spread that wet across the sheet in front of her. While she did it, she looked at the colours. They were just a cheap set of hard disks, the kind you might get at a dollar store, but still. She applied orange first, mixed it with lots of water, and stroked the brush all the way from one side of the paper to the other, starting at the top and slowly covering a third of the page. Then came green for the middle, bright like new leaves in March. For the bottom third, she chose blue, pale like a baby’s blanket. When the paper was covered in colour, she picked up the board and tilted it so that the orange flowed down into the green and the green flowed up into the orange and down into the blue and the blue flowed up into the green. Morgan wished she could paint more instead of stopping to let the paper dry, but she followed instructions and stepped back, imagining what it would be like to use more saturated colours on the wash. Tomorrow, she told herself. There was no art class, but Ms. Ralston would probably let her in at lunch. The next day, exactly as she had hoped, Ms. Ralston did let her in, and then paid no attention to her. It was lovely getting out the supplies in the empty room, setting herself up at a table in the back. She dipped a thick round brush in the tub of water and pondered the colours. Her eyes stopped on the purple disk. Dad, she thought, and made a large dark-dark blotch in the top corner, a blotch that bled aggressively into the orange and green. Hmmm. What about Mom? Dark green seemed right for her. Morgan made the blotch just as big and dark, and put it as far away from Dad as possible, in the lower, pale blue corner.
Then came Matt. That was easy. Navy blue. Bottom middle. Not as big and not as blotchy. She gave him a shape of sorts and then tilted the paper a bit so he could thread his way up and across. Last, Morgan thought about herself. Which colour would she be? The three first colours, orange, green and blue, were the ones she liked best, but she couldn’t use them. She put the brush down and settled back in her chair. Was there no place for her in her own painting? Then she got it. She understood. She was all of it. After all, it came from her. Her family were parts of her, but she was everywhere, underneath, around. She took up all her own space. And that was as it should be. They took up their space. She took up hers. She took the beaver stone from her pocket and set it beside the painting. If she had a big flat tail, she’d slap it right about now, not as a warning, but an expression of joy.
“I’m taking Matt to his practice,” Mom said. “I don’t have time for this.” Morgan rolled her shoulders back and felt the stickiness of her mother’s expectations slide off her. She imagined them sinking to the bottom of the pond in the park, the one where last weekend she had ceremoniously thrown the ugly lumpy stone. “I’m not asking you to do anything,” she said. “I’m just telling you that I’m going to eat what I want. And I want you to stop bugging me about it. Dad, too.” Mom glared at her and opened her mouth. “You want to be unhealthy your whole life?” “I’m going to be late,” Matt said. “Come on, Mom.” And they were gone, the door to the garage shutting extra sharply behind Mom. Morgan was alone. She walked through the main floor in a circle through all the rooms. She looked out all the windows. She saw birds flying, trees swaying, clouds moving across the sky. Back in the kitchen, she made herself some lunch. She set a place for herself on the table on the deck and went down into the garden, cut a single wine-red peony and put it in a vase beside her plate.
Then she sat down and took her first bite.