Among stuffed animals and bruised toys, near a wall covered by an “Old McDonald” mural, over a giant rug depicting a small town, I sit in a bright green chair. Even at seven years old, I understand that whoever conceived this room tried too hard to appeal to children; he was in too much of a rush to put much thought into his design. It’s cringe-worthy: the wooden building blocks, the Raggedy Ann and Andy, giant puzzle pieces, worn-down crayons, and used Disney-themed coloring books — it’s demeaning. The way they speak to me here — they, those glorified guidance counselors — disgusts me. But the lanky woman sitting across from me now is different.
A doctor, she calls herself. In a brown pantsuit and glossy black heels, her darkness is a reprieve from the circus that is this windowless room. She’s sitting in a chair meant for a child a quarter her age and a third her height to “connect” with me, to meet me at my level, to make me feel more comfortable, more engaged. Maybe some kids buy it. To me, she looks ridiculous. Her legs are so long that to keep them flat on the ground forces her knees up to her chest. Occasionally she rearranges herself because the position is so awkward.
“Justin, where are the private parts on a boy?” she asks. The question surprises me. This is how we’re starting?
I point to my front and my rear.
“And what about a girl?”
I point to my front, rear, and chest.
Why does she need to know this? Do I look like an idiot? I roll my eyes and look away. She continues asking questions.
The town drawn on the carpet beneath us grabs my attention. I study it, squinting to trace its streets, its lonely parks and quiet buildings, searching for signs of life: kids in the schoolyard for recess, construction workers building something new, a friendly policeman patrolling a neighborhood. But Carpet City has no life. I find only emptiness. The only life in this room is on its walls, in the unsettlingly humanlike faces of livestock.
“Justin,” she says and crooks her head in an attempt to retake my attention.
“I’m here,” I say, still exploring Carpet City. Maybe all of the people who live there are inside the buildings.
“Justin, do you love everyone?”
“Is there anyone you don’t love?”
“No.” I know that’s what she wants to hear. I want to go home.
“Has anyone ever hurt you?”
I’m increasingly disturbed that there are no people depicted in Carpet City.
“Justin, sweetie. Will you look at me?”
“I can’t remember,” I say. My heart starts racing. Carpet City. Where are all the people?
“Would you tell me if someone did?”
I look at her finally. She wants me to say yes, I know, otherwise this question wouldn’t be so important to her. But I can’t remember. And I’m sick. The room starts to spin and I’m suddenly claustrophobic. The only door out is closed. There are no windows. I’m trapped in here with her, like the people are trapped in the buildings of Carpet City.
The animals on the walls begin to move. They’re whispering something to me. I want to listen but the doctor keeps interrupting. She squats next to me. “Calm down, Justin,” she says monotonously. She’s used this line so many times to so many kids she can’t even fake concern.
And I start crying. I cry for all the prisoners of the city beneath.
My mini-breakdown lasts for a minute or two. Once I’m “stable,” the doctor stands up and leaves the room for several minutes. She returns with water in a paper cup, laughing at a coworker’s joke.
She finishes our appointment by yawning between boring questions about what dreams I have and what I think they mean.
She will later tell my mother at the receptionist’s desk after our session that everything is fine, that there’s nothing to worry about, that I did great, was focused, and happy during our time together. She’ll pat my head, kneel beside me, look me in the face with hardly attempted concern, and offer me a lollipop. I’ll decline and this will surprise her. I’ll hate her as much as I do the bullshit toys in her cheerful torture chamber.
In the car on the way home my mother will ask me how I liked my time with Dr. Whatever, and I will tell her it was just as wonderful as the doctor said, and gosh, how nice a lady she was. I’ll lie because the doctor must’ve had a reason for not telling my mother about my meltdown. No, I won’t say anything about it. I won’t be the tattle-tell my uncle likes to call me.