“Okay, Senator, we’re gonna go again, and remember we’re aiming for speedy and breezy.” I shuffle my cards. “I’m going to throw in some tougher ones this time — you can handle them, I promise you can handle them — but I’m not going to stop the clock. Okay, here we go. Three, two…”
I start the timer and lift up the first card. It’s an easy one — a photo of an Igbo woman I got off the internet.
“Black!” he shouts in his Carolina accent, and swats his left hand at the air, his signal for next. I pull the next card.
“South Asian!” Right again. We’ve been working on that one for a while. When we first started our sessions, the Senator called anyone this color “Indian.” We had to spend some time with a map before going back to the exercise.
I pull the next card. It’s one of my new tricky ones. The image came from drunkenly Googling “half-Swedish, half-Thai.”
The Senator inhales and pauses, his left hand twitching in front of him, his eyes darting from the card, to me, back to the card.
“You got this, Senator, remember what we talked about.” He closes his eyes, and I imagine him searching for the rhyme that I taught him: Confusing, mixed, or in-between, give multiple options, but keep it clean. He seems to remember something and offers, with the whisper of a question mark at the end, “Presents as mixed, possibly Asian, could pass as white?”
I give him a smile and a thumbs up and he smiles back, a surprised-to-be-receiving-a-smile sort of smile, and we have a moment, or at least I have a moment, a moment that makes me think, Hey, maybe I’m really doing something here, before he claps his hands and snaps, “The clock is running, Kara, next next next!”
The Senator paid for what I call the Professional Package, my newest offering. Six, hour-long sessions for a total of $3000. It’s a little higher than the going rate for coaches like me, but I’m good at my job. Plus, anyone interested in the Professional Package can spare that kind of change.
It’s usually politicians on the Hill and corporate execs drowning in racial discrimination lawsuits who reach out about the ProPack. They’re looking to overcome or avoid a public shaming, mostly. We end up doing a couple sessions on unlearning color-blindness, practicing saying words like “Black” without everyone feeling like they’re saying the n-word, and some exercises around learning to laugh at their whiteness in party settings. Roleplaying apologies is always the worst part. For all of us.
I try to throw in some gender and sexuality stuff when I can, also concepts like racial capitalism and root cause, but if I get the sense that my thirty-something soft butch vibes are already straining our working relationship, I stick to the basics. I don’t like being preachy. Vero was the one with the high expectations, slipping in some popular education stuff no matter what Package a client had paid for. Alone, I’m just doing my fucking best.
After our session, I leave Capitol Hill and drive to Bethesda to meet Stacey, one of my Personal Package clients. Stacey’s not worried about a high stakes racialized fuck up, but her oldest daughter came back from her first year at Reed last summer talking about intersecting oppressions and the violence of microaggressions, and Stacey started to miss her best friend. That’s what she wrote on the first page of our Let’s Get to Workbook, right under WHAT’S MY STAKE IN ALL THIS: I miss my best friend.
Stacey can talk to her daughter now — sharing links to listicles like “Top Twenty White Women Who Simply Cannot” — but, sadly, she’s also at her White Guilt Low Point. Hitting the WGLP is always a risk with clients who sign up for the Personal Package Level 2 (“Healing the Wounds of Whiteness”) and have a history of depression. Well, even those without depression, too. Some of us start out thinking, Hey, I’m progressive, I’m not racist, I’m one of the good ones, but once we realize how bad things are really, how racist we are really, we end up at the Low Point. I tell them it’s not our fault, it’s in the air we breathe, but some people just want to be bad, I guess.
Vero would get nervous about taking on clients who wrote on their intake that they had a history with depression, drug addiction, eating disorders — anything that hinted they were jonesing for their next way to self-harm. I’d remind her that not working with people because of their mental illness was a form of ableism.
“It just feels risky,” she’d say.
“The practice of love offers no place of safety,” I’d say, quoting bell hooks. “Plus, if we want to make a living off this, we need the clients.”
Stacey’s in a bad place, but not the worst I’ve seen. And once she signs up for Level 3 (“Bold Action for Bold Whites”) she’ll bounce back, like most people do. I received an email from a former Low Point client earlier this week with a photo of him at a climate protest in New York holding a sign with tall slanty letters that read YOU ONLY CARE ABOUT POLAR BEARS BECAUSE THEY ARE WHITE — CLIMATE JUSTICE 4 ALL! The sign was a little silly, but when I saw the look of pride on his face, I almost teared up.
“Stace? Hey, Stace? Look at me, Stace,” I say, as we sit at her blonde wood outdoor table, her head down on one of her floral placemats, like she’s serving herself up for dinner. “Come on, look at me.”
Stacey slowly lifts up her head, thin pink lines across her forehead from where her skin squeezed into the folds of the mat. I can feel myself looking at her the way I look at Bertolt before he gets blood drawn at the vet.
“Do you remember what I said on day one of this Level, Stace? Do you remember that? I said — There’s gonna be a drop and we’re gonna get through it together. And I showed you this graph, remember? We start out up here, we drop down here — that’s you, Stace, that little star is you — and we end up back up here, confident, sexy, accountable, thicker. Stace, look at how thick that line is. And look at how at the top there’s a shooting star. That’s going to be you.”
Stacey, tears at the outer edges of her eyes, grabs me and hugs me, sobbing into my new blazer. I can tell they are Low Point tears, not Movin’ On Up tears, based on the number of seconds between breaths.
“Listen,” I say, “we’re almost at Lesson 3 — Yes, You Have Intergenerational Trauma, Too. This will all make a lot more sense once we get a little further with our work.”
When I get home, I take Bertolt for a walk to the hipster market and buy a big bottle of overpriced whiskey.
“Don’t look at me like that,” I tell him, before throwing a homemade doggie pastry onto the belt.
Vero and I met at Zapatista Zumba during our sophomore spring at Georgetown. It wasn’t really Zumba as much as it was all the left-leaning kids picking our favorite political songs in Spanish and bachata-ing around a dirty living room with a blow-up doll of Subcomandante Marcos.
“Hey, do you know Chinga la Migra?” I asked the cute girl acting as unofficial DJ. It was the one political song in Spanish I knew and I wanted her to know that I knew it.
“Yeah yeah,” she said, not looking up from her phone. “Already on the queue.”
“Oh, sorry, yeah, cool, thanks,” I said, and turned to walk away.
“Hold up,” Vero —the girl— said, eyeing my tight pants. “Aren’t you in my post-postcolonial literature class?”
The rest of the night we danced with each other and we danced with Marcos and we screamed CHINGA LA MIGRA and we held hands and stayed up late and talked about Angela Davis and the looming race wars. She asked me how I learned Spanish and I told her about how I’d taken a gap year before college to teach English to “at-risk youth” in Quito — “You know, saving all those poor brown kids with my high school education and liberal charm,” I said, drunk and sarcastic — and we stumbled back to her room. As I was slipping my fingers inside her, her perfect breath warm against my cheek, she whispered to me, “Mmm, take me, white savior girl, take me,” and we both laughed.
For some clients I have to go spiritual. For the yogis, mainly. If I see a yoga mat, crystals, anything zen, I know what I have to do. I like to keep an eye out for a juicer, too — anyone on a cleanse is going to make a committed client.
This is my first visit with Erin and I can tell right away to go spiritual. She’s asked for the free thirty-minute in-person coaching session so I drive to her NoMa condo and notice —ooh, yes— a blender out on the counter and at least one Ram Dass book on the shelf. I notice her noticing me, too. Ponytail magnet, Vero used to call me.
My first step with the spiritual ones is for us to call in a higher being together, an indigenous European ancestor of some kind. That’s the hook. Before we even dig into the reason they want to work with me, I’ll show them some photos of white immigrant families taken at Ellis Island — Danish children in belted frocks and gumball hats, Slovakian moms with their babushkas and bibs, Greek grandmas with gaps in their teeth — and I’ll tell them, I’ll say, “Look, you come from somewhere. You come from somewhere.”
To be honest, I really like this part. For a moment, I get hooked all over again myself. The moment before a client replaces their decorative African masks with Gaelic welcome signs from Etsy, the moment between clawing at something over here and clawing at something over there — it’s special.
“Why don’t we call in one of those ancestors now?” I ask Erin as her gray, mascara tears run. She nods. I have her breathe in and out, in and out. I say, “I feel someone here with us. Do you feel them? Can you let them into your heart?” We sit together in silence as she softly cries. Then I pull out some paper and thin fancy markers and invite her to draw the spirit that visited her, you know, if it feels right. It does. (It usually does.)
“I’m going to meditate while you work. Just let me know when you’re finished, and take your time,” I say. I close my eyes and can hear her drawing away. Sometimes I can get into the meditation, I really can. Back before it felt appropriative, I would meditate every day and there were moments when my normally blah body would start to feel like something else, like how it did on the retreats my mom would take me on when I was little, a bald guy in brown robes walking so slowly beside me, holding my hand, showing me a new way to see. But these days I’m just using that time to think through my next move.
Erin says, “I’m done now,” and I open my eyes. Her energy seems fairly low so I keep my energy low, too. Low but smooth. Her drawing is a blur of blonde and blue.
“Wow, look at this spirit guide you have for this journey. Aren’t you lucky? I mean, aren’t you so lucky to have met her?” Erin smiles and nods.
“Wow, I didn’t think that would get so deep that fast!” she says, and shakes her head around like she’s just come out of her building’s rooftop pool. I take her chin in my hand and say, “Hey, you did that. And there’s so much more where that came from. I’ll email you our list of European-originating contemplative practices when I get home tonight. Now, let’s talk about your goals.”
Erin signs up for the Personal Package, Level 1 (“Facing Race at Your Own Pace”) — eight sessions at $2500, $500 up front — and I’m on my way to my next appointment.
I haven’t talked to Vero since she picked up her last stuff from the apartment three weeks ago — the turquoise bookshelf, her grandma’s side table, various dried legumes, and the Brita, straight out of the fridge.
She wouldn’t look at me but I looked at her. I watched her as she poured her share of the chickpeas into one of our mason jars, took some of my books off the shelf, and said her final goodbye to Bertolt. She cried and held onto his sheepadoodle body, whispering something into his flappy gray ear.
After she left I curled up with Bertolt on the bed that we bought him for his first Christmas, faded red letters reading DOGS ARE PEOPLE, TOO.
“What’d she say, bud?” I asked him, stroking his soft fur, feeling something hot and pokey inside my throat. “Please tell me. Please tell me what she said.”
While I’m with Erin, Stacey leaves me a message and asks if we can meet again this week — she’s really not doing well and doesn’t know who else to talk to.
“No one gets it,” she says. “Not Chris, not my therapist, not my friends.” I feel for Stacey. She hired me for a De-Weaponizing Whiteness Weekend Workshop once ($4000) and only three people showed up — her husband Chris, one of her massage clients, and a cousin who happened to be visiting from out of town. None of them came back for day two.
I call Stacey and tell her I’m happy to meet again this week but it will have to count as one of her two remaining sessions for Level 2.
“And then you’re onto Level 3!” I say, feigning excitement. We agree to meet in a couple days.
When I get home, I find a puddle of pee in the middle of the kitchen and Bertolt hiding under the bed, small and ashamed that he couldn’t hold it in.
Vero and I started Whiteness & Antiracist Coaching and Consulting after failed stints as operatives for a labor union. Turned out that being on our feet thirty hours a week serving grumpy tourists for minimum wage while trying to convince our single mom coworkers that they needed a union — saying shit to them like, We all have to take risks for the movement — didn’t feel that great. I only lasted eight months until someone told the manager I’d been creeping her out and making her sign things. “It’s always the manly ones,” the manager sighed as he fired me. Vero lasted a few months longer and then, after one too many “spicy Latina” comments from managers and coworkers alike, quit.
“I hate that I can just leave and the other people of color can’t,” she said, hiding her head under the covers and curling into me. “I fucking fucking fucking hate it.”
“Hey, you deserve to be happy, too, okay?” I said, rubbing her back. “A year is a long time, you paid your dues.” I knew immediately that was the wrong thing to say. She made a loud guttural sound and stormed out of the room.
All of this was originally Vero’s idea. In Mexico her family is white. And fancy. Really fancy. So, she gets it, in a way. If she didn’t have rich white-ish person guilt, and if I didn’t have DC public school pride, we probably wouldn’t have made it work as long as we did.
She came up with the consulting idea after one of the White and White-Passing People for Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian and Pacific Islander, Middle Eastern, and Mixed Race Lives meetings that we’d started attending every week. At the time, we were living in a group house with five bedrooms and nine people, and I was in what Vero would call my White Guilt Low Point Lite, working an admin job in Admissions at Georgetown after the labor stuff didn’t work out. Back in the belly of the beast, was how I felt about it. Taking a good job a person of color should have had so I could go about my awful white life.
After the first two hours of that week’s meeting (strict time limits were deemed a form of white supremacy), we split up into our usual caucuses — the mass of white people staying in the church’s big social room, the few white-passing people of color going to one of the small spaces in the basement.
During our caucus’s opening circle (“Name one item in the knapsack of white privilege that’s still weighing you down”), a college-aged girl with bangs started crying and couldn’t stop. We moved on as a group, but for some reason I couldn’t. I’d look over at the person speaking, then back at her, then at the next person, then back at her. She was wiping her nose with her hand so much that slick snot dripped down her wrist.
When we had our ten-minute pee break, I scooted over toward her and sat down.
“Hey,” I said. “I’m Kara.” I nudged my elbow against her arm to avoid the snot. “What’s going on?”
There was a lot going on. She talked and talked and talked, and, when everyone came back to the circle, we went out into the hallway, sat down on the cold church floor, and she talked some more.
“Mmm,” I said, when she shared about her Asian roommate suggesting she come to this meeting, and, “Damn,” when she talked about her mom needing to have two fingers amputated last week because of the cancer in her bones. When she said she was scared of saying something wrong in front of the group, I said, “We’ve all been there,” and she took a deep sigh.
“Ahem,” said a voice, a long time later, and I looked up to see Vero standing above us. She had this look on her face I’d only seen up close and blurry, when we’d cuddle and stay awake late talking about our future kids, what we’d name them, how we would protect them from the violence of the world.
When I said goodbye to the girl, she hugged me, hard.
“Wow, I feel so much better,” she said, sucking up some remaining snot. “See you next week.” As she walked away, her ponytail swished from side to side. Watching those swishes, I felt a little better, too.
“What?” I said to Vero, as she grabbed my hand and kissed it.
“First of all, you’re really cute,” she said. “But more importantly, I have an idea.”
It took some convincing to get me on board.
“One-on-ones have been the backbone of social movements for a reason,” she said, as I got into my Gay Dogs sleepshirt and turned on the small lamp by my side of the bed. “You know it would do more for people than those unbearable meetings.” I took off my pants and slid in beside her. “We could call it racism or white guilt therapy or something,” she said. “Make it sliding scale.”
“I don’t hate it,” I said back, the stress about my job feeling a little less clumpy. “But are you really sure you want to spend all that time with white people? We’re not a very cool people.”
“Aha!” she said, “You can be our first client.”
Stacey calls me again as I’m driving home from the grocery store. I’m really not in the mood, but I still accept the call on my Bluetooth. Stacey’s voice comes at me from all angles. It’s easy to hear every muffled cry.
“Aw, Stace, talk to me, this is a safe space,” I say, although there’s no such thing.
“I don’t want to keep going like this.” Her words are wet.
“I know, love, I know,” I say, gripping the wheel as I turn onto my street. “I know it’s hard. Just remember — you’re not bad. You’re not bad. All or nothing thinking is part of white supremacy culture. We’re trying to live in that gray zone. That in-between, okay?” I hear more shaky breaths.
“Stace, I’m so sorry, I’m pulling up at a client’s place now, and I gotta run,” I lie. “But I’m thinking about you. Don’t forget about the mantra we worked on last month: I’m a racist and I deserve love. You have resources. Use them. I’ll talk to you soon.”
It was the Professional Package that did it, that made Vero leave. She never said that directly, but that’s when we started falling apart.
When I proposed the expansion of our clientele at our kitchen table over breakfast six months ago, she looked me in the eyes, searching for the joke. I wanted to tell her it was a joke. Instead I said, “If we want to have money to keep doing the deep work with the clients who actually care, we need a new source of income.” I tried to catch her eyes as she avoided mine. “Who’s it hurting if we get some uber-rich companies or politicians to pay the max on our sliding scale and actually, maybe — yeah, I know, this is a big maybe — make them a little less bad in the process?”
She paused and then said, “I think I need to go for a run.”
“Look, it’s not my favorite plan, either,” I said, moving closer to her and grabbing her hand. She pulled away. “You know I can’t control how capitalism works, right?” I asked, frustrated by her usual impulse to flee. “I’m not sorry for actually trying to figure out how we’re going to build a life together.”
“Plus,” I added, in a tone that I didn’t like, “if you take to heart what Alexis Shotwell says in Against Purity about how there is no perfect way to—”
“Don’t do that, Kara,” she spat, tearing herself up from the table. “Don’t fucking do that right now.”
“We said it would be our book club book, V. It’s not my fault you didn’t read it.”
Stacey’s husband Chris calls me around 11 p.m. while I’m slopping Bertolt’s hypoallergenic food out of the can.
“Chris,” I say. “What’s up?” I hear a big sigh.
“I’m sorry to call so late,” he says. “It’s Stace. She’s not doing great.”
“The usual?” I ask, remembering the last two times that he called, how he tried to get her to video chat with me from a rolled-up position on the couch.
“Worse,” he says, and I hear the closing of a door. When he speaks again it’s all whispers.
“She’s contacting her doctor, saying she wants to get off her meds so she can feel again, said this is something you guys talked about.” I think back to the chart we went over in a previous session, the Somatics of White Supremacy, the labeling of numbness as a key part of racism, how developing the capacity to feel is an important step toward collective liberation. Vero would have reminded me in our planning session to go easy with that one.
“Chris, I’m so sorry,” I say, “I should have—”
“It’s not your fault,” he says quickly, and I can hear in his voice that he doesn’t believe it. “She has an illness. It’s no one’s fault.”
“Do you want me to jump on the phone with her?” I ask, guilt biting me all over my body.
“If you could, just for a minute,” he says. “Hang on.” As his footsteps fall on their creaky floor, I wrack my brain. I put him on speakerphone and search through my Inspiring Quotes for Clients database, but Chris comes back on the phone.
“Actually,” he whispers, “looks like she fell asleep.” Relief slides through me.
“That’s great to hear,” I whisper back, though I don’t have to. “Let me know how she’s doing in the morning. And get some sleep yourself, okay?”
“Yep,” he says. “Good night.”
When I get off the phone, I find Bertolt under the bed again. He won’t come out, even when I scatter treats all across the hard floor.
Vero emailed me a few weeks after she left to say that she was now working for a BIPOC-led consulting firm that coaches professionals of color on how to uproot their internalized racism, so she wouldn’t be taking any of her clients with her, and did I want to start working with them myself?
Yes, thank you for letting me know, I’d responded, which seemed sufficiently icy at the time, though, upon later review, seemed unbearably kind.
More clients would have been fine in terms of scheduling, of course — I could fit a night meeting in here and a few more weekend sessions there — but the main problem was Vero’s loose interpretation of “sliding scale,” her insistence that some (most) of her clients be allowed to pay less than our minimum, as low as $20 an hour. She had been fine earning less given her “financial stability,” so it wasn’t a big deal.
When I crunched the numbers, though, trying to figure out how I could cover rent and make car payments on my own, things didn’t look good. Before she left, Vero offered to pay her share but I stubbornly told her no and, at this point, didn’t know how to take it back.
I reached out to her clients one by one, explaining to them about our unfortunate but highly manageable personal and professional uncoupling, that this transition required a slow but steady progression toward the low end of our established sliding scale ($139/hour), but most declined to continue on. “Trickle-down antiracism,” one of them called it. “Hypocritical classist bullshit,” said another. I wanted to ask them if they knew about Vero’s family’s real estate money, how much she had in the bank, but instead I channeled my rage into reading everything I could about Vero’s new firm, spending hours on the internet, trying to learn how much they charged.
“This video is secure?” the Senator’s assistant asks me hastily, as we wait for his boss to join the call. I’m not a fan of video calls (the virtual clients never seem to last), but I woke up with a hangover and this was the best I could do.
“Yes,” I say, wincing a bit in front of the bright screen. “It’s what I use with all of my elite clients.” Elite clients. Ick. But they like to hear it.
Five, ten minutes go by. All I want is to get this over with so I can get the rest of the day over with so I can pour myself a drink — tea, this time, some soothing, herbal tea — and watch something stupid about straight people trying, and, somehow, always succeeding, to find love.
“Thanks for your patience, Kara,” the Senator says when he finally gets on, his seventy-something face unable to stay centered in the frame. All I see is a forehead and the upper parts of his eyes.
“It’s fine,” I say. “What are we working on today?”
With several looking-for-the-best-way-to-say-this pauses, he explains that his office has come under fire lately —well, has been served with a silly little suit — by one of its former aides who claimed that she’d faced discrimination.
“She’s calling herself African American, but her family’s from Morocco,” he says. “It’s like she’s never even heard about being white-passing.” He puts his arm up to the camera. “I mean, my family’s Italian and she’s even paler than me!”
“Senator,” I say, cutting him off, heat humming from my chest into my face. “Let me just be clear. You want my help strategizing on how to fight a racial discrimination lawsuit?”
“Yes,” he says, and his eyebrows seem confused. “Isn’t that something you do?”
After I tell the Senator an undignified no (a “dignified no,” we explain in Level 3, Lesson 3: Boundaries Not Barriers, “feels as good as an enthusiastic yes”) and reschedule our call for “when we have enough time to unpack all of that,” I curl up on Vero’s side of the bed.
There were problems before the ProPack, of course.
About a year ago, Vero asked if she could stop coaching anyone who wasn’t using the sliding scale. So, I adjusted my schedule and figured out a way to make that work. Then, she created this Scale of Whiteness (strictly for internal use)— whites with no connection to where they came from (like me) were a 1, white-passing BIPOC folks with direct ties to non-white culture (like her) were a 10 — and said that she could no longer work with anyone under a 5. I went along with the scale, at first, but I noticed that her load was getting lighter and we were turning more and more people away.
“Come on, he’s definitely a six,” I said, as we drank coffee at our kitchen table and reviewed that week’s intake forms. “We agreed that Jewish people are above a five.”
“Half Jewish,” she said. “He specifically wrote half Jewish. And he mentioned a golden retriever, so…” At this she shrugged her shoulders in an exaggerated trying-to-be-funny sort of way, but I could tell her heart wasn’t in it.
“V,” I said, putting down my mug. “What’s going on?”
“Nothing,” she said, picking at the corner of her notebook. Then: “You wouldn’t get it.” Her usual response. I got up from my chair and went over to rub her shoulders.
“Do you think this is maybe, like, not being able to sit with your own whiteness?” I asked, as gently as I could.
“Kara,” she said, and got up. “I’m not fucking white.”
“Yeah, but like—” I started to say.
“No,” she snapped, her voice growing louder. “I’m sick of you calling me a person of color when you think that’s what a client wants to hear and calling me white when you want them to feel safe.” She took her mug and started aggressively washing it in our new stainless steel sink. “Anyway, ask the guy at the grocery store, the mailman, half the people on this street. I’m not fucking white.”
“Oh yeah?” I spat, my face on fire. “Should I go ask the day laborers outside Home Depot? What about the Black families being pushed out of the city? I bet they would have something to say about that.”
“Jesus Christ,” she said. “You win.”
Stacey tried to kill herself. Or at least tried to try. Pills on the floor and a sleep-like slump.
Chris leaves a message for me about it the next day while I’m in a session. He sounds like he is underwater, which is how I know right away that something is wrong.
“I bet she’d like to see you,” he says in his voicemail. “Our daughter’s flying out tomorrow, but until then, um, I’m not really sure what to do.”
I sit still in my car. I close my eyes. I don’t feel anything, which is how I know I’m feeling a lot. I picture Stacey, crumpled up in the hospital, and Chris, how they need me right now. I pull myself together and start the car.
On the way to the hospital my fear gets all twisted up and I discover that, in fact, I’m mad. So mad. White people turning the reality of racism into fodder for self-harm is a perfect example of white fragility. People of color are actually being killed, an inflamed version of me screams at Stacey in her well-lit room at the hospital, bloated bouquets all around. You can’t poison yourself into oppression.
When I see Stacey, though, in her speckled gown and pallid face, the smell of shit wafting over the curtain between her and whoever else is stuck in there, the madness moves from the center of me and out my limbs and I tell myself we can debrief the politics of this another time, and then I’m sitting in a chair pulled up close to her, holding her hand and stroking it like someone — who? I can’t recall — once did for me when I was a small thing. There are no flowers anywhere.
“I think we should stop our sessions,” I say, and gently pull my hand away, eyes burning. “Seems like you might need a break.”
“No, please,” she says, and grabs my hand back, rubbing her thumb against it like I was rubbing hers. “Please no. I need you.”
“I’m sorry,” I say, and make my way out the door.
After my moment with Stacey, I feel hollow. Or like I’ve always been hollow and someone just cleared away the stuff gunking things up.
I cancel all my appointments and get drunk on everything I’ve got, watching a hundred episodes of a show that Vero would have banned from the apartment— one of those where the one person of color and the one queer person are the same person.
In my stupor, lying there on the couch, the TV becomes another meaningless thing. I think about Vero, can’t stop thinking about Vero. The feeling of her back against my chest, her wet, just-shampooed hair in my face.
“What do you even care about anymore?” she’d asked me, in our last big fight.
“You,” I’d said, trying to pull her back toward me onto the couch. “I care about you. And Bertolt. This family.”
She’d looked at me with so much pain that she didn’t need to say anything — I knew it wasn’t enough.
At some point I get up from the couch, not sure if I’m awake and drunk or still asleep — it’s dark out now, but the kind of dark in a dream — and step in something squishy and thick. From the smell I can tell it’s a pile of shit.
“Bertolt!” I scream. I hear his paws clack against the floor as he hides under the bed. Just as I’m about to get under there and yell at him, get up close to his face and tell him he’s a bad dog, a bad fucking dog, I remember the arthritic yellow lab we had when I was little, how, in his final days, his bladder and bowels were just open, flowing, puddles and piles we wound around for weeks.
“Bertolt,” I say, and it’s more of a wail, and I’m sliding under the bed, my sweatshirt catches on something sharp, I rip it out and I grab Bertie, put my ear to his soft chest and that’s when I hear it, the skipped beat, and again, another one. I hear myself let out another wail, but then I’m getting myself together, I have to get myself together, I’m hoisting him up, throwing him in the car, and I’m driving, the streetlights pass so quickly, I might get sick, and I’m calling Vero with one hand, but she doesn’t answer, her voicemail beeps, I beg her to call me back, it’s Bertie, he’s dying, and then I’m dragging him inside a place that is ow, so bright, and in the silence everything slows down and I find myself on the cold tile floor, Bertie’s warm body in my lap, tail clamped, scared face looking into mine. His fur sprouts out between my fingers, and it feels so soft, the softest possible thing.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry.”
By the time the doctor tells me that Bertolt is fine, his heart is fine, everything is negative, he’s probably just “a distressed puppy acting out,” I’m sober and hungover, horribly aware that I’m barefoot and sitting on the floor in a ripped sweatshirt and sleep shorts. Just a few hours ago, I’d shouted at the young receptionist about bullshit triage and the violent negligence of for-profit medical institutions while pushing my way through the exam rooms. Remembering this, I cringe. Beside me, Bertolt, hearing his name, wags his tail.
“Listen,” the vet adds, in a painfully familiar tone. She slides down the wall and joins me on the floor. “If caring for him feels too hard right now, there are plenty of other options.”
She pauses and waits for me to say something back. I want to assure her that I’m fine, that taking care of others is —and always has been — at the very center of my identity, but a sick part of me is scanning her face, body, clipboard, and shoes, desperately deciphering where she would fall on the scale of whiteness, what kind of client she would be, if she can give me what I need.
I hide my face in my hands.
“Just think about it,” the vet says in that same pitying tone, and gives my arm a squeeze.
I pay for the visit ($750) and drive us home at dawn, right as the light starts to reveal the edges of things. Bertolt is asleep in the backseat, breathing slow, easy breaths. As we wind through the quiet streets, I match my inhales with his, fully feel my fatigue, and, for a moment, let myself be just a body.
Just as I’m turning onto our block, I see a call coming in from Vero. My phone buzzes against the passenger seat and her face appears on the screen. It’s the photo I took on her birthday. She’s holding up a champagne glass, one eyebrow raised, waiting for me to say cheers.