Straight Expectations by Anna Ross

Straight Expectations was published in the Santa Clara Review, Vol. 108, Issue 2 in July 2021.

“And then there are these horrible, dismembered arms. They’re not ordinary arms, they’re twisted and they’re grabbing at me and I don’t know what to do…”

I sat behind my desk fighting the urge to tap my fingers in impatience as Adrian Drew rattled on about his latest night horror. It might have made an interesting case to a younger version of myself but at this point he’d been coming in with more and more warped dreams that I was becoming increasingly convinced he was making them up to garner both pity and attention. 

“What should I do?” he said, flinging his head into his hands in a very over-the-top display of despair. 

I forced a sympathetic smile onto my face. “Well, I still don’t think changing the medication you’re on is the answer. Have you tried those sleep exercises I advised?”   

“Yes, I also followed your advice about talking to my sister, but it didn’t help. She just thinks I’m being paranoid and dramatic. You don’t think that do you, doc?” 

“Don’t worry. Now I’m sorry but I’m afraid we’re going to have to stop here, our hour is up.” I gave a slight inclination to the large clock up on the wall. 

As always, he looked over as if startled by its existence and the possibility that he could have taken more than a few moments of my time. “But there’s more, these arms-”

“I’m sorry Adrian but I have another patient soon.” 

This was a lie. I didn’t have another patient for at least an hour but it was a solid enough excuse to get him out on time.

Eventually I coaxed him out of the room, after assuring him we would speak on the phone later in the week. I closed the door and let my head fall against it, feeling numb and frustrated. Back at my desk I idly flicked through my e-mails. Work hadn’t been very fulfilling recently. 

The phone at the end of my desk rang, the little red light flashing urgently. I answered mostly on reflex. I hoped it wasn’t Mr Drew again – he had a bad habit of calling right after our sessions concluded, suddenly having recalled some essential piece of information I had to hear. 

My heart sunk. It was worse than Drew. It was my mother. Unlike my mobile, my work phone couldn’t program names and only showed a string of numbers as an indicator of who was calling.

“Hey mum,” I said, wishing I hadn’t answered.

“Hey baby, just calling to see how my best girl is doing?” 

Her voice was syrupy sweet, a tone I had grown to associate with insincerity. We had about a minute’s worth of small talk before she finally reached the reason for her call.  

“And how are things going with Caleb?” 

There we go. She just couldn’t help herself, could she? 

Caleb and I hadn’t spoken much since he went to Sweden about a month ago. To be honest, being apart didn’t concern me much. The fact that it didn’t concern me concerned me. 

“Fine,” I replied through gritted teeth.  

My mother had pretty much prophesised my entire future from the moment I was born. Education, career, husband, children, done. Other than the children she’d got what she wanted. I had the feeling she sensed something was wrong because she’d been hounding me even more than usual, her focus not-too subtly on my relationship with Caleb.  

“So, you’ve seen each other since we last spoke?” 

Here comes interrogation mode.

“He’s gone to Sweden, mum, not the moon. We can just pick up the phone.” 

“I still think you should make the effort to go see him. It could be a nice surprise. It’s not healthy for a couple like you to be apart for so long…” 

There was a knock on my door, immediately followed by its opening revealing the new office secretary Norma. She looked incredibly flustered. Sadly, this was not an uncommon look for her. She’d only been here a few weeks and I was sure if I had not pulled in a couple of favours she would not be working here – or anywhere else for that matter. The workings of the office seemed to impress and mystify her in equal measure. Norma had many gifts but wits were not among them. 

“Sorry mum but I’m at the office and I’ve got someone at the door. Thanks for calling.”

I put the phone down before she could respond, making a mental note to memorise her number. 

Norma winced. “Sorry, I didn’t realise you were busy.”

“Don’t worry. What is it?”

“Well, it’s just one of Dr Bateman’s patients is in the waiting room. They’ve been there over half an hour. Dr Bateman is trying to get here but he’s not sure if he’ll be able to make it.” 

I stared blankly at her agitated expression, wondering what she expected me to do. 

“The mother’s making quite a fuss, you see, and I was hoping maybe you could talk to the girl…” 

“I can’t do that,” I said, shaking my head. 

“It would just be until Doctor Bateman gets in,” she urged. She was sounding rather desperate. “I’m sure he’ll come – fifteen minutes, that’s all it will be.”

“I can’t treat another doctor’s patients.” I laid down the fact as firmly as possible, but on seeing the crestfallen look on her face I sighed. “But I will let her come in for a moment. This is just between us.” 

Clearly relieved, Norma ushered in the patient and both my eyebrows shot to my forehead at the sight of her. If vibrancy could be given a human form, this would be its image; a teenage girl wearing a crop top that was either a size too small or was designed to cling to every curve of her body. Coupled with denim shorts that showed her long tanned legs to maximum effect, she was clearly not the sort to get self-conscious. She had frizzy red hair, too bright to be natural, tied in some messy – or perhaps artful – knot. She also wore an expression which clearly said she did not want to be here. Sitting heavily on the sofa she folded her arms defiantly, the bangles on her wrists jangling as she did so. 

I stared for what was probably an inappropriate amount of time then regained myself. I stood and walked over to sit beside her. “Hello, I’m Dr Bailey.” 

“Lisa Wells.”

“How old are you Lisa?” 

“Sixteen.”

The Rebellious Age

“I admit I usually know more about the people who come into my office. Could you tell me why you’re here today?”  

She looked me in the eye, expression still sour. “We don’t even need to have this discussion. I know everything you’re thinking.” 

“Oh, are you telepathic?” 

“It’s not my first time at one of these. You specialists ask all the same questions and give all the same textbook advice. There’s honestly nothing you can tell me that I haven’t heard before.” 

Technically I shouldn’t be talking to her about any factor of her past, present or future; I wasn’t her therapist. Something about her made me want to know what had brought her here. 

She waited, expecting me to press for further details. When I didn’t, she gave an exaggerated groan letting her head fall back, “Fine, I let my ex-boyfriend stay over one night and didn’t tell my mum.”

“You think she wouldn’t have let him?”

“I know she wouldn’t. They’d never met. I knew if I introduced them, she’d go all ‘crazy judgy’ on him and I’d just get another long lecture.”

“Am I to assume this boyfriend is somewhat older than you?”

She gave a sigh. “Jason’s nineteen. I don’t get what she was so freaked about. We weren’t even sharing a room let alone a bed. I told him he could sleep in my brother’s room.” 

“Well, most mothers wouldn’t really want a stranger with either of their children. What did your brother make of all this?” 

“Denny’s two years old he doesn’t exactly have opinions.” A mocking laugh. “That kid would eat gravel if you put it in his cereal.” 

“So how did your mother find out then?”

“Jason tripped over his stupid guitar in the night and woke Denny who started crying. She completely lost it even after I explained who he was and that I was the one who said he could stay.” She shook her head as if unable to comprehend why such behaviour could be considered inappropriate. 

“And it was after this incident she suggested therapy?” 

“I think my teacher advised her to do it a while back. I’m not really sure but I guess you could say that was what pushed her over the edge. Not that it’s done much good; no offense but I think what you guys do is kind of a waste of time.”

Instead of being offended I moved closer, feeling quite intrigued at the blatant honesty and unreserved nature of the girl before me. I couldn’t remember the last time any of my patients had piqued my interest. 

“I’ve been coming to these check-ups for weeks and I’m afraid whatever great breakthrough you people and my mum want isn’t going to happen.” 

I hesitated on the next question that came to mind, then decided I was already down the rabbit hole. “Your feelings for this boy, are they serious?”

This earned me an eye roll. “It’s not like she had anything to worry about. I was only dating him because he wrote a song about me – he’s a musician you see – but he was way too clingy. And besides, I’m way more into girls.”

The blatant confession took me by surprise. “Really? You’re young to figure that out… have you told many people?” 

“Yeah,” she shrugged in an offhand manner. “Not like it’s a secret.”

“And how do you think your mother feels about your… interest in women.” 

She frowned, as if puzzled by my question, and tilted her head slightly causing the knot in her hair to go lopsided. “She’s fine with that… but she often doesn’t like the girls I pick; she doesn’t like anyone I pick. If it were left up to her, I’d die an old maid locked up in my room.”

“Well, you’re preaching to the choir there. My mother makes me crazy too. Always demanding to know if I’m happy as if not being so would be failing her.”

I wasn’t sure why I said that. I never talked to patients about my private life; I had spent years perfecting the art of evading any personal questions thrown at me, but for some reason it just came out. It seemed to amuse her. 

“Did your mother ever ground you for a month because you snuck one bottle of prosecco into your room?” 

“My mother would ground me for two months if I wore a skirt that didn’t reach my knees,” I replied, putting my hand on her shoulder and thinking of some of the lectures I’d had. The suitability of boys came to mind. 

Lisa snorted, her big blue eyes definitely interested, and I felt an odd sense of accomplishment that, at the very least, I wasn’t boring her like the other therapists she’d spoken of. 

“Did she ever try to send you to therapy?” 

“Oh no,” I tried to imagine such a scenario. “No, my mother made absolutely sure the world saw our whole family as the perfect success. We were her shining example to the neighbourhood.”

Just thinking of it brought back memories of a thousand forced smiles, of constantly trying to live up to the picture she showed to the rest of the world. It must have shown on my face as something akin to pity crossed Lisa’s elfin face.

“That really sucks,” she said.

I smiled. “Yep, it did suck and still kinda does.” 

I couldn’t lie to myself; I’d tried my best to distance myself from my mother, but I’d never once confronted her on the way I’d been raised. 

“Maybe you should just tell her.” 

“What? Tell her she sucks?” I gave half a laugh before realising it hadn’t been meant as a joke. “Seriously?”

She shrugged, “Why not? Sounds like someone needs to say it.” 

Those extraordinary eyes were completely sincere. I paused at her words, picturing the reaction I would get if I took the advice of this flamboyant, strangely wise, teenage girl.

“Do you say that kind of thing to your mother?” 

“Only when I feel it needs to be said. Though to be fair if I kept my mouth shut, I probably wouldn’t have to be dragged here every week.” 

“Right…” 

Looking at those wildly made up lashes my hand left her shoulder and moved up towards her striking hair. 

Then the door opened and with a jolt I snatched my hand back, suddenly returned to reality and feeling for all the world as if someone had doused me in cold water.

“Dr Bateman made it. He’s just gone into his office,” Norma said, turning her gaze to Lisa and giving a winning smile. “You can go over, it’s the same room as last time.” 

“We can wait until Dr Bateman settles back in, there’s no hurry.” I honestly wasn’t sure which of the two people in the room I was directing this statement to. 

“That’s alright, I’ll go,” said Lisa stiffly, getting up a little too quickly. “I’ll wait in his office. Nice to meet you.” She walked past Norma without looking back. 

I felt my shoulders sag and turned my gaze to the carpet as Norma stepped out of the doorway, letting the door shut behind her. I put my hand to my face and rubbed my eyes, wincing. 

“Did everything go… okay?” she asked cautiously.

“It went fine, don’t worry about it.” I replied, silently willing her to go back to her desk and get back to whatever she did for the office. “I’m just… a little stressed.” 

“Oh, I see,” she replied awkwardly. “Caleb’s still away, isn’t he?” 

I didn’t reply, annoyed at myself for allowing her to know so much about my life. A heavy silence hung in the air. 

“Would you like me to come over again tonight?”     

I finally removed my hands and looked up. Not at Norma. Not at anything really. Just stared at the other side of the room, feeling as if that single conversation had drained all the vitality from me. 

“Yeah, why not?”  

About The Author

Anna Ross lives in North Yorkshire and works as a university administrator. She greatly enjoys reading and writing stories and poems of all shapes and sizes. Her short stories have been published across a range of anthologies. Though she is noted amongst her peers for writing literature with dark underlying themes and messages she is actually a very friendly person in the real world.

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