“Dear Mistress” by Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum

Issue 78

Found in Willow Springs 78

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You are the cancer in my family's gut, our bleeding ulcer, a bile we cannot swallow.


THIS IS THE LETTER I write you about my father's infidelity and my mother's rage.

Dr. R, who last week suggested I try writing myself "letters of positivity," frowns when he sees I've written to you instead. "Your anger is justified, Elisabeth," Dr. R says. "But we cannot let our an­ger own us. The Buddhist thinker Thich Nhat Hanh says that anger is like a knot. We can't untangle it until we recognize it, smile at it, treat it with tenderness. Can you do that, Elisabeth?" Behind his wide desk, Dr. R folds his hands and fixes his eyes on me. It's some­ thing he does--a therapist trick for breaking you down, like some sort of superhero death glare. I think it's starting to piss him off that this has no effect on me.

I refuse to blink until he does. "Sure," I say.

He stares. I stare back. The clock on his office wall sounds like tiny knuckles cracking one by one by one.

"Good," he says, shifting in his seat. "Okay then. Why don't you try something else for me this week? A simple spoken affirmation every day to reset your focus?" He stands and raises his hands to the ceiling, closes his eyes. "Today I choose acceptance," he says. He brings his arms down and crosses them over his own chest, a "you-hug," he tells me, and smiles. It's awkward to watch--like seeing my mother try on a bathing suit--and I have to look away.

"I'm not doing that," I say.

"Not now, but try it later." He sighs, my cue that our time is up. At the office door he nods to my parents, who are sitting on opposite sides of the narrow lobby, my mother reading a paperback, my father editing his latest script. At the sight of Dr. R my father curls the script into a tight tube he tucks into the back pocket of his jeans.

"How's she doing?" he asks.

"Remember what we talked about, Elisabeth," Dr. R says. "I'll see you all next week." He disappears behind his office door, and from her corner my mother smirks over the top of her book.

Dr. R meets with the three of us for one hour jointly, followed by a half hour each individually every Friday evening. That's two-and­ a-half hours a week, for six weeks now, which means we've spent a total of nine hundred minutes in counseling. Nine hundred minutes, Mistress, just to get over my father's love for you, to resuscitate some­ thing we didn't know we had until you took it from us. Honestly, though, I'm beginning to think we're hoping for the impossible.

"Well, that was bullshit," I say to my parents as we walk out­ side. It's 5:30 and the light is going that fragile blue you get right before dusk. It's the color I see behind my eyes when I close them at night--a blue that could be violet in another minute, and pitch black the minute after that. It's the color of the dyed tap water my father says is filling the DeDanvilles' luxury indoor swimming pool on his show; and also of an ocean when seen from an airplane window like the one I wish I were looking out of now, far from my fucked-up parents and this fucked-up night and every other night like it until we reach what Dr. R calls "the lasting acceptance."

"Language, Elisabeth," my mother says, but she says it bored.

"She's allowed to express her thoughts just like anyone else." My father's voice is liquid patience. Since you, Mistress, he's been taking this tone with us--my mother and me--as if we are both small children, or maybe mental patients. As if we are his anger and he is treating us with tenderness. He reaches for my hand, but I slip past him and let him walk across the parking lot toward our car, while I lag and scuff the toes of my shoes against the pavement.

"Pick up your feet, honey," my father says, looking back, and when I don't, he turns to my mother. "Can you back me up on this?"

She shrugs. "Why don't you try using a 'feeling statement.' Why don't you try saying, 'Elisabeth, honey, when you drag the toes of those hundred-dollar tennis shoes, I feel you wasting my money."'

My father does the thing where he sighs and closes his eyes.

The only other car in the lot is Dr. R's convertible, a car that has the look of a wet seal--quick and slippery, but too fishy to be truly mammalian. I touch my palm to the window, Mistress, so that my five fingerprints appear in one long smudge on the glass, and my mother raises an eyebrow. "Don't scratch it," she says to me. "We're paying for that thing." When we get across the lot, my father has our car running. She climbs into the passenger seat, settles her bag in her lap. "Get buckled," she tells me over her shoulder. "Your father's buying dinner."

He toggles between radio stations for a moment before settling on NPR and swiveling to look at me. "What do my ladies feel like eating tonight?"

"Whatever,"I say.

“Your heart,” my mother says.

We pull out of the parking lot just as the first yodel of La Traviata trips from the speakers.



Today I am choosing denial.


DURING ONE OF OUR FAMILY COUNSELING SESSIONS my father let slip that what first drew him to you is your devotion to books. She's a bibliophile, my father said, as if that explained it all, never mind that you're twenty-nine and beautiful and an actress. You're a bibliophile. When he said it I thought of a tack, the sound of the word like the knobby head and silver prick of the pushpins my English teacher uses on the corkboard at school. Bibliophile, and I saw the triangle of your face bent close to the thick crease of an opened book, Mistress, your black hair fallen forward over your shoulders. Your pink tongue slipped from between your made-up lips to lick the tip of your finger just before you turn a page.

When he told us about you, I started watching the show. I had watched it now and then in the past when my father wrote a big scene, say, like the one in which Lauraline Estaban fell down the stairs after she told Stefan DeDanville he was the father of her children. They were writing her character off the show, so the fall had to break her neck. Getting a death scene is like getting a promo­tion for a soap writer, so it was a big deal for my father. He made pop­ corn and let me stay home from school on a "personal day." We sat on the couch, my feet in his lap and the bowl of popcorn between us, and because we were recording it, after Lauraline fell the first time we switched to the tape and watched her fall again, watched Cassady Walker discover her mother's broken body at the base of the stairs again. And again. My dad mouthed the words he had written as they came out of Cassady's mouth onscreen: Mother! Darling, sweetheart, wait! It was a Flannery O'Connor reference, he said, but probably he and I were the only Valley Heights viewers who would catch that. He winked at me like it--intelligence, I guess--was our secret, and I slapped him a silent air-five with my palm. Until you, Mistress, I'd never seen the show without my father sitting beside me.

Here on the West Coast, the show airs weekdays at 11 a.m., right after The 700 Club and just before the better soaps--the ones my father calls "the legacies"--but it replays on SOAPnet at 11 p.m. every night. I've moved the old TV into my room. I keep it in my closet, the cord stretched beneath the closed door so I can watch you there in my private darkness, knees tucked to my chest and your voice lifting from the mini-speakers to smother itself in the long sleeves of sweaters and the cuffs of my jeans. I've watched so many episodes now that the rooms of the DeDanville family estate are as familiar to me as my own house--that grand entryway with the black-and-white tile floor and the telephone table by the front door; the living room with the overstuffed satin striped couch that Virgintine DeDanville faint­ed on when Stefan told her he was actually her brother; the mantel where Aubrey DeDanville hung poor baby Ivy's tiny Christmas stocking the week my father told us you weren't just some distraction, but that he was actually in love with you.

After I shut off the TV and climb into bed, I see you walking those rooms behind my closed eyes. You pausing at the foot of the generous staircase, your head cocked like a pet pony's for the sound of Stefan's footsteps on the marble. You with your hand on the front doorknob, your dark eyes narrowed in anticipation of an uninvited guest. You doubled in the guest room mirror, a look of strained remorse on your face just after you've stolen Carmina DeDanville's treasured brooch.

If I could record the shows, I would run you backwards across the room, Mistress, away from the mirror, your remorse returning itself in reverse to whatever came before the theft--selfishness, or jealousy, or loneliness, or despair. I still don't know. Motivation, my father calls it--the push that drives a character toward her choice and the viewer toward revelation. If I could, I would walk you back and forth across the plush carpeting of Carmina DeDanville's en suite all night long just to see the bloom of your remorse wither backwards into what, Mistress? I want to understand.



If I learn to smile at my anger, will my parents learn to treat each other with tenderness again?


WHEN MY FATHER RAISES the issue of the upcoming Valley Heights cast party during our next session, I suggest myself as the solution. This after forty-five minutes of my parents bickering about my father's obligation to be present at said party, and my mother's absolute fucking unwillingness to ever be in the same room as that whore. She says the last word in two syllables, drawing it out like a hair that's coiled itself at the back of her tongue and must be carefully expelled if she's going to keep from gagging on it. Whoo-her. I can't take it anymore.

"I'll go," I say, and all three adults look at me like I've proposed throwing myself into a pit of snakes. Maybe I have, but it's too late to take it back.

"I'd love for you to go," my father says. He puts his arm around my shoulder, smiles at me.

Dr. R makes a throat-clearing sound. "I wonder about that," he says. "What would be the outcome for each of you if you take Elisabeth?" He's doing his best Thich Nhat Hanh now, and he gestures toward me with the pen he keeps tucked between two fingers. Pointing the pen while he reflects on our troubles is one of his things. Like the death glare and the couch--symbols of credibility. When he really gets going he tends to sweep it through the air, wand style. God, my mother said after our first session. It's like being counseled by Harry Potter.

She turns on me now and raises both eyebrows in a question. "Don't you think thirteen is a little young for a cast party?" When I say nothing, she looks at my father. "Are you seriously considering this?"

"She wants to go," he says. "You heard her. She wants to go, don't you, Elisabeth?"

My mother shakes her head. "I can't believe you two." She faces Dr. R. "I'm the bad guy, you see? He lets her protect him."

"That's not it," I say.

"What is it then, Elisabeth?" my mother says. She looks as if she might be sick, as if she might cry. "What is it, then? You tell me."

But what can I tell her, really? That she's right--I do want to protect my father? I want to tell her that I've got this now--I'll pro­tect him and her and all of us from this mess she and my father have made of our family. I want to tell her she can trust me. I'll figure out a way to fix everything. I'll go to the party, and I'll remind my father why he should stay with us, and I'll handle it. I can be trusted. I'm not really a child anymore. I can be adult about this. But what does that even mean anymore--to be adult?

"God,"I say. "Whatever. It was just an offer.”

"And not a bad one," my father says. "I appreciate your compassion, Elisabeth."

"Fine." My mother throws up her hands, dismissing us both. "I hope you two have a great time."

"Why don't we all put a pin in this for a few days and see how it feels," Dr. R says.

"At least I won't have to hire a sitter," my mother adds. The crack I heard in her tone earlier has turned hard and cutting.

"A sitter?" I say.

"For your father, dear."

A look of exasperation crosses Dr. R's face, and I wonder again how different we are from the other families he sees. Are they nicer than us? Easier to cure? Happier, underneath all their anger? I imagine another family, our double in looks but our opposite in manners, standing at the door. Dr. R shakes the father's hand as they leave. The daughter says thank you, and the mother smiles politely as they turn the corner of the lobby. They are not broody or cruel to each other. The father doesn't cry behind his office door in the mornings. The mother doesn't ask the daughter why her husband has stopped loving her. Why she can't seem to stop loving him in return. These doubles are good guests in the doctor's pretend living room for their 150 minutes a week. If half of all families break up, they will be the other half--the half that stays together.


FOUR DAYS LATER the school secretary calls my name over the PA system during fifth period. The rest of the class watches as I stuff my pre-algebra book into my backpack. No one ever gets called out of class for good news.

All the way down the hall I think, This is it: they've come to tell me he's leaving. They've come to tell me she's kicking him out. I picture myself across the kitchen table from my parents, a sleeve of Oreos on a plate between us and a big glass of milk in front of me. It's the setup they arranged when they told me about sex, so it fits that they'd stage a reenactment to tell me about divorce.

But when I get to the office, it's just my mother waiting, her work clothes still on and her staff bag with the public library logo slung over her shoulder. "I'm working on administrative stuff from home for the rest of the day," she says. "But first I thought we'd find you a dress for your father's obligation."

''I'm not sure I want to go anymore," I say.

"Oh, you're going." She signs me out and starts ahead of me through the school's double security doors.

Outside it's bright and springtime warm, though it's only just the end of January. The rest of the world is still iced over with what is probably a respectable winter. A better winter than the sort of cowardly season we get in California, where even the weather is a cheat. I tip my face to the sun. "I won't have a good time," I say, and my mother laughs.

"It's not about having a good time," she says. "No one's having a good time."

"Mom." I stop walking, and she turns to look back at me." I said I don’t want to go."

My mother motions to me and waits while I trudge toward her. "Hey," she says when I reach her. "Hey." She says it softly as I lean into her. She kisses the top of my head, her palm cool on my cheek. "It'll be fine. We'll get you a new dress--an expensive one--and then at least you'll look like you're having fun." She puts her arm around me, and we walk together to the car.

At the food court she lets me get a Mountain Dew and a box of churros. I eat as we walk the length of the mall, licking the sugar crystals from my fingers. My mother pauses at one kiosk and then another. She buys herself a pair of earrings and then a scarf and then a box of six perfect chocolates, which she has gift wrapped, though we unlace the ribbon and dig into the box as soon as we're beyond the clerk's line of sight.

At the bookstore she lets me pick a paperback. While I'm making up my mind, I see her slide a copy of People from the metal magazine rack and my stomach seizes. She's seen you on the glossy cover, I think, your face beneath the words "Daytime's Hottest Stars Con­fess," and now we'll have to leave, the afternoon interrupted, soiled by your unwanted presence, just like the rest of our lives. But when she slips the magazine back in the rack and turns to me, she's still smiling, and it occurs to me like a slap in the face, like the glorious and unforgiving beam of a stage light: you're not the sort of star who makes the magazines. Not yet. You're just a bit part--a hired girl, a climber--and for a moment I get the total pleasure of shrinking you down to size.

The thing is, Mistress, it's been difficult to maintain perspective. You've become the star of our family. Bigger than life. Truer the more I imagine you. After my father told us about you, it was as if you had moved in with us. You were there in the empty fourth seat at our table. You were the darkness I used to be afraid of behind the basement door. I could hear you moving through our house at night, peering in on us as we slept, a sour but shared dream, a ghost looking for a body to borrow.

Sitting in my closet late at night, I watched the real you--the pretend-real you--living your other life in the DeDanville estate, and I compared myself to you. I am a bibliophile, I thought. I am the sort of person who would take a brooch from a drawer and hold it in my hands just to feel its weight, and then find it a day later, still there in my pocket, accidentally stolen. Or, maybe, on-purpose stolen. Some­ times it's hard to tell. The lines between fact and fear, between real and dreamed, between you and me are getting harder to see, Mistress, and there have been times when I've thought it was my body you decided to borrow, my story my father has written you into.

But now, in the mall with my mother, I see that it's her you've got--or maybe also her--and that since my father brought you home she's been wearing you like a mask, her forehead always fret­ted, her mouth so often sewn narrow around a feeling I cannot name. Is it fear, or loneliness, or desperation? I don't know. I look at her as we turn into Nordstrom, as we ride the escalator to the top floor where the really pricey stuff is hung like museum pieces--one dress to a rack. I look at her as she fingers the hot pink tulle on a skirt, the crust of sparkling sequins on a bodice. I look at my moth­er as she stands next to me in the fitting room mirror, my face and hers side-by-side, so alike. I look at my mother, and I want to undo you, Mistress. I look at my mother. I look at my mother, Mistress, and I want to understand what's gone wrong.

"What do you think?" my mother asks, spinning me around, tugging the zipper on a blue velvet sheath. "You like this one? You think this could be it?" She frowns, and I search her reflection for what it is that's changed in her. "Yes," she says. "We'll get this. You'll feel good in this."

"Okay,” I tell her. “This one’s fine.”

My mother puts the dress on the credit card, squeezes my elbow as the clerk boxes it, the tissue paper crinkling flat like the leaves of an old book going closed as she brings down the cardboard lid.

On the freeway home, I catch her profile in the driver's seat, and a word comes to me, sharp and silver as a hot pin skewering the tip of my tongue. "I feel so disillusioned," I say aloud.

"What?" my mother says. She turns down the radio volume. "Did you say you're disappointed? Why didn't you tell me that before we bought it?"

"No," I say. "The dress is fine."

She shakes her head. “Fuck," she whispers under her breath. "Elisabeth, I'm doing the best I can here, you know? I really am."

"Don't swear at me," I say. "You never used to swear."

For a minute I think she'll cry, but she doesn't, and that's the end of our conversation. She puts in a Heart CD and Ann Wilson's voice rips out of the speakers the rest of the way home.

I look out the window and think about what Dr. R said about lasting acceptance. About anger as a knot, about a knot as just another puzzle to solve, about acceptance as the lasting resolution. That's just more crap. Acceptance isn't resolution. Acceptance is recognizing you can't change anything. Acceptance is being too tired to do anything but give up.



I'm so tired. So tired of us all.


WE SKIP OUR FRIDAY SESSION, and on Saturday my parents tell me they've decided to stop seeing Dr. R.

"It's not working," my mother says.

My father pulls one of his sighs. "I wouldn't say that. It's just--" We're eating a brunch of scrambled eggs and frozen waffles, and he pauses with the syrup bottle still poised above his plate. "We're cycling. Your mother doesn't feel we're moving forward."

"So you're getting divorced," I say.

"Oh, I'm not divorcing him," my mother says. "I’m not letting him off that easy."

"So you're not getting divorced."

My father looks between us, pity on his face. To me, he says, "I know you want a guarantee, but adult life isn't as clear-cut as childhood." He reaches across the table to take my hand--an apology­--but I pull away. "We love you," he tells me. "No matter what, we love you." His voice is round and low and lumpy. I know I've hurt him in not saying that I forgive him. I know my silence is killing him.

Darling, I think, and I see Cassady Walker standing over the horrible angles of her mother's body at the foot of the DeDanville staircase. Darling. Sweetheart. No. In my head, the words take the shape of smoke rings, rise, and evaporate. For a second I think I'll throw up. I push my plate away, lean back in my seat. I've brought my new book to the table, and I pull it onto my lap and turn the pages quickly, not really looking at what's printed on them.

"We love you, Elisabeth," my father says again, insistent. He is crying now; I don't have to look up to know it. The sound of his cry is choked, restrained, worse to hear than any good thing he's said about you, Mistress, or any hard thing he's said about my mother. Worse than knowing he isn't happy in his life with us, and that he doesn't know what would make him happy, and that his unhappiness is probably just his puzzle to solve--a puzzle for which he will never have a lasting resolution.

"Here we go," my mother says.

"Stop it," I tell her.

"Don't be rude to your mother."

"Oh, that's rich," my mother says. "You giving her advice on good behavior."

"Beatrice--" my father says, but I interrupt him.

"This is such shit!" I yell. "This is supposed to be brunch!" I close my book and slap it on the table.

"You think I'd have chosen this?" my mother asks. "You think this is the way I thought life would go?"

"You're allowed to be angry," my father says, and I'm not sure if he's talking to her or to me.

"Yes!" my mother shouts. "Let's all be angry!"

I get up.

"Elisabeth," my father says. "Elisabeth, we're still a family."

I hear him, but I am already gone, taking the stairs two at a time.

I watch myself open the door to my closet. I watch myself drag out the dress box. I am out of my body. I am rage.

Under the petals of tissue paper, the dress is folded in a perfect square. I take it in my hands. Its fabric is smooth and soft and fragile. It is the blue of an empty sky. The blue of a glacier. It rips like a dream. I split it at its zipper first, then tear the lining from the bodice, the slip from the skirt. I pop each tiny knot of blue thread, break each precise stitch. Finally, I roll it all into itself again, a tumble of velvet and satin and tissue paper, and I step into the hallway and throw the whole mess down the stairs for my parents to step over whenever they care to get up and find me.


THE NEXT WEEK, during my last private half-hour session, I repeat the fight to Dr. R. I tell him I ruined the dress and it felt good to ruin it. I tell him that neither of my parents has said a word to me about it, though the fabric and the paper and the box all disappeared. I tell him I expected more from them.

"Can I ask what you wanted them to say?" My parents fired him during our family hour, so I know we're both just going through the motions one last time here.

Still, this is the question I've been asking myself, Mistress. I think the answer should be that I want them to say we've all screwed up. We've all made some mistakes and poor choices, but it's okay. It's not too late to rewind. I should want them to say we can still cut you from our lives, edit you out of the story of our family. Wouldn't that be the best answer?

What comes to me instead, though, is the memory of my parents' voices sifting into my bedroom through the air vents early in the morning. I wake and hear them downstairs doing their morning things--making coffee and running through their schedules--their voices recognizable but indistinct. Knots of sound I can't untangle into real words. I've been waking up this way my whole life, Mistress, and it used to be comforting--a reverse lullaby--rocking me gently into the day. But now I don't know. All these years I've imagined them happy downstairs, but how do I know what they were before you, really? How do I know that what I think I saw was real? What if I rewind and replay, and all I get is regret run a new way? At some point doesn't it all converge? Is this making sense, Mistress? Do you understand what I'm trying to say here? Anger isn't a knot. Maybe Thich Nhat Hanh has never been mad enough to know this, but it's the truth. Knots have beginnings and ends. You see what I'm saying, Mistress? Knots can be safely handled. They can be reasoned loose and stripped to single fibers, single seams. Anger is nothing like that. Nothing like that at all. Anger is an electrical fire or a lightning storm. Have you ever seen those pictures of California wildfires, Mistress? That's anger. A whole dry hillside of people's houses--dry for a long time before the spark--lit and blazing like a goddamned bonfire. And, sure, maybe you can put it out, after a while. Maybe. And maybe you can even accept the damage eventually. But accepting the ash doesn't make your house whole again, does it, Mistress?

It doesn't bring back what's already been burned.

"Elisabeth?" Dr. R says after several minutes of silence.

"I want them to be quiet," I tell him. "I just want them to stop fighting and shut up."


THAT NIGHT, once my parents have shut off the lights in their bedroom, I crawl into my closet and turn on the TV. I need to see you, Mistress, and there you are. I've come to appreciate your reliability, if nothing else.

In this episode you're outside--or you're supposed to seem to be outside--on the grounds of the DeDanville estate. For a few minutes I watch on mute, and it isn't until Stefan appears at the garden wall that I realize I've read this episode as a script; my father wrote it months ago, before he fell in love with you, or before he knew he was in love, anyway. At least before he told us. You and Stefan are going to walk to the gazebo, where you will fight, and after he stalks off across the lawn, you're going to have a short gazebo scene all to yourself, like Liesl von Trapp, but since this is a soap opera, you'll talk to the air for a while, and eventually you'll cry. My father debated about the crying. He doesn't like to make anyone cry. On the page it's too hard to pull off--too sentimental to seem genuine. And in real life it's too genuine to be sentimental. But he wrote you this crying scene anyway, maybe because he knew you'd be beautiful there on the artificial lawn, the stage lights set to evening blue.

I watch you cry on mute. You put your face in your hands, and your shoulders tremble. Behind you, at a distance, the DeDanville mansion is large and lit white against the deepening darkness, and though I know it's just an illusion, that you're actually on a set and what I'm looking at is a backdrop, on my TV your world looks impossibly real.

I know your lines well enough to know what's coming next, but when you raise your head and speak, I don't turn up the volume. Instead, I revise my father's dialogue and speak new words for you--the ones I wish you’d say, or--if not you--someone. "I’m sorry,” I say in a whisper. Your mouth moves in only slight misalignment with mine. "I'm sorry," I repeat, louder now. The camera is close enough that I can see the line the makeup artist has drawn just above your actual top lip. "I'm so very sorry, Elisabeth."

I make you say it again, dear Mistress. I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry--the words unwinding from my mouth and yours together at once. I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry.

I make us say it to each other again and again, even after it's all just indistinguishable sound.

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