Kathleen glanced around the sterile chrome and white setting while clutching the tablet in her hands. She had been here once before for the preliminary, complimentary consultation, and it had been just as silent. A big screen TV mounted in the corner played a midday soap on mute with the captions scrolling across the bottom. The receptionist typed her notes in swift, almost clackless rhythm.
A loud sob suddenly popped the quiet bubble though, as the middle-aged woman along the opposite wall hunched her shoulders and began to cry. The woman with her, her younger sister by the sleek, trendy shape of her body yet matching nose and chin, snatched a handful of ready tissue then shoved them into the trembling hands beside her. “Please, Cindy,” she stage-whispered, “this is exactly why we’re here.”
Kathleen met the glance of the elderly man in the corner. He ruffled the sheets of the Men’s Health in his hands, then turned his gaze back down. Yes, this is why we’re all here, Kathleen allowed her attention to return to the tablet on her lap while the woman’s sobs became a distant noise, choked back through tissue.
Charts filled the white page, but Kathleen was prepared. She had spoken to the counsellor assigned to all incoming patients, understood the process well, and, unlike poor Cindy, had long ago resigned herself to this last of resorts. Picking up the stylus, she began to colour in the pie-chart labelled “Love.”
The counsellor had been very clear. “Make sure you colour in what you want them to take out, dear. The white part is what you’ll be left with.”
Kathleen understood. She continued filling in the circle until it reached eighty percent. Then she scrolled down to “Anger.” On this one, she only filled out seventy-five percent. She never felt like she had much anger to begin with. “Sorrow” was another eighty, as was “Envy.” When she got to “Happiness,” she coloured it halfway. The counsellor had suggested this strategy, otherwise the loss of her other emotions would leave her “adrift in a sea of euphoria.”
Uh-oh. Kathleen reprimanded herself. She wasn’t supposed to call it a loss. It was a “rebalancing.” Most people could go through life and not overreact to things. They didn’t break down crying because of perceived slights. Not just crying but spending hours in bed on bright sunny days eating all the ice cream out of the freezer. It wasn’t “normal.”
Normal people also don’t fall for losers, as Kathleen’s mother had reminded her time and again. Or if they do, they don’t fight for them so fiercely and dramatically, as though their very existence depended on that person’s approval. Kathleen knew the desperation of her own love was driving away the very object of it, and the self-awareness was like watching a train wreck with her hand on the brake, unwilling or unable to do anything to stop it.
Until she walked into Dr. Yang’s Emotional Rebalancing Clinic.
She watched Joe’s thick, calloused fingers flex around the steering wheel.
“We can’t keep doing this, Kathleen.”
“Doing what?” She winced at the uncontrollable shake in her voice.
“This. This up and down. Back and forth.”
A tear slid down her cheek. “I can be better. I have been.”
“No. You do this every time. It’s not going to get any better. It’s not healthy for either of us.”
That did it. The sobs erupted from Kathleen’s chest and gushed from her throat.
Joe’s eyes were unreadable and impassive behind his dark sunglasses, allowing her cries to echo in the silence of the vehicle.
“You need to leave, Kathleen,” he finally said.
He only flicked his hand over the locking mechanism, releasing the door on Kathleen’s side.
She stumbled from the car, then watched as it sped down the boulevard, never once tapping the brakes. The lanes of passing vehicles blurred before her sight as her breath came shorter and shorter, restricting the oxygen to her mind and lungs. She reached out and clawed into the bark of a tree, needing to feel something physical and grounding, even if it was the splinters digging beneath her nails. Silent tears were washing her face clean.
Somehow, she stumbled into her apartment. A trail of shoes, keys, and pants showed the way Kathleen made through her tiny living area into her even smaller bedroom. In the desk in the drawer was a bottle of pills.
Kathleen’s fingers curled around the smooth orange bottle. Prescribed earlier in the year for a kidney infection, she knew well enough that a few of these would do more than send her back to the emergency room.
As her trembling hands struggled with the child-proof lid, her eyes landed on the glossy print of a pamphlet lying in the open drawer.
Dr. Yang’s Emotional Rebalancing Clinic the happy yellow font across the calm blue background announced.
Kathleen remembered being handed this piece of advertising by a well-dressed woman outside her college. She had shoved it into her purse, then dumped it into the drawer, where it had lain forgotten until this moment.
She glanced at the bottle, then her phone. Joe hadn’t sent a message yet, declaring he was wrong or that he loved her. He never had before, but maybe if she gave him a few more minutes.
She opened the shiny brochure. Inside were before and after pictures; a woman weeping on a doctor’s table beside photos of the same woman smiling in a park and laughing with her boyfriend. There were statistics on the right side about the prevalence of mental instability in modern society.
“Have you tried pills, meditation, therapy? Nothing worked? That’s because the only way to rebalance the mind is to rebalance the brain.”
The back of the pamphlet had a picture of the clinic shining on a sunny day and a phone number where it promised receptionists were ready to help, day or night.
Kathleen glanced at her phone once more. She gave Joe one more minute, then picked up and dialed.
The blank wall to the right of the TV opened up, revealing a doorway and a smiling, white-clad nurse. “Ms. James?”
Kathleen stood and crossed the room, handing the tablet to the nurse before sliding past her. The operating room was much darker than the foyer, lit only by low floor lights near the walls, and a large spotlight over a reclining chair in the middle of the room. She had been here before, during her consultation, however, so she tried not to let any remaining nerves surface as she deposited her handbag near the door, stepped on the scale, then made her way to the chair.
“Good afternoon, Ms. James.” The wall to Kathleen’s left lit up, revealing a control panel tucked behind a thick panel of glass. The female nurse had joined another middle-aged, balding male nurse and Dr. Susan Yang, an elderly Chinese-American who was one of the lucky ones in life to have greyed with solid perfection. Her voice lilted through the com-system.
“I hope you’re having a pleasant day. As I’m sure you discussed with your consultant,” she paused tapping at a screen, “Maryanna, this will be a fairly quick and painless procedure. Half an hour at most.” She paused again, and there was more tapping. “Well, it seems everything is in order. Let’s begin, shall we?”
Kathleen settled back in the comfortable leather seat. Another big screen TV was angled to be in line with her vision and pre-programmed to the show she had indicated on her preference list. Above the screen was a device like an old-fashioned video camera with a red dot beaming from the centre, indicating the laser’s point of origin. She shuddered to think that only a few decades ago, something like this would have been performed with knives, bone saws, and needles, if it was even attempted at all. Now all she had to do was wait.
The sitcom on the retro station ended, and the screen went black. Dr. Yang’s voice came over the com once more. “Alright, Ms. James. Everything went quite well. We’re going to put you to sleep now, and when you wake up in a few moments, you’ll be rebalanced and ready to take on life as a new person.”
Kathleen nodded, then closed her eyes.
When she opened them, Dr. Yang and her flanking staff were standing beside the chair. “Well, I must say, you had some of the highest percentiles across the board, Ms. James. But I know you’ll find yourself finally living that balanced life you’ve always dreamed about. It’s been a pleasure.” She extended her hand.
Kathleen blinked. Slowly. Once. Twice. Then she reached out and clasped the doctor’s hand as she stood.
The reception room was blinding as Kathleen made her way through, but she didn’t linger, only nodding to the secretary as she stumbled through the automatic doors. She was met with the furnace air of a California summer before rushing to the nearest subway entrance. Relief spread through her body as she was met with cold, stale air once more. At least she was still able to feel that, relief.
On the long ride through the city, Kathleen kept trying to test her new self. She discovered, however, that she had either no emotions left at all, or that the tube was not the best laboratory. After all, she was never what others called “a baby person,” so it would have been difficult to conjure affection for the infant cooing at her from the next seat over, even in the best of conditions. And the mother clearly had not returned to the gym since her child’s birth, giving Kathleen nothing to envy.
The subway stopped about a hundred yards from Joe’s apartment, where she knew he would be, immersed in one of his virtual reality games. She rang the buzzer on the outside, a grim reminder that she never had a key, no matter how many times she had been there, ate there, slept there.
There was the continued sound of pinging gunfire, so she pressed the button one more time.
“I gotta go. Yeah, talk to you guys later. The bitch is here. Hey you.” Joe had opened the door, shirtless, com system dangling around his neck.
“Hi.” Kathleen pushed past him into the cool, dark interior.
“You look good today.” Joe tossed the headset onto the recliner in the corner and came up behind Kathleen to run his knuckles along her ribs, then slap her bottom.
“Thank you.” With her remaining happiness, she was able to note that he was in a good mood today, and she smiled. “Come on.”
Together, they tumbled into the bedroom, kissing and grabbing with hungry fingers. By the time they fell on the bed, Joe had lost his boxers, and Kathleen was halfway there.
As Joe slid his hand up her thigh though, he paused. “Uh, honey, you’re not as, um...excited as you normally are. Are you sure you’re into this?”
Kathleen leaned back and blinked. “What do you mean?”
“Um,” he rubbed the back of his neck, “Is everything okay?”
She tilted her head, as if seeing him for the first time. Overweight, even for his tall, six-foot frame and with streaks of grey already running through his bushy beard and unkempt hair, he wasn’t considered much of a catch by most. Although his button nose was rather cute.
“I went to the emotional rebalance clinic today,” she blurted.
“Shit.” He ran his hand through his hair.
“You’re not happy.” It was more of a statement than a question.
“You shouldn’t change things about yourself for me. I told you it’ll never work.” He snatched up his boxers and yanked them on. “Besides, it looks like you’ll need your money back,” he sneered.
“What do you mean?”
He leaned down and rubbed a finger across her face. When he pulled it back, it was shining, wet with a tear.
He spun from the room, and Kathleen could hear the TV switch on. She reached a hand up to her other cheek. Another tear was swiftly falling down the contours of her face. She studied the drop curiously for a moment, then wiped it on the bedsheet. Standing, she left her clothes where they were and went to join Joe on the couch.