by Monica Wang
Published September 3, 2021
“Whenever I see you sitting there, I think of the word 'wistful'. Do you know what that word means?” Dr. R.'s face crinkled softly.
“Yes.” Sienna hardly moved her lips, wary.
Did the doctor think she was still ESL? Did she have an accent after all? Acquaintances held differing opinions on whether she had one, and she'd spent exactly half of her twelfth year—the age of accent acquisition—on the other side of the Pacific.
Wistful. Maybe it was her sitting hunched and pressed between the wall and examination bed. The word made her smaller and less solid, as if she was a storybook orphan and its first syllable was wind that tore through her limbs and tatters. Wistful sounded like the swish of a hand across a water surface. Something wavering and cold.
Having cried in front of Dr. R., she left the school clinic feeling better and worse. Not regretting confiding in the doctor, no, but dreading being suspected of exchanging tears for sympathy or notes—notes in which Dr. R. recommend[ed] Sienna Hsu be granted an extension for assignments/exams, due to extenuating medical reasons. Her uncreased eyelids hid redness and subtleties; friends always remarked she looked perfectly normal after bawling. She hated that her face wobbled after minutes with the doctor, that it spilt water and water sounds in spite of her. For these reasons, and to be easygoing, she agreed to switch to a specialist.
Sienna imagined the school psychiatrist choosing office décor, coarse carpet and single artificial plant and all, out of a Readers' Digest catalogue (Sienna's parents had subscribed since her older brother was born, had insisted these and children's books about sciences were the only material worth reading). She sat tall and exposed in a leather seat, its stiffness refusing to give. Her tears and thoughts, already embarrassing in a tiny examination room, sounded mewling. She summarised the talks with Dr. R.
The psychiatrist didn't speak.
“So that's how things went,” Sienna repeated.
“And how do you feel about that?” The psychiatrist's voice cut, an instrument with strings drawn too taut.
“I guess I probably could've done some things differently.”
“You think you could have done things differently?”
“Yes, or maybe I provoked it somehow.”
“You think you may have provoked it?”
Malingering. Sienna heard its syllables echoing, uttered by no one. The chill air made her voice tremble with what sounded like guilt. She asked for advice.
“What do you think you should do?” said the psychiatrist.
Dr. R. didn't parrot Sienna. She had words enough for them both, and her voice, rounded by life in South Africa (Sienna had asked about the accent in an early session, to avoid talking about herself), rang steady and clear. A year of listening to her seemed to make Sienna's resonate with a new and not entirely borrowed timbre.
After two months with the psychiatrist, Sienna asked not to continue.
“I could come here an extra day every week instead.” Her voice shrank. “Or two extra days?”
Dr. R. said it was fine.
Sienna met her eyes, checking for disappointment, finding none.
Later, “It's a shame you don't have any positive female role models in your life. Someone you could look up to.”
Sienna tensed and relaxed her face lieu of a shrug. The rustling and cracking of her clothes and joints in quiet rooms pained her.
“There's a song from when I was young,” the doctor said, “and still in South Africa. It's in Afrikaans, but I'll tell you the words.”
Sienna avoided using her first language within hearing of English speakers. Even when no one told her to leave the country . . . . As she watched the doctor without guessing at words, she thought she understood.
Beneath harsh fluorescent lighting, Dr. R.'s hair shone silvery white.
Fragilty. Sienna's new favourite word. After she realised she'd dropped a letter, the incorrect word became her own. She repeated its syllables and potential translations while walking to the train to one of her two new jobs, neither of which she hated, never seeking but sometimes meeting other eyes in the street, without pain. She cried less. School health services were free only for students, so she didn't say goodbye to Dr. R. If they met again she would need words of farewell and gratitude. Her speaking was tentative, not timid, and the breath carried her where she needed to go.
Fragilty was tougher than wistful, and it suited Sienna for now.
Monica Wang has fiction in Southword and other publications, as well as a book of haiku & CNF forthcoming with The Nasiona. Her flash won The Sunlight Press's 2020 fiction contest, and in 2021 she received scholarship offers to two creative writing MA programs in the UK. Born in Taichung, Taiwan, she grew up in Taipei and Vancouver, Canada, and now writes in the Netherlands.
She is on Twitter, @crownofpetals.