She doesn’t want to be here. That much is clear, even if all the rest lies in sealed packages. Her hair – her claim to fame, if the tales are to be believed – is still long, braided and folded and looped over and over again until she resembles some Star Wars queen, and it tells me something else: either she no longer cares what anyone thinks when they look at her, or she cares very much indeed.
So she sits down – we don’t do couches anymore – and looks me in the eye as though daring me to punch her in the nose.
I’m good at smiling, no matter what. “Ms. Kapusta?”
“Just call me Rapunzel.”
“Of course. If you like, you can call me Ranier.”
“I don’t. You’re Dr. Blood.”
I’m good at smiling. I even manage not to flinch when she hurls my name like an insult. “Well, some of us can’t help it if we have butcher shops in the family business.”
She says nothing. Quivering tense, hands clenched in her lap, eyes steady.
There is a choice at this juncture. I can lean back, showing openness and a relaxation that clearly does not reflect her own body language to demonstrate my own calm. Or, I can lean forward, arms apart but hands together, so I am neither overwhelming like a predator nor closed in like prey, and thus seem more intensely interested in what I have to say.
Simply sitting upright isn’t an option. That’s choosing inaction, a protagonist who refuses to move.
She’s already intense. I know I should calm her down – avoid emotional trigger words, move away from any questions conjuring more feeling than thought – but I did not get into this business because I found damaged minds boring.
In other words, I poke the bear.
I lean forward. “Rapunzel, do you know why you’re here?”
She snorts at me, decidedly and delightfully unladylike. “No, I’m an idiot. Next question.”
I laugh gently. Acknowledging sarcasm is a validating action. “Fair enough. But do you know why you’re undergoing court-appointed therapy with me?”
This elicits a physical response; she shifts, crossing one leg over the other and revealing the riding boots capping off her beige jodhpurs. “If I had to make a guess, I’d say you had a history of dealing with weird people.”
“That’s an interesting statement.” And an open door, thank you very much. “Did you mean to describe yourself as weird?”
She shrugs and flicks her gaze at the wall in dismissal – the first time she’s looked away from my face. “Sure.”
“Is that good or bad?”
Her eyes squinch, cheeks pinched up, nose wrinkled. Starts to answer, stops, rethinks, starts again. “Who cares?”
“Well, I do. And I care if you do.”
Now I get an eye roll.
“The reason I care – though I don’t expect you to believe me – is because I care about you. No, I don’t know you; it’s an affliction. I care about everybody I see on the street, in the store, in the mall. I care about people even if all I see are the backs of their heads at funerals. I can’t turn that off, so I went into this particular job.”
Her eyes glaze a little. Good.
“Heard from your mother lately?” I say.
Her neck goes taut, like a startled horse. “Fuck you.”
“Sadly impossible, considering my social life.” I lean back now, relaxed, holding the higher ground – because I just elicited an emotional response from her, and it is clear she’s trying to show only disdain for these proceedings.
What she showed was anger. It’s another door. I have to keep it open. “The reason you’re here is because judge Whitwhisker is a soft-hearted man, and knows I have a skill for helping ‘weird’ people until they can at least walk safely amongst the average mortals.”
“So you ‘fix’ them,” she said, bitterly, a hint of fear like sour capers beneath her tone.
“No. They ‘fix’ themselves by learning how to blend in. I have no interest in breaking or shaping anything that’s inside you.” I lean forward again. “My job is to teach you how to camouflage. That’s it.”
Her stare now is completely disbelieving, a little more frightened, because this isn’t what she thought. “What?”
She heard me the first time, so I say nothing.
She shakes her head. “What is this? The judge said therapy. I was kind of there. I heard him.”
“Yes, and normally therapy helps individuals deal with their wounds.” I push my glasses up my nose. “And if you want to do that, I’m willing and able. That’s what the degrees on the wall are for, after all.”
She just looks at me, confused.
“Do you want traditional therapy?”
“Then let’s not even discuss it. I’m here to help you hide so you can live your life. That’s it. All right?” I offer my hand.
It’s too soon to offer it, too soon to broach oaths and deals and arrangements, but she’s a woman who acts too soon, who thinks ahead of the game and forgets which square on the board is hers.
“So… what? If I shake your hand, you teach me to camouflage myself in public, and we both walk away?”
“You’ve got it.” I could have been a surgeon with hands as steady as these, but it wouldn’t have been as gratifying. A surgical patient isn’t awake to see.
“That makes no sense,” she says, low, and may not realize she’s now leaning toward me.
“It does if you consider the judge.” I allow a small smile, knowing and seductively sure. “Judge Whitwhiskers was lost once, fresh off the boat in New York and given a new name he couldn’t remember, separated from any family or clan he once had. He wandered down the streets like a ghost, freakishly white of skin and hair, weeping to himself and unaware of the way the echoes bounced through alleys and into windows and caused the unmagical to weep, too. Several ‘white lady’ stories sprung up thanks to his wanderings.”
“The fuck are you talking about?” she whispers, but I press on. The magic of a story is contained in its unbroken thread, after all.
“I was young, too, then, though not as young as I am now. And before you ask, no, I don’t really know what I am; my mother was the magical one, not I. She tangled with witches or some such thing, and after I was born, she faded away. I never got the whole story. I just know what it is to be weird.” I mimic her shrug from before.
She is still as mice.
“I saw that strange snow-white boy wandering around, and I went to him. I helped him. I won’t say how because that’s his story to tell, not mine, but I did it – and now, years later, once he figured out who he was and what he wanted to be, he makes an effort to help the weird like himself. Like me.” I tilt my head forward. “Like you.”
She looks fairly pale herself now, hemorrhaging preconceptions.
“Am I getting through to you yet?” I said. “This is a bigger world than you think. I have no intention of breaking you. I only want to help hide you so you can live your life – and meet others like yourself.”
Her breath caught. It was subtle, that self-suffocation, but I saw it.
“You did know, didn’t you?” I say quietly. “You aren’t the only one.”
Her face twists and the tears come.
She can’t answer at first; tight control to avoid vocal demonstration, furious anger at the tears she cannot stop, distrust of the words she might use to respond. Finally, hand over her mouth, she shakes her head left and right, over and over, though I know she is not denying what I said.
I keep my hand out.
I can out-wait her. I’ve had a lot of practice.
“Fuck it,” she says, at last, and grabs my hand too tightly – her own rough and calloused and very strong, the hands of a woman who knows how to do things, wild and brave things, and I think of the years she spent practicing climbing the unhewn rocks of the walls of her tower in preparation to leave.
She wasn’t fool enough to only trust her hair. I respect that.
“Thank you,” I say, and offer tissues. I give her a minute – sixty-three seconds, actually, but who’s counting?
I want so badly to ask about the last time she saw her mother, a fearsome one-horned babaroga, whose theft of her will never be punished. I want to ask about Rapunzel’s grip, strong enough to crush rocks to powder. I want to ask about Rapunzel’s hair, which cannot be cut by any implement unless she wields it herself.
I don’t. Now is not the time, and the best therapy happens in the natural course of conversation, anyway – like making a baby. “So,” I said. “Let’s start with the basics: how would you define the word ‘weird’?”
Though her breath still hitches, she sits straighter, chin up, meeting my eyes because she’s going to answer me with the armor of truthful defiance.
We’re finally ready to begin.