This story originally appeared in our June 2014 fiction issue.
Photos by Kostis Fokas
I came to the Landmark Forum with Lucy. “There’s a guaranteed popping sensation,” she said, as we entered. “A group orgasm.” The last thing she had begged me to do with her was hydro-colon therapy. She pretended to forget I made more money than she did, and she insisted on paying.
We signed a waiver promising not to sue if we experienced psychotic breaks. We were not allowed to bring in phones, snacks, Tylenol.
Her vegan-leather pants and jewelry announced our entry into the basement. Lucy knew the volunteer from the Agape Church, where they practiced agnosticism. “I’m feeling truthful,” he said, greeting us.
The leader stood in front of the folding chairs and spoke of authentic expression, belittling every choice we’d made until our decision to attend his Forum. He had dentures. He guaranteed we would reconfigure our brains over the weekend. The other students were elated. We were blindfolded and told to conjure up our most terrifying childhood experience until we hyperventilated. Then we were supposed to bridge our past to our present by calling people we were incomplete with.
I had come with Lucy because I didn’t want to stay home alone all weekend. There was a man living on the patio. His name was George. I’d met him at an AA meeting in the attic of a bar on Sunset. When he got up to share, he said he was living in the laundry room of an apartment building nearby. The door was in the carport, and he’d jammed a quarter in the lock to keep it open. The people in the building assumed he was a paying tenant, someone from a different floor. He overheard me saying there wasn’t any paper in the women’s room, and he brought me toilet paper from the men’s room. He said he painted carousel horses. He stroked the tip of my hair over my eyes, like a paintbrush. He said he knew where I lived. A few weeks later, I saw him sleeping on the patio of my apartment. I was on the ground floor. He was in a lounge chair. The afternoon sun bleached the pool. I started seeing him more often. He always smiled and said, “Hi, Heather.” I suspected that he had found a way to enter my apartment. Small things: A grapefruit rolled under the coffee table. The screen door rattled. The hall light was back on in the morning. I left sandwiches for him in the dog bowl the LAPD had advised me to leave in plain sight. He had use of the garden hose and some shade. I barricaded my headboard against the French doors that opened to the veranda. Some might have called it Stockholm syndrome. As a TV writer, I called it research for writing better jump scares.
But now here I was at Landmark, watching a man in a different small group shake his clasped hands at the leader. He’d been able to go beyond his existing limits, and his estranged son had forgiven him. “It’s a miracle,” he exclaimed. “I just said the things you told me to say.”
We applauded the leader.
Tears streamed down a woman’s cheeks. She wanted to call her rapists. She had a lisp. I assumed she didn’t mean to say rapists, plural. The leader talked her into admitting responsibility. I wanted to tell her not to call. I was going to catch her during the break, but I got in line for the water fountain. When she walked by, I didn’t want to lose my place.
On the lunch break, our forks stabbed cherry tomatoes and Easter lettuce off paper plates.
“Now you know what being stuck in the writers’ room is like,” I said to Lucy. “I’m not wasting the rest of my weekend. I have to finish my script.”
“You resist everything,” she said, “even your sleeping pills. That’s what my therapist says about you.”
I could tell her what my therapist said about her, or how, before her appointments, I complimented her so she was panged with guilt when she bad-mouthed me during her session.
In the next segment the leader drew two circles on the chalkboard. One for the event that had happened. One for the story we told about what had happened.
The next day I brought grapes and limewater. By now, we were supposed to have rid ourselves of our racket. Lucy admitted to our small group that she’d been full of sorrow since she slept with Ryan Gosling when he was still considered underappreciated. He was in line next to her at the Astro Burger when the bars let out. He drove her to his loft downtown, where they walked his dog and time slowed like he was a Greek god and she would never feel so alive again. I knew the perfumes of her hair products, the nuances of her faces, the way she adjusted her stories to avoid offending minorities.
Our group mate whispered to me, “Can you believe all of this for the price? The price is good.” I was about to ask whether she really believed she could blame herself and forgive herself in a weekend. What about forgiving herself for blaming herself? Shouldn’t we consider that a state of melancholy might be natural, our default?
“Look at these fingers.” She raked her fingertips across my thigh. “These were meant to be piano hands.”
When we reconvened, the silent woman rose like an apparition, offering the almond urn she had been hiding under her chair.
“I’m here to tell you all about the dangers of this Forum. The Forum took my Kurt away from me.” She jiggled the urn. The crowd slid their seats from her. She sleepwalked up to our leader. He sharpened. “Here is my Kurt!” she shrieked. “Take Kurt! You murdered him!” Volunteers rushed up the aisles, but she soaked the leader in ashes.
We took five. Skeptics popped out like lint in the dark, frantically making calls.
“Who are you calling?” Lucy swatted at my phone. “Don’t fight it. You’re here.”
The leader had changed into denim. His voice cascaded over the audience like a waterfall in a storm. He was calling on me. Lucy whispered, “Time for your transformation.” I could have called Jesus. I could have pretended to be a hit-and-run driver. You can fool anyone with an anecdote. I could have called Shane. He was waiting to play along.
But the leader was making me more paranoid than a chain letter. He was trying to punch something open. Piano Hands was holding my hand and was somehow also contorted under her chair.
“Anger’s the emotion of cowards,” he was saying. Someone whistled with both fingers in his mouth. My ankles were shaking. The people in the room wanted to change one another but only in the exact way they wished someone would change them. I could have told him not calling was the aggressive action. But I was not the type of person to pull someone out of his beliefs in the moment. I was not in that type of hurry.
I called my super and asked him to get George on the phone.
“He’s the guy who’s always sleeping on the patio.”
“Go out and look. He’s in his mid forties.”
He put George on the phone.
“Hey!” George said. “Heather? What’s up?”
“Listen,” I said. “I’m sorry. But you’ve got to leave me alone.”
“‘I’m sorry’? What do you mean?”
“You can’t live on my patio.”
“I don’t know,” he said. He swallowed. He said, “It’s just I get this idea—but I mean, you’re normal. You haven’t done anything wrong.”
“Oh, really?” I joked. The leader gave me a look.
Instead of what I was going to say, I said, “You’ve got to go back to that other building.”
He was chewing on something. “I’ll leave a trail of breadcrumbs,” he said.
I hung up.
The leader shook his head. “Try again. You need to admit what you’ve let happen here.”
His face flickered like a serpent’s. I began to feel distant from my small group as they started snapping. I could have been hallucinating. I remembered what I’d overheard running wind sprints in the canyon. Crime in the hills had become mischievous, almost emotional. They’d called in a bomb squad when a transient eliminated in a gift-wrapped box, after the homeowner had changed her locks.
I dialed again.
“Share how good closure feels. Invite him to join us.”
“Hey,” I said.
“Heather.” He sounded dopey, happy to hear my voice. I could picture his eyes moving slower than his body.
“Where’s the super?”
“I’m glad you called. I haven’t moved yet.”
Later I told Lucy: “You know, I noticed none of us had the phone number of the person we needed to call most.”
“Huh?” she said. “I don’t get it.”
At the graduation ceremony, friends and family were invited to participate in the technology for a limited-time offer. Other graduates hugged Lucy. She signed up for volunteer floor scrubbing. I waited in the hall for her. A mermaid-looking woman was playing the flute to her tap shoes in the corner. We gazed out the window covered in rainbow Saran wrap. There’s a tone to the winter evenings here. The dust of smog blows in from China. Twinkles of headlights are lost in rooftop pools. Coyotes whistle in the mountains. All the restaurants and shops are little cottages, built around secret passages. Felt patches for windows, neon signs that only say “Cocktails,” so the next day you can’t say where you were.
I watched the people read Variety for free at the newsstand, in boots and scarves. An economy based on making up active characters passed through Century Boulevard. The most monumental thing that will happen to most of us is we stay or we move home.
Emily McLaughlin is a fiction writer and screenwriter. She is a graduate of the University of Michigan’s MFA program in creative writing.