"Did you ever spend time in other places that had a different. . . vibe? Maybe a friend's house?"
I snort. Of course there were places that were different from home; a montage of memories presents itself. First grade teacher at my school, too much eye contact, voice anxious and tense: "I saw you walking to school this morning--you seemed. . . upset. Didn't seem to know which way to go. And I saw your father and your sister in the car, following behind."
My best friend Ashley's house when I was six, where everything was magical and spotless and clean; she had a collector's edition ice-skater Barbie that she wasn't even allowed to touch, except on special occasions. I was allowed to touch it too on those rare days, until she stopped talking to me.
"Of course," I said. "but that didn't mean I belonged there."
"So you never felt like you belonged."
Reflective listening at its finest. "No. I mean, occasionally there would be something--"
"But not very often. Those were pretty few and far between."
"And you've never really gotten to a point where you felt like you belonged."
This is a forgone conclusion. We are covering unrecoverable ground; it's a battle I've given up long since, and it's time to stop and work on something that might imaginably change. Even strangers say it, "You're really one of a kind, aren't you!," clasping one hand around my back and applauding some half-accidental feat. At these moments all I can do is smile awkwardly and nod, hoping the gesture reeks more of sarcasm than desperation. They have no idea at all why I've done what I've done, but they can tell I'm not like anybody else.
"I want you to think about this: what if that isn't true? What if it's just a lie your parents told you?"
I want to argue. At a certain point, if it was my parents telling me that lie, then the lie has to be true. It becomes true, a triumph of developmental psychology; if you never learn how to belong, you never will belong.
"But belonging is a social construct," I say. I don't think I've been making this up, and if she makes me abandon it that means I'll have to go out among other people without my cultivated and entirely false indifference.
"Just think about it."
I have a picture, recently obtained, of me as red riding hood and the wolf. She's blond ringlets and pale red lips, a cunning and aggressive seductress of four, perhaps five or six, no more than ten. Always looking older than her age, never old enough. Supernaturally strong and fast, not immortal but still delicate. An expert at social manipulation with no conscience, sharp miniature canines, and thousands of terrifying hungers. Like the wolf, she is perfectly turned out, finest clothes, perfect manners. She's restrained by practicality and a certain civilized manner that saves her from detection till it's too late, but there's something wild and insensibly vicious beneath. At odd moments, innocence and brutality shine through the corners of her eyes. She loves to run and to hunt; she is at best temporarily contained.
When we were sixteen, she singled out a loner and seduced him away from the herd until he fell in love. Then she invited him into the woods and ran him down patiently, like a wounded deer, before ripping his heart out with her teeth.
Much of my life since I was four or five or six has been devoted to containing this. . . keeping wolf in check, or with no likelihood of success, seeking bare redemption for her sins. And at every cost, trying not to let myself become her. How much is she even real, and how much a lie told by adults for whom reality was inconvenient?