The Healing Center

by Catherine Lacey, recommended by The Atlas Review

EDITOR’S NOTE by Natalie Eilbert

“The Healing Center” by Catherine Lacey had a mystical effect on me when I read it for The Atlas Review’s first issue almost a year ago. Each new reading of this story is like entering a room full of brilliant lamps and baubles. Lacey is able to cleanly combine the banal with the epiphanic, leaving us with a detached sincerity. From this place of detachment, she pivots with ease between humor and pathos. The image of porridge cooked to soot on the stovetop, the unreconciled dialogue of heart as machine and metaphor, the “airplanes of soon” looming over relationships are moments so eidetic we might find in our own porridge eating and unreconciled dialogues a similar banality, a similar epiphany.

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“The Healing Center” begins with the two women gazing into a single mirror. Sylvia, the other woman, is described as voluptuous and desirable; the narrator presumably does not posses these traits. Rather, she describes her body only once in the story as bland, manufactured: “the color pantyhose companies mean when they say nude.” While Sylvia inspires “earth-shaking want” in people, it is also presumed that the narrator does not. The story is at times a meditation on Sylvia’s dreamy abandon and at other times an admittance of the narrator’s ongoing failures to communicate with her own body, with doctors, with the one-foot-out-the-door Sylvia.

The two meet at an acupuncturist’s office, Sylvia the receptionist and the narrator as patient. This initial character dynamic brings a wealth of information to the story about the stability and control, both desired and denied.

In less than two pages, Lacey delivers in cool, laconic language the empty sounds of a household, the feedback loop of a relationship turned sour, and an understanding of the loneliness of being a female body. There are countless stories in which a couple may settle their scores and inevitably part ways, and this piece is no exception to that fact. However, the mind behind “The Healing Center” is so sharp, exacting, and pleasantly unusual, we come to experience the universally familiar as a charming, inconclusive mania.

Natalie Eilbert
Editor-in-Chief, The Atlas Review

The Healing Center

Sylvia put her hands on her belly and she put her hands on her hips and she faced the mirror and she turned sideways to the mirror and she faced it again. I lowered my hands from my chest and put them on my hips too, and looked into the mirror at the opposite of Sylvia and at the opposite of me, at all the flesh and hair and shapes we were living in.

Why do we look like this? Sylvia asked, so I asked Sylvia, Why do we look like what? and Sylvia said, Like women? Why are we women?

I looked at Sylvia’s body in the mirror and I looked at my body in the mirror and I remembered that my skin is the color that pantyhose companies mean when they say nude and Sylvia’s skin is not that color. Sylvia is an ample woman and she is the right kind of ample-ness, by which I mean she has been strategically engineered by God or whatever to cause earth-shaking want in people, the kind of want that leads a person to stay up all night, hostage to desire.

I don’t know, Sylvia says. Never mind.

Sylvia was doing a lot of never minding back then, so much never minding that it became unclear if she minded anything anymore, or if she minded her own mind or even my mind, or anything that was mine. She’d spent the week cutting her bangs slanted and balancing grapes on her belly button and letting pots of porridge cook to soot on the stovetop.

That’s ok, I told her as the apartment filled with smoke, people become forgetful when they are happy or worried or thinking about the airplanes of soon and all you need to do is tell me which one you’re doing.

I already knew the answer, but I was the kind of person back then who sometimes asked people to say aloud what I already knew — it was obvious that Sylvia was thinking about the airplanes of soon and which one she’d be on and where it would go and what she might do when she got there.

I knew she’d do this from the first day she moved in, so it is true that I let myself break myself or, maybe, I let herself let myself break my self and by self I mean heart except I take issue with using that word that way, because I don’t think we have any reason to pile such a responsibility on that organ, the word of that organ. Everyone knows a heart is just responsible for filling a thing with blood, except it never fills love with blood because no one can do that because love comes when it wants and it leaves when it wants and it gets on an airplane and goes wherever it wants, and no one can ever ask love not to do that, because that is part of the risk of love, the worthwhile risk of it, that it will leave if it feels like leaving and that is the cost of it and it is worth it, worth it, worth it. This is the mantra of Sylvia and this is the way she is.

Sylvia found me at my own never mind moment, back when the acupuncturist was the only person who would listen anymore. Doctor one, two, three all said I was bluffing; doctor four said nothing, left me cold-toed in my paper gown. The acupuncturist wanted me to talk about my mother. How did I feel about her? Did she sing to me when I was a child?

Sylvia was the receptionist for the acupuncturist, but all she did was point to a sheet of paper that said, SIGN ME, and I would come in and she wouldn’t look at me, until one day she did look at me, and when she looked at me, I also looked at me and I also looked at her and she also looked at herself and we both found we liked what we were looking at.

And so we found ourselves months later waking up in the same place all the time, going to sleep in the same place all the time, walking link-armed to the acupuncturist, the healing center.

But one day in my living room Sylvia stirred a spoon in her teacup and there wasn’t anything in it, so it just went clank-clank, and I knew, for some reason, we weren’t going anywhere link-armed anymore.

Do you ever get the feeling, Sylvia asked, that you’re a lab rat?

That I’m a lab rat? That I’m a lab rat or that you’re a lab rat? Which of us?

Sylvia didn’t say anything for a minute. She kept stirring no tea in her tea cup.

Who is the lab rat?

Who indeed, she said and I said, Fuck you Sylvia this isn’t a fairy tale, Sylvia. You can’t just say stupid things like that to real people.

I’ll say it, she said.

You won’t, I said, but she said, I will, just watch me.

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