After a long battle, the Department of Special Needs approved my request for a monster.
It should have been a good thing. There was a long wait list for the monsters, which had only recently been developed. During lunch at the treatment center, when everyone heard I had been approved for a monster, they clapped and congratulated me. I had been waiting for a monster for years, as had many of the other clients, but I still had misgivings. I wished the Department could call them something besides monsters. The more I thought about it, the Department distributing monsters to the psychiatrically disabled seemed like some sort of sick joke. I couldn’t figure out whether they thought the only thing we deserved was monsters, or that we ourselves were monsters.
Why had I wanted a monster so much? Maybe because they were the new thing, like ketamine infusions or mindfulness apps. By the time my afternoon therapy appointment rolled around, I wasn’t even sure I wanted the monster anymore.
“You don’t seem at all excited,” my therapist Frank said when I told him about the monster.
“What if I can’t handle it?” I asked. “What if it makes a mess?”
“This is part of your pattern, you know. Something good happens, and to shield yourself from disappointment, you refuse to hope.”
“An excellent survival strategy, but it feeds your depression.”
“You’ve got a lot of support here, Sara. I myself have done the Module Three Training on monster work. You know that. You and your monster will have a lot of people working with you.”
Nodding, I said good-bye and put on my parka. After smoking a cigarette outside in the snow, I walked across the street to my apartment. It was the last thing I needed, a monster. Some trendy horned shimmering thing to clean up after and not be worthy of.
A lot of people working with me. Frank said that like it was a good thing, but I thought it was the root of my problem. Too many cooks spoiling the Campbell’s Condensed Chicken Noodle Soup that was myself.
At home, the linoleum needed sweeping. My vacuum was broken and both ordering a new part or taking it on the bus to the vacuum repair shop in the snow seemed too complicated. “Lived-in” was how my mother politely referred to my place when she visited on alternate Sundays. She always sat on my secondhand sofa with the big Hawaiian flowers and held herself stiffly, as though she were afraid to touch anything. I would offer her tea but unless the cup had come straight from the dishwasher—“sterilized,” she called it—she would refuse.
Everything was on the verge in my apartment, not quite messy, not quite clean, not quite psychotic, not quite normal.
Speak of the devil, an email from my mother. Did you get the birthday card I sent you? I didn’t care about birthday cards, but my mother was not someone who could be ignored. She would worry that because I was not checking my mail, I was therefore letting my mind slip.
Snow was coming down harder now, in big theatrical flakes. The sky was deep blue, evening.
There was nothing in the mailbox but a box that had been jammed in and was now emitting a terrible smell, and also a note from the postal service saying they were unable to deliver mail until I cleared my mailbox.
My chest went cold. This had to be my monster. I heard my mother’s voice in my head. You knew you had a monster coming. Why didn’t you check your mail? The mailbox was so small. I had been going about my life, ignoring the mail. What if my specially developed healing monster was in there, getting colder and colder, jammed into the mailbox, waiting for me?
Shaking, I wedged the box out. A warm liquid leaked onto my wrist. Warm was good. Warm was alive. Suddenly I loved this monster more than anything I had ever loved and I needed it to live. It wouldn’t be enough to claim damages and have them ship me another monster. I didn’t want another monster. I wanted mine. Idiot USPS, I thought. This should have gone in the parcel locker. Not in this slit of a box.
“Are you in there?” I asked the box. I carried it carefully, not wanting to jostle it. “Please live,” I whispered. “Please live.”
Cross-legged on the linoleum of my kitchen, I opened the cardboard flaps very slowly, with a paring knife. (It was progress. For years my Team and I had agreed that no knives in my apartment was best.)
I examined the monster best I could, considering that I hadn’t been through Module Three Monster Training like Frank. Feeling for hurt parts. She seemed to understand what I was doing and cooperated. Her tiny chest heaved. She coughed the smallest cough.
She basically looked like a tiny person. Like a tiny naked woman. Not a monster at all. She didn’t talk but she looked at me like she trusted me, like I was her whole world, and she didn’t seem angry that I had left her in the mailbox.
“You should be angry,” I said to her. “I am sorry you have to be my monster.”
Information had come with her. The picture on the insert showed a resplendent creature, shimmering and dragon-like, with wings and hooves and scales of Pāua shell and gold leaf. To return a defective product, read one paper. I put that aside. The instructions were many inches high and printed in a dozen languages. Way too complicated. Government-ese. I placed them neatly on a pile of papers on my desk, planning to ask Frank or my caseworker to help me puzzle them out.
I took the little woman who had come to me, who I supposed was my monster, and tucked her into my bed. She was naked, and I felt bad about that. Her eyes were lined and brown. She looked up at me with an expression that was hard to put into words before curling into my comforter.
My phone dinged. There was a text from Sharon—Are u coming to Group? Remember ur team agreed u r are working on COMMITMENT. THX.
If only I could stay with the little person and keep her company while she slept. But I had already racked up three absences and would prefer to avoid consequences.
In Group, Sharon wrote SELF-ACTUALIZATION in red dry-erase marker on the whiteboard.
“Now, who has any idea what these words mean?” she asked us.
A few clients littered the room. There was a cloud of stale cigarette smoke around Devin, so Sharon sprayed him with her special odor-canceling enzyme spray she’d ordered online and told him to sit on the opposite side of the room.
Devin, deodorized, jiggled his knee. But Sharon shook her head. She lowered her voice. “Guys, something still smells whiffy in here. Someone’s off.”
Could I be off? No. I was Sharon’s helper, a role model for others in recovery. She had told me so many times. Last summer the Group had a talk on hygiene, and Sharon had called me up and asked me to help her with it.
“Hygiene is such an iffy topic. It’s something it would be hard for me to bring up in Group. But you are a peer. Why don’t you talk about your journey with hygiene, maybe a time when you were depressed and you weren’t showering every day. And then how that has changed for you now.”
That was how much Sharon trusted me, her mini-me. I thought of my daily showers, washing away my shame at the fat that had started accumulating like warm snow in my breasts and belly after my first painful injection of risperidone. In the shower I used Dr. Bronner’s Rose Castile Soap, silky gardenia lotion, bought with any money left over from my disability check.
So I knew the smell, which was growing into a stench, could not be coming from me.
“Can anyone tell us what self-actualization is? No? Sara? You always have something helpful to say.”
“We all have the potential for selfhood,” I said. “But most of us—”
“Use ‘I’ statements, Sara,” said Sharon, pointing to the list of Group Agreements.
“But I go around not manifesting that strength, that pure selfhood. I—we go through things that wreck us. We want to make other people happy. So we give little bits of ourselves away, until our true self is buried somewhere deep inside. Self-actualization is when we unbury our true self, make it real. Make it actual.”
“Nice, Sara. Beautiful. Does anybody relate to what Sara said?”
Silence. Attendance was a problem at the program’s groups. I came because my Team pressed me to, but also because I found Sharon and the groups soothing, the psychosocial equivalent of regressing to kindergarten, cutting out letters of the alphabet with safety scissors.
Devin raised his hand. “Smoke break?”
Sharon nodded. Devin with his nervous energy was already out the door.
Sharon sniffed. “Guys, something is still whiffy.”
She grabbed her enzyme spray, closed her eyes and moved it across the room, a planchette seeking stench. The spray stopped at my table, and Sharon opened her eyes and sprayed me. The spray drifted down and landed in a fine white mist on my thermal dress. The scent of the enzyme spray lingered after Devin came in and the Group continued.
At the end of Group, as though she had not made it clear I was whiffy, Sharon pulled me aside and suggested that I seemed stressed out. Perhaps I should go home and take a nice, hot shower. Did I like to wear perfume? Daily self-care, she suggested, daily self-care.
I trudged home.
Before I got in the shower, I picked up the monster box and threw it away and took out the trash. I took the monster out of my bed and set her inside the linen closet. I closed the closet door. I couldn’t bear to throw the monster away, but I would have burned the soiled box if I could. That fucking thing had caused me to be sprayed. Me, the role model. Me, Sharon’s pet. I didn’t want anything to do with a monster anymore, no matter how my mother had fought for it. That box was where the smell had come from. It must have stuck to my clothes or my hands. The Department had sent me a boxed stench. I scrubbed myself under the steam.
The next morning while microwaving my oatmeal, I looked at the closet door and saw the monster’s hand reaching from under it, reaching toward me. That was when things shifted. Was the woman someone else’s monster? Was she because of a shipping error? Suddenly it didn’t matter. She knew I didn’t want her, but she wanted me. When I slowly opened the door, I found her sitting cross-legged and alternating between crying and coughing.
I wrapped her in a fluffy new hand towel, massaged her back with a little dab of Vicks VapoRub, and her chest too, carefully avoiding her tiny breasts.
In art therapy I asked for lessons on how to use the old yellow sewing machine. In the Tupperware of old patterns I leafed through, there was one for a small doll.
When Corinne the art therapist saw that I was making little clothes, she asked me, patronizingly, I thought, if I were making clothes for a baby. None of the women in the program had babies, they had all given up long ago. Most of us, except a few pretty borderlines, weren’t even having sex. We had all had long talks with our psychiatrists when we were eighteen or twenty, about how we shouldn’t have children, our meds caused birth defects, we would have to go off our meds, we couldn’t go off our meds, our illness was hereditary anyway, we couldn’t have children, we mustn’t.
“We have a guest speaker today,” said Sharon in Group. “I think some of you know Frank.”
“Since some of you are interested in applying for Emotional Support Monsters,” said Frank, “and since one of you already got approved, I thought I would talk today about how monsters are trained and what such training entails.”
He explained that monsters are our raw emotion in living form. As such, they need to be trained not to cause sorrow and destruction. Since thoughts can regulate emotions, the training consists of shaping a thought brace for the monster with the help of a professional. The brace is then fitted to the monster and tightened until the monster begins to be shaped by it.
“Does that hurt the monster?” I asked.
“No pain no gain. The monster wants to help you. It can do this best when restrained by a brace. You need the monster’s help. It’s a win-win situation. Now, there are side effects. Horns, scales, feathers can fall out. The training is a painful experience for your monster so you may want to be extra kind to it until its new shape is reached. Massage it. Make it some tea. Monster care is crucial.”
A warm light filled me. I had figured out how to care for my monster already. We were happy in my tiny apartment. I vowed never to bring her to Frank.
It was while putting on her Vicks that I noticed a rash of pokey things coming up on her shoulders, under the skin. So that was why she had looked so uncomfortable. She’s my monster, I thought. I ought to know what to do for her. Frank had always told me to trust my instincts. Trust yourself, he always said.
Skullcap, I thought. Skullcap and—rosewater. I made the infusion every night and rubbed it where the rash was. That seemed to help with her discomfort, but despite my infusion the sharp things beneath her skin only grew sharper and sharper until one night one broke through her flesh.
It was a tiny white feather, a little quill, unfurling.
I named her Shekhina.
When Frank asked where my monster was, I deferred. I told Frank there had been a delay.
“You know how these government things work,” I said. “Everything takes forever.”
“What is that smell?” he asked.
At home, Shekhina started to grow. She no longer looked human, yet I couldn’t quite have called her a monster either. I got impressions of her. She was all glitter, silver and blue and green hairs, a row of horns like trumpets down her spine. She seemed to smell like roses. She seemed to menstruate and snort and be fat and run around on all fours. But it was hard to say. The only time she seemed to rest was on my lap before bed. That was the time I could look inside her chest and see her heart pumping strong, growing bigger. Listening to it was like listening to an evening stream and we often lay together, chest to chest, her heart making my heart stronger. We fell asleep with the lamp on and books on herbology strewn around us.
For some reason I was dumb enough to show my monster to my mother. Perhaps it was because I was so proud of my monster, of how I always knew just what to do for her, proud I refused to take her to Frank.
In my search for my mother’s approval I sometimes forgot how she ruined everything.
“Oh Hon,” my mother said when she saw Shekhina. “They sent you a defective monster. Remember the ones we looked at on the website? We requested a Deluxe model. Horns, feathers, scales. No way. We didn’t just fall off the turnip truck. They made a mistake and they need to fix it. I am your advocate and I am going to get you a nice monster. Not this bald thing.”
“She’s not defective!” I yelled. “She’s me!”
“She’s mine. You know what I mean.”
“She’s sick! Look at that rash on her shoulders! You’re going to catch god knows what from her.”
“She’s trying to grow wings!”
“Look. It’s your recovery. You don’t want to get better, fine. After all the bills I pay for you, the treatment center, the apartment, your fish oil, Frank. I advocated all these years so you could have a monster someday—so you could have a life—and this is what I get.”
“I hate Frank.”
“You were happy enough to see him for seven years straight while your father and I were paying the bills and eating cat food. Where would you be without Frank? Licking your own feces off the wall at Fort Lofton. You think I forgot? I am your mother, missy. Mommas don’t forget. We’re not going there again, no siree.”
Now she was crying and I would be crying too, if not for the flattening effects of the six different medicines I take to keep from licking my own feces off the wall at Fort Lofton.
I felt something odd in the night, some pain or restlessness. My dreams were of my rotten teeth, of sitting in the dark, vomiting up half of my valproic acid dose. My dreams were of the old hospital, of ambulances and locked rooms.
When I woke I saw something wrong with my right arm. The skin had grown tight and red and glossy.
That afternoon Frank was trying to talk about my monster. Finally I told him I had only received an empty box. He was surprised, said each monster was hand-stitched in England and should come with a certificate. I kept looking at my arm, running my hands over its hot smoothness. Finally Frank asked to look too.
“Wow,” he said.
“Do you think I should get it looked at?”
He stared until I started to feel shy and pulled down my sleeve.
“Sara, do you want to know what I see here?”
“I see pearls. Whole rows of them. Whole undersea gardens of them.”
“Is that some kind of metaphor?”
“No. Your body seems to be producing them. Your arm must need extra blood flow to support them. That explains the redness and pain.”
“What the fuck? Why can’t I see the pearls?”
He leaned back and chuckled. “It seems there was some error. You were supposed to get a monster, not become one.”
And then a very strange thing happened. I started to cry. It was strange because I rarely cried. The tears burned my eyes, and I remembered lithium was excreted in tears.
“What are these tears, Sara?” asked Frank gently.
“I can’t become a monster now.”
“Stick with that thought—I can’t become a monster now because …”
“I can’t become a monster now because …I’ve only just become a human.”
He let me cry for a while.
“It’s very simple then. We can adjust your meds and try to suppress this.”
“Or you can monsterize.”
I laughed through my tears. “Drug me up, please.”
So he did. Despite all the meds I was taking, there was “room to move” on the valproic acid, the lorazepam, the risperidone, and the lithium. He put me on “crisis doses” of lithium and valproic acid, a little more risperidone, and extra PRNs of lorazepam for when I felt “especially monstrous.”
The program had programs within programs, it was a psychosocial matrushka doll. My mother wanted me to work in the sheltered employment program, and when I began to grow the strange and beautiful things on my body, ones that mirrored exactly the strange things manifesting on my monster, she was delighted.
This is an opportunity, my mother said, to give a little back. These tail feathers you have been growing are a wonderful gift. I think Frank wants you to know you have wonderful gifts and not to keep them to yourself. So, with great pain, I was harvested weekly. In sessions with Frank, I was plucked, shaved, stripped of pearls. The shimmering green feathers, pearls from my body were used to make jewelry in the supported employment program. The jewelry sold well. Some of the proceeds went to the clients and some went to the program. I was paid a finder’s fee—although I had not yet found myself.
The positive reaction to my feathers made me hopeful, made me wonder if the program was more enlightened than I thought. Perhaps Shekhina’s growing beauty would be met in the same way as mine was met. After Sharon’s constant pressure, her reminders that I was an example to the other people in the program, I agreed to bring Shekhina to Group.
Sharon insisted on holding Shekhina up before the Group without her dress. Even though my monster had grown hair and scales, albeit in the wrong order, she still felt most comfortable in a cotton dress.
“Now this does not look right at all,” said Sharon. “It’s got five and a half horns instead of two, its hair has grown over its hooves—there is an odor—Sara, have you been training this monster? With Frank?”
Upon being told that she was not right at all, Shekhina squirmed her way out of Sharon’s grip and tried to hide in the corner.
“Oh my gosh,” said Sharon. “Did I just touch an untrained monster?” Sure enough, her arm glittered with scales.
Sharon produced her enzyme spray and sprayed my monster in the eyes. It was then that Shekhina nipped Sharon, not enough to really hurt her, but enough to break the skin.
I called to Shekhina and opened my arms to her, but she was scared and I don’t think she could see.
A green/silver fluid began to ooze up from Sharon’s arm.
“You don’t need to be here,” I told Monster Control when they came with their cage, their net, their suits. “If you just let her come to me I can calm her down. She’s scared. She needs rosewater and skullcap. She’s still sick. I know what to do.”
But there was a flash of color, a shimmer and a terrible shriek, and then Shekhina was sobbing in a rusty cage.
Sharon put her hand on my shoulder. She had stayed calm, accustomed as she was to crisis and madness, had bandaged her arm with something from the program’s first aid kit.
“I think they’re doing what they need to do, Sara.”
“Please take me to Monster Control,” I said. “I need to give her the clothes I made—she’s naked.”
“I don’t think that would be best.”
“We’re going to need to see you down at the office,” one of the monster catchers said to me. He sounded bored. “If you’re the keeper. And you too. The one with the bite. We’ll need to run some tests.”
Images of Shekhina in the cage replayed in my head. I was dizzy. I reached into my coat for my extra half milligram of lorazepam, but there was nothing.
Just as well. I would suffer with Shekhina. I would feel her terror.
Sharon and I followed the van to Monster Control, a place I had heard of but never been to, where used and defective monsters were rented and sold, where monstrosity as a disease was kept from infecting the wider population. My mother had once promised me I would never see the inside of Monster Control, not with my shiny new monster.
I practiced the deep breathing I learned in Group, until I realized it wasn’t working. Who cared if I broke down at Monster Control? That’s what it was there for, to keep people like me and our pets from scaring the Sharons of the world.
Obviously I should have submitted to the monster training.
A car tried to cut us off. Sharon swore.
Monster Control was in a strip mall on the dingy end of town. We sat in metal chairs in the waiting room. The magazines on the table were water-stained, and there was a smell of antiseptic.
They took Shekhina back. She was curled in the farthest corner of the cage. They asked me if I had any symptoms of monstrosity from living so long with this untrained monster. I denied feathers, scales, stench. The feathers and pearls were hidden under my winter coat and as for the stench, Sharon had sprayed me right before we left.
Sharon said she knew nothing, that she had never seen monstrous signs in me. In the car on the way back to the program, I asked her why she had lied.
“I still have faith in you, Sara. I think if you let yourself be trained—and its great that you are using your feathers to help raise money at the supported employment center—but I think if you really submit to training, you could be an asset to the program—in a peer role. You could have a say in what we do.” She paused. “You really shouldn’t be feeding that monster gluten.”
“You shouldn’t spray people,” I said.
“We’ve all got our stuff to work on,” said Sharon. “Even though I work at the program, I’m still a little scared of monsters.”
“It’s monster spray?”
“$3.99 on Amazon. I just pour it into the enzyme bottle. It can be our little secret.”
Bodily fluids from an untrained monster are not taken lightly in programs, or in society at large. Shekhina was quarantined to ensure the monstrous emotions she had grown, unfettered by a thought brace, were not deadly. If they were, she would be put down without a chance for me to say good-bye. If not, she would be returned to me with the caveat that I submit her to training within twenty-four hours or have her euthanized.
“Look missy,” my mother said to me on the phone that night. “I don’t know what game you are playing, but you need to straighten up and fly right. We put a lot of effort into getting that monster, and we’re paying Frank and your program a lot of money to help you. I don’t know what happened with Sharon and it’s none of my beeswax, but you can’t be biting people. That’s playing an old tape. Now I want you to march right in there with that monster as soon as you can and ask to see Frank. We’re paying extra money for you to see someone with Level Three Monster Training.”
Shekhina and Sharon tested negative for monstrosity. As for what had spread between Shekhina and me, I knew it was a disease only the two of us could share, a disease that if she was anything besides a monster might have been called “tenderness” or even “love.”
I had been up all night apologizing to her. She smelled like other monsters now. Her feathers had been shaved, her tallest golden horn filed down. I wrapped her in her favorite white dress and made sure she was warm, read her stories and made her rosewater and skullcap, like I used to. She looked exhausted. It was hard to tell if she forgave me.
“Go on in,” said the receptionist the next day. “I think Frank’s on his lunch break, but see if he can squeeze you in.”
Shekhina shook under her blanket.
In the past few days, I had started to feel a terrible pain in my shoulders, wings curled like sails around my shoulder blades.
Just stress, Sharon suggested.
Frank’s door was open. His gray suit, his bald shiny head, the crinkled eye-deep smile he wore when he looked up at me, were all soothing despite the circumstances.
When I unwrapped Shekhina, she craned her head up desperately.
“I suspected this,” said Frank. “You now know untrained monstrosity is dangerous, which is why I suspect Sharon said you smelled, didn’t want you in Group. When I saw that you were monsterizing, I suspected you had indeed received something in the mail. Why you were keeping her a secret, I didn’t know. Perhaps you were ashamed of her stench.”
Shekhina curled deeper into me.
“I don’t think she smells.”
“Sara—this was a close call. But we can get on track now. We can start Monster Training. Module Three. Today. She won’t be scary anymore, she won’t smell, you will be able to walk her on a leash. She’ll even grow beautiful new horns and scales and feathers.”
“I don’t think monsters have wings. But she can take care of you, instead of you trying to manage her. The point of having her is to help you get out of the house. She can help you get to the pharmacy and the doctor and the grocery store. What about that? More independence. Isn’t that one of your Team’s goals?”
“I just wanted something of my own.” Frank looked uncomfortable.
“What happened? With Sharon?” I asked him.
“Despite the drugs,” said Frank, “the monster is coming out.”
“Now what?” I asked.
“Now you show me not just your monster, but you as a monster.”
So I let him feel the knobby outline of the pearls which were rising to the surface of my arm. After hours, he took a knife from the locked sharps box in the kitchen and slit the membrane of skin that held those pearls inside me. The pearls spilled out all over his office, in a gush of water which shamed me. But he leaned down and picked them up, on his hands and knees. When he stood up his slacks were wet. He showed no disgust. I thought back to the Group Sharon had taught on Acceptance. This was unconditional acceptance. The wings inside my shoulders ached.