This is how it worked: if I tapped my toe against the plush weave of Rosalie’s rug, he said no. If I flicked my pointer finger against my thumb, he said I don’t know. We had a sign for yes, but I never used it.
Charlie invented the code on the way to the first session and whispered it to me, stretching across the bench seat, warming my neck with the secret. Of course, I agreed. I was a performer, after all; I was Clara in my middle school production of The Nutcracker. I could execute a three-step routine.
The adults had their own code, regular-sounding words and phrases, like trauma, coercion, cry for help. These were code words for concepts deemed too gruesome for kids to bear, even though Charlie had lived them.
Rosalie’s office was a deranged botanical garden, every surface slathered with a nightmare landscape of clashing flowers. On the floor, the rug’s pattern of abstract wisteria looked like someone’s puked-up grape juice. The bulging sofa on which Mom, Dad, and I sat was filthy with camellias. Charlie would not sit with us, saying the sofa smelled like seafood, but only I knew it was because he needed to face me in order to read my signals.
Rosalie, silk skirt bloody with tulips, blouse amped up with shoulder pads, brought out a folding chair for Charlie, where he slouched over himself, body curled like a potato bug. The cord connecting the Walkman snaked under his shirt and into his headphones, which he hid under his dyed-black cloud of hair. Before we sat down, he’d depressed the play button, the cassette whirring with songs from his favorite bands.
At that first session, Rosalie wanted to talk to Charlie about school, but all Charlie could hear was metal, so I tapped my toe.
No, Charlie said.
Okay. Is there something else you’d like to talk about? Rosalie asked.
It may be beneficial if we discuss some coping mechanisms, for when your feelings of anger come up at school. Sound good?
Are you angry now?
How are you feeling now?
I don’t know.
Rosalie dismissed us after forty-five minutes so that she could talk to Mom and Dad alone. While we waited for them to come outside, I played tight-rope on the edge of the wall where Charlie sat, banging his boots against the brick, feeling his feelings of anger, as Rosalie might have said.
How am I doing in there? Do you think Mom is catching on? She looked at me weird when I flicked, the last time.
As I waited for Charlie to answer, I watched how delicately he bobbed his chin in time to his private music.
Stop looking at me, he said, voice too big in his throat, not hearing himself.
No grade, then. No gold star. I crouched, a careful distance from him, picking at a scab on my knee. He doesn’t want to hear the sessions live, I soothed myself, so why would he want to hear the replays?
After six months, we were so good at the code that I took special pleasure in Mom’s hurt when she asked him, from the front seat, what he thought of a shrewd observation Rosalie had made about his recovery, and he said, I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about, Mom.
Profanity, Dad warned.
Charlie looked at me and smiled.
Tonight, we are back in family therapy, minus one, and Mom and Dad are working through the second stage of grief. They are yelling at Rosalie, who came so highly recommended, who seemed to be getting through to him with her endless questions and her florals, but was in fact doing nothing, or worse than nothing.
Rosalie is crossing her legs, the sound of her nylons like sandpaper, preparing to defend herself.
I understand how difficult a time this is for everyone, but when you get right down to it, the cause is societal. You could even say that Charlie’s suicide was death by drug culture.
Death by goth.
Death by leather.
Death by black nail polish on a boy’s hands.
It was death by death metal.
No one speaks.
I tap my toe, just once.
Joanna Theiss is a freelance author living in Washington, DC. Her publication credits include articles in academic journals and popular magazines, and short fiction in literary journals such as Inkwell Journal and Barren Magazine. Twitter: @JoannaVTheiss