Rhy Burroughs looked around his therapist’s office, focusing on objects to stay in the moment instead of letting his mind race. Light streamed in through the picture windows that overlooked a wide lawn. Just beyond, ducks skimmed the surface of a pond that shimmered in the sun.
On the window sill sat portraits of his therapist, Dr. Lucy Chin, with her husband and children. About forty, she was tall and wore her dark hair in a long ponytail. Atop her large, heavy wooden desk was a computer and an open manila file folder. His file.
What did it say? Did she think he was progressing? Or was he making a mess of this, just like everything else in his life lately?
She looked up from her computer and gave him a smile. “Okay, ready? Deep, cleansing breath.”
He did as she said, closing his eyes, inhaling, then letting the air out slowly, experiencing the way his body opened and lifted. Then, he slowly relaxed and opened his eyes.
“How was your week?” she asked.
“I’m still sleeping in the guest bedroom. The master bedroom reminds me too much of Mason.”
She nodded. “How does that feel, to be reminded of Mason?”
“Sad. I miss him.” Rhy’s throat closed up, and he swallowed. “He’s been so supportive through this, I can’t help feeling guilty. He doesn’t understand why we have to be apart. He wants to help me through it, but I…”
She waited silently. Finally, she said, “But you…”
“I haven’t had a panic attack since I moved out.”
“You moved out right about the time you started taking the Zoloft. Maybe the medication is the reason the panic attacks stopped.”
“Maybe,” he said. “But the panic attacks started right after Mason and I moved in together.”
“So you think they started because of Mason, and not the stress of the move?”
“Not because of Mason. Because of making a commitment. I can’t do it. I can’t let myself be in a relationship where I feel vulnerable.”
She waited a few beats, then asked, “How often do you talk to Mason?”
“Every couple of days. We’re not broken up. I always tell him that.”
The keyboard clacked as she typed a few words into the computer. “And when was the last time you saw him?”
“Ten days ago.”
Her brows arched. “Why so long?”
“When I was with him last time, I didn’t want to leave.”
“Why is that a negative thing?”
He rubbed his hands against the rough cloth of the couch where he sat. “Because I don’t want the panic attacks to start again.”
Wearing a placid expression, she eyed him and gave him the chance to say more. When he didn’t, she asked, “What about your business? Have you taken on any clients?”
“I’m not ready.”
“You’re keeping busy, though?”
He shrugged. “I work in the yard, do odd jobs around the house.”
“What’s your money situation like?”
“It’s fine.” He was careful with his finances. He had some savings and could afford to take the time off.
She tapped a pen on the desk. “Any other stressors in your life?”
“Not that I can think of, other than the big one.”
Leaning forward, she gazed at him intensely. “How often do you come down off the mountain?”
Rhy lived in a mountain cabin where he was relatively self-sufficient. He worked as a freelance web designer, so other than occasional client visits and grocery runs, he never had to see another soul if he didn’t want to.
“Twice a week. Wednesdays to come here and to visit friends. Saturdays to see Mason.”
“Yet you didn’t see him last Saturday.”
Anger and sadness rose inside him. “Being with him makes me feel helpless. I can’t be the boyfriend he wants me to be. It’s like the illness is controlling me.”
“And you don’t feel like the illness is controlling you when you don’t go to see him?”
Rhy considered the question but didn’t have an answer for it.
Dr. Chin sighed. “What do you think about the exposure therapy we talked about?”
She waited a moment, then said, “Just no?”
“I’m not putting myself through that. It would be hell.”
“One photo. Do you think we could try that?”
“How about a photo of your grandparents?”
His grandparents had raised him after his parents kicked him out of the house when he was fifteen. His grandmother died while he was in college, his grandfather a year ago. Until Rhy met Mason, he hadn’t realized how lonely he was since losing them.
“I’ve got pictures of them out around the house. My brother and sister, too.”
“Can you bring them next time?”
“Sure, if you think it will do any good.”
“We’ll start with something familiar and non-threatening. And when you’re ready, maybe we can move on to something more challenging.”
“We can try that.”
She crossed her legs and leaned forward again. “Rhy, I need you to understand—avoiding situations for fear of triggering a panic attack is likely to make your condition worse, not better.”
“It worries me that you’re avoiding Mason.”
Rhy shook his head. His whole body constricted. “I don’t want him to see me like this.”
“Weak. Out of control.”
She typed into her computer, then asked, “How does Mason feel about that?”
“He just wants to help.” A lump formed in Rhy’s throat. “I hate that I can’t handle this on my own.”
“Does Mason think less of you?” she asked.
“No, he’s the one who encouraged me to start therapy again, even before the panic attacks started.”
She rose and paced. “This is something I want you to think about before our next session. If you’ve got a supportive partner, why are you pushing him away?”
“I know why. I can’t get close to anyone. I’m afraid that if I let myself love people, they’ll leave.”
She crossed her arms. “Is it your heart telling you that, or your head?”
“I don’t understand.”
She rested her hands on the desk and leaned toward him. “Rhy, I don’t think you’re doing the hard work to get to the root of the problem. I think you’re rationalizing.” She stood upright again. “You’re cutting yourself off from the emotion, and deducing the answer instead of listening to your heart.”
Rhy bit his cheek, then said, “It hurts. Everything hurts.”
“I know it does. Unfortunately, it’s like a wound that’s gotten infected. You need to go through the pain of clearing out the infection if you ever want it to heal.”
Before heading back up the mountain, Rhy stopped in at the hardware store to pick up some lawn fertilizer. To steady his mind, he focused on his senses: the bright colors of the packaging, the beep of a forklift backing up, the sharp odor of earth and chemicals.
He found what he was looking for and loaded the heavy bag into his cart. Physical work was good. It let his unconscious mind wrestle with problems while his conscious mind attended to more practical issues.
“Rhy?” a male voice said, and Rhy turned toward it. The man, a Latino of about fifty with a kind face, looked vaguely familiar. But Rhy couldn’t quite place him.
“You don’t remember me,” the man said with a smile. “I’m not surprised—it must be ten years. Luis Mendoza. Your dad and I have worked on some projects together.”
“Of course.” Rhy shook his hand. “I saw your signs for the new subdivision. Azalea Meadows?”
“That’s right. We’re focusing on making it as eco-friendly as possible. A challenge, but it’s been fun so far. So what are you doing with yourself these days?”
“I’m a web designer. Freelance. My biggest client lately is Mountain Solar.”
“You did their redesign? Nice.” He nodded. “It’s much easier to navigate now.”
Rhy smiled. “Glad you like it.”
“So things are going well for you, then. I worried about you after the trouble you had, when you went to live with your grandparents. I guess they were a good influence on you.”
Rhy’s body turned rigid. He set his jaw and swallowed down the anger building in his throat.
“I’m sorry,” Luis said. “I guess I shouldn’t have brought it up.”
“It’s not your fault. That’s what my dad told people—that I went to live with my grandparents because I’d gotten into some trouble.”
“That’s not what happened?”
Rhy slid his hands into his pockets. He didn’t want to talk about this, but he’d gone too far to change course now. “I guess it was, to his way of thinking. My parents found out I was gay, so they kicked me out. If my grandparents hadn’t taken me in, I’d have been homeless.”
Luis’s expression turned to one of horror. “What?” He laid a hand on Rhy’s shoulder and sucked in a breath. “You mean I’ve been doing business with this man for ten years, after he treated his own child that way?”
He shook his head. “Rhy, I’m sorry. If I’d known, I’d have done something—given you an after-school job, something.”
“It’s okay. My grandparents took good care of me.”
Luis nodded. “I heard you lost them a while back. I’m sorry.”
“Thank you.” Thinking about his grandparents hurt, but it was a normal pain, one he could live with.
Luis shook his head. “I always thought you were a good kid, Rhy. I was surprised by what your dad said, because it didn’t seem like you. But things are going well for you now?”
“Yes, thank you. Business is good, and I’ve got a man in my life who’s better than I deserve. I can’t complain.”
“Glad to hear it.” Luis shook his hand again. “You take care of yourself. If there’s ever anything I can do for you—” He scowled a moment. “We’re going to need a website for Azalea Meadows once the lots go up for sale. Do you have a business card?”
Rhy smiled. “I do.” He got one from his wallet and handed it to Luis.
Luis looked it over. “I’ll be in touch.”
Luis sauntered off. Rhy remembered him as a nice guy—when Rhy was little, Luis always seemed to have lollipops for him and his siblings whenever they’d gone to a job site with their dad. Plus, Luis’s sister was the director of the LGBT center in town, so he was probably sympathetic to Rhy’s situation. Rhy thought he might have found a true friend.
For the first time in weeks, maybe his luck was beginning to change.