The Writing Circle

I am going to get kicked out of my writing circle. I can feel it. When I tell this to my therapist, Melinda, she asks, “Why do you think that?”


“Because I haven’t written,” I say. “I haven’t written anything all year. I was supposed to submit, like, five times already.”


Melinda yawns and sinks into her armchair (which is much too large for a woman of 5’2”), scribbles something into her miniature yellow notepad, and half-sneezes. Finally, she says: “And writing—it’s important to you?”


“I’d like for it to be even more important to me,” I say. “That’s actually the goal.”


“I’ve heard that some creatives are more prolific during times of distress,” Melinda replies, like this is all over the news.


“Not me,” I say quickly, before she can tell me to channel my depression into some seminal work I will never in my life write—depressed or not. I just wasn’t destined for that kind of thing.


“Not you,” Melinda echoes, like she is checking a box on a to-do list. For the first time, I notice that everything about Melinda is aggravatingly tiny. Even her handwriting is so microscopic that I can’t make out a word of it from where I’m sitting, just four feet away.


“And now I’m supposed to submit again. In two days. And I have nothing,” I say, in the same tone a petulant child might use to get their mother’s attention. “I just don’t see this ending well.”


Melinda looks at me over her glasses. The image is so apt I would like to pitch it to Shutterstock under the caption “skeptical therapist.” Then she says, “Perhaps you fear being kicked out—even more than you should—because you were recently fired from a job.”


I am slightly annoyed that Melinda always finds a way to bring up my being fired a month ago. It’s something I try not to dwell on. “Even more than I should?”


“Right,” Melinda says. “More than is normal or healthy.”


“Right.” I think I understand the sentiment. After all, fear is a self-preservation mechanism. “That could be true. I mean, my writing circle is basically just a group of my friends from undergrad. We studied creative writing together. We smoked pot together. We got our hearts broken together. I’d be surprised if that’s what it came down to—me not being productive, that is.” Melinda’s expression is so vacant that all I can do is continue. “But, if I’m being totally honest, I wouldn’t put it past them. I’m not sure how I feel about them anymore, as friends, anyway.”


“Let’s talk more about that,” Melinda says.


“I don’t have much to say about it,” I start, my eyes fixated on Melinda’s baby-like feet wrapped in ballet flats, dangling just above the carpet, “but I get the feeling that they’re not, well, good people. Fundamentally.”


“And you think you’re a good person, Risha?” Melinda replies, a little too quickly. She sits up and plants her feet on the ground, as though reading my mind.




“They don’t live up to your standard of what it means to be good, it seems. I am wondering if you think that you, personally, live up to your own standard of being good.”


“Well, I’d hope so,” I say. “I try to be good. I really try to.”


“Something to think about,” Melinda says, pursing her lips to the side in a way that can only be described as annoying.



While waiting for the train, I kick a flattened Sprite can, pretending that it’s Melinda’s head. I instantly feel a little cruel, so I gently scoot it with the toe of my boot to a nice-looking area on the subway platform. A little corner next to a square bench, drenched in a trapezoid of sunlight. There, there, I want to say to the Sprite can. It’s not your fault.

When I accidentally miss my stop by two stations, I walk outside, find a large tree, and lean against it, with my backpack draped across the front of my body. Then I leisurely search through my things, as though I don’t know what I am looking for. But I know exactly what I’m looking for, and when I find the orange bottle tucked between two books—dusted with some dried tobacco leaves—I feel immediately relieved.


Soon I am walking through a park, thinking fondly of the little yellow pills sitting in my stomach, working their magic. The day looks brighter, more urgent and important. Before I know it, I have bought myself a popsicle, eaten it, walked three times around the park, given a homeless man some change, pet two dogs that belonged to strangers, and smiled at a busker. And now I am settling into a nook at a coffee shop, pouring a few of my stupid belongings—a notebook, two pens, my laptop, my laptop charger, hand lotion, a pack of gum—onto a small, uneven table stained with coffee rings. I open a blank document and begin haphazardly.



Simran meets with Judy, her therapist, in the mornings. Every Monday, they find their separate ways to a cold, ugly building tucked into a nondescript corner of the Financial District. Simi usually begins by telling Judy about her dreams.


“Last night,” Simi begins, “I was eating the biggest T-bone steak in the universe. Not just the world, but the entire universe. The actual steak, though—or, rather, the dreamed-up image of it—wasn’t remarkable in size at all. In fact, I’m sure you could easily find a bigger T-bone steak within a two-mile radius of this office.”



This is all I manage before I am sucked into an internet rabbit hole of the “ugliest buildings in FiDi.” Then “T-bone steak size and weight.” Too much time slips through my fingers, and now the baristas are cleaning the coffee machines so loudly you’d think it was a performance. A third barista weaves in and out of the seating area, setting empty chairs upside down on empty tables. I want to throw my hands up in the air and yell, “I get it, I get it!” Instead, I down the rest of my tepid cappuccino and text my brief beginning to Jessica—my best friend and the most successful member of our writing circle. We do this regularly, that is, send each other opening lines, pieces of dialogue, descriptions without context.


I pack my things quickly and thank the workers very politely, putting two dollars into the tip jar by the exit. Outside, the sun is setting, and the streets seem filled exclusively with couples—holding hands, hugging, guiding each other like one of them is blind. I feel happy that I am single and sorry for myself at the same time.


When I get home, I text my ex-boyfriend a picture of an unopened bottle of wine I have sitting around. I’ve heard this red is very bold. When he doesn’t reply for two hours, I open the bottle, pour myself a glass, and try to write some more.



Judy says it’s impressive that Simi takes an interest in her subconscious, but perhaps they don’t need to spend so much time talking about her dreams. “You are paying for this, you know,” Judy says, like Simi is being swindled and doesn’t even know it. “I want you to get the most out of this process.”


Simi tells Judy that she is very kind for considering her finances, but that she is a vegetarian, so the dream actually does have potential for deeper, real-world significance.


Judy smiles and nods. She walks around her desk and opens one of its drawers, pulls out a composition notebook, hands it to Simi. “Here,” she says. “A blank journal. For you to log your dreams in.”



My phone buzzes and I am giddy, until I realize it’s not my ex-boyfriend but, instead, Jessica: What’s a Simi


Simi is my protagonist, I write back, annoyed. Simi is short for Simran


Maybe choose another name?? I was confused.


Simran is a standard Indian name.




I wait for some time, but when it’s clear that ohhh is the extent of Jessica’s response, I offer: Do you think this story could be interesting tho


Definitely. I love cultural fiction


This is not going to be about culture


No? But she’s Indian, isn’t she????


Yes, she is. But this story is going to be about a patient-therapist relationship


Why does she need to be Indian then??


Because I’m Indian.


You’re writing about yourself?


No. But I want to write about people like me.


Got it. I just think that people will wonder what the significance is – of the protagonist being an immigrant…. They’ll want you to explore this, you know?? If you don’t, they won’t get the point of setting it up that way…. That’s why I suggested another name.


I pour another glass of wine and recognize that I feel equally disappointed in Jessica and in myself. In Jessica, because she is stupid and rude. In myself, because I surround myself with people who are stupid and rude.


I crane my head, so it’s hanging over the short backrest of the couch; I can smell its thick, hand-me-down fabric. I stare at the ceiling with intention, an expression on my face like the truth is clear to me now—even though my mind is blank.


When I hear my neck crack, I sit up again and take a sip of my very bold wine. I decide that while Jessica may be published in several well-respected online magazines, she is not the kind of writer I’d ever want to be. I’d never want to write a story in which the family dog is a golden retriever and the mother is protective of her wedding china and all the drama unfolds on a porch at night when the stars are out. I didn’t live that life or watch those movies. Not more than I had to, at least.



Simi takes the notebook into her hands dramatically, like the scene is playing out in slow motion. “Thank you,” she says, doing a little bow without even realizing it. Simi feels so overwhelmed with gratitude, in fact, that she begins to talk too much: “I think the reason I’m so obsessed with dreams is that, well, because I wonder if they contain clues about my previous lives.


“When I was maybe ten years old, I accidentally read a book about past-life regression therapy—and it changed me forever. I actually picked it up at a bookstore in India, called Crosswords. We visited India every summer growing up. My dad made us—so we wouldn’t become ‘too American.’ Anyway, we did become too American, and, anyway, the book cover was a picture of a chair with a spinning top on it. There was a line on it, too, that said, simply: ‘Children Who Have Lived Before.’ In my Velcro shoes, I felt like I had just unearthed something serious and important. Like I was the only kid who was going to know the real truth.”



The next morning, I am eating oatmeal from a plastic cup and drinking Gatorade when I decide that I want to stand in line today. This is something I crave from time to time. After all, when you are standing in line for something, it’s like the world is standing still with you.


I decide I will try to sell some clothes at a Buffalo Exchange, but when I arrive at the nearest store, I see that there is no line for anything.


“Hi, excuse me?” I say to a pink-haired girl tidying up a sunglass display rack.


“Hey,” she says conclusively.


“I’m here to sell—and, uh, donate—some clothes?”


“In the corner,” she says, like there aren’t four of them.


“Okay,” I say, and wheel my small, squeaky suitcase to the nearest corner, the right, where there are too many old jeans. I turn to my left and I see a small counter at the back of the store: two buyers, one seller. I approach the available buyer, a little disappointed.


“Hey, I’m here to sell,” I announce.


“Over here,” he says, even though I’m basically in front of him.


As I place clothing from my two tote bags onto the counter, we glance at one another expectantly.


“Good day so far?” he asks, sounding embarrassed.


“Great, actually,” I say enthusiastically, trying to pick up the slack. “I’m recently unemployed, which has been surprisingly refreshing.”


“A little time off never hurt anybody,” he sings happily. “I’m Elijah.”


“Risha,” I say.


“Such a pretty name.” Elijah smiles. “So, how are you passing the time?”


“I’ve been trying to focus on my art, I guess.”


“That’s so fantastic. What do you do?”


“I’m a writer,” I say. “I mean, I’d like to be a writer. I try to write.”


“You don’t have to tell me,” he reassures. “I’m a painter, in the same way that you’re a writer.”


“I wish I could paint,” I say.


“Me too,” he says. Then we laugh together, until it is clear both of us feel sorry for ourselves. For the remainder of our time together, I browse my phone while Elijah silently sorts my clothes into two piles. It’s clear almost instantly that the shrinking pile is the one I will be paid for.


“Thirty percent in cash or 50% in trade?”


“I’ll take the 30%.”


I am only $18.46 richer for seven minutes, because I remember spotting an animal shelter across the street. I go to a few bodegas until I find the brand of cat food my cat used to like. Then I donate it to the animal shelter and feel like maybe every kind act is inspired by a kind encounter.



“I know a little bit about past-life regression therapy,” Judy says. “It’s fascinating.”


“It is!” Simi beams. “You would like this book, then. I could lend you my copy, if you don’t mind returning it.”


“That’s okay,” Judy says, in the polite way that she does.


“Are you sure? It’s basically a collection of true accounts of children who remember bits and pieces of their past lives; children who have curious amounts of very real baggage, too. For example, there’s this one story about a young girl who couldn’t stand the sight or smell of fires—fires of any kind. In fact, one time she was at a birthday party and started crying uncontrollably when the cake was brought out with lit candles stuck into it.”



The bookstore is the place I feel most at home. It’s the one place I can not just handle crowds, but in fact prefer them. Most people are browsing alone; even friends and couples navigate the aisles like strangers. There is sanctity in how we sidle past each other, silently, apologetically. Gazes must be averted at all costs. Everyone is gentle in a bookstore. Paperbacks must be cradled. We open hardcovers slowly, really hearing the way spines crack, and there is a sincere eagerness to listen.


“Risha?” a voice booms somewhere down the historical fiction aisle.


I turn and it is who I think it is, unfortunately. Jessica. “Jessica,” I whisper back, hoping she will follow suit and lower her voice.


Jessica struts past a few visibly disturbed patrons until she is next to me, clasping my upper arm with both of her hands, like a koala. She does this often. “I was literally just about to text you. I didn’t mean to upset you about the—”


“Oh, I wasn’t upset!” I say, like I’m just realizing I’ve left the milk out.


“You never replied though.” Jessica purses her lips to the side in a way that reminds me of Melinda.


“It’s been a busy week.”


“Didn’t you just quit your job?”


“Uh-huh,” I say, suddenly remembering that this is the story I’ve told my friends instead of the truth. The truth being that I was fired so loudly—over a small mistake that was my fault, but not so colossal to warrant a public firing—that my former coworkers all chipped in for consolatory flowers to be sent to my apartment. “But I’ve got tons of errands to run now that I have the time.”


Jessica frowns at me like I can do better than that fib. “Well, if you want me to read over what you have tonight, you know, before you submit tomorrow, I’d love to. I’m staying in for the foreseeable future because I have this grant deadline to make.” She groans performatively. “You know what that’s like.”


“I don’t, actually,” I say. “I’ve never applied for a grant.”


“What are you talking about? You’ve totally applied for a grant before.”


I shrug. “I must be forgetting then.” For a moment, I consider telling Jessica the more important truth: that I only have a handful of bad paragraphs so far, that I won’t be submitting anytime soon. But then she says, “Anyways, I gotta run, babe. I’ve got someone upstairs waiting for me. A potential agent! Isn’t that exciting?”


“So exciting,” I say, wanting to strangle her.



“Anyway, this pyrophobic girl was younger than I was at the time—six or seven, I think—and she had no history of trauma associated with fires. She also harbored this intense hatred towards both of her parents that seemed completely unfounded. Her parents were wonderful people, apparently—overtly loving and everything. But their daughter would never return an ‘I love you’ or express any sort of affection. Soon, her mother became very worried and decided to take her to a past-life regression therapist.


“You might know this already, but past-life regression therapy involves hypnosis. So, they hypnotized the young girl to help her return to her previous life and, when she did, they learned that she had died from a house fire in the middle of the night. The last thing she remembered from her past life, too, was her body floating above the house, her family huddled on the lawn next to several firetrucks. She thought that her family hadn’t tried to save her and carried this resentment with her onto her next life.”



“Who is it?” I say into the intercom.


“Guess who,” the voice says back.


“Who?” It sounds like Vishal, my ex-boyfriend.


“I said guess.”


When Vishal is in my apartment, he is disappointed to learn that I’ve already opened the bottle of wine. “What’s this?” he says. “You invite me over for a half-bottle of wine?”


“I didn’t invite you,” I say. “And even if I did, you’re twenty-four hours late.”


“Chill,” he says, searching my kitchen cabinets like he still lives here. He pours most of the bottle into the nicest wine glass I own and takes it into my room. I follow him in to find him sitting on my desk chair, looking into my laptop screen. “Judy and Simi! What do we have here?”


“Don’t do that.” I slam my laptop closed.


“Working on another story?”


“I am, yes.” I snatch his glass as delicately as I can—seeing as the thing is filled to its brim—and take two big gulps before handing it back. “This one’s about a patient-therapist relationship.”


“Oh yeah? Are you Simi? Is Judy your therapist?”


“No,” I murmur. “My therapist is kind of a drag, actually. I might stop seeing her when my insurance runs out, which is,” I pretend to look at an imaginary wristwatch, “probably four sessions from now.”


“What’s wrong with this one?”


“She’s just kind of problematic,” I say. “She says things that seem really inappropriate and rude.”


“Like what?” Vish asks, kicking off his shoes and lying across the foot of my bed.


I shrug. “It’s hard to explain.”


“Oh, Rish.” Vish laughs. “You always have beef with someone in your life. No one is good enough for you. Isn’t that how it goes?”


I roll my eyes and go into the kitchen to pour myself a glass of wine, since Vish didn’t think to do that. As I drain the last of the bottle—maybe four or five sips—into a plastic cup, I realize that my blood is boiling. The thought of Vishal draped across my bed like that—smug—makes me purely indignant.


“What’s that supposed to mean?” I say from my doorway.


He sits up on my bed. “Well, don’t get all mad.”


“What do you mean I always have beef with someone?”


“You really wanna know?”


“Yeah. I really want to know.”


“You’re always going on about how much everyone sucks. When we were dating, it was me. When you had a job, it was your boss. Some days it’s Jessica. Other days it’s your therapist. It’s always someone. Think about that,” he says, lifting his glass like we are going to toast or something.


“You hated Jessica,” I retort, mostly because I can’t deny any of this.


“I did hate Jessica,” he declares, “but I also don’t think I’m better than Jessica. I accept Jessica. I accept myself. I think we are both uniquely subpar people. I think the world is full of uniquely subpar people. And I think it’s our job to stick together—as shitty, subpar human beings. It’s like a karmic law or something.”




“I just don’t see the point in writing everyone off the way you do.”


“Leave,” I repeat.


Shaking his head, Vish slips on his shoes and rises to his feet. He downs the rest of his wine in under three seconds (a feat I can’t help but recognize as astonishing) and then skips past me, out of my room to the front door.


I don’t turn to face him, but I wait for him to say something else, anything else, since he’s exactly the kind of person that needs to have the final word. But there is only silence followed by the door slamming shut.



Judy looks at Simi with equal parts concern and compassion. “Simran, I think your spiritual passion is beautiful. But we should really focus on you.”


Simi sighs. “You’re right,” she says. “I guess that was just my long-winded way of saying thank you. Thank you for being so kind and patient with me. Thank you for having hope in me.” Then, suddenly, as though finally recognizing the meaning of her tangent: “I guess my point was that I can’t help but perceive you as maternal, and not just because you’re my therapist. It feels like I have known you, as a mother, specifically, in a past life.”


Simran regrets the words as soon as they come out of her mouth, as soon as she sees Judy’s face fall into a shadow of the future of their relationship—or, rather, the lack of it. After all, Judy is a good therapist. She is of sound mind. She cannot, in good conscience, continue to see a patient who regards her as her own mother.



I blink into my screen and realize that, once again, I have dug my own grave. Once again, the only relationship I have created I have also destroyed, within the brief span of a page. Once again, I have written off my one and only protagonist.


I think about Vishal’s words: “I just don’t see the point in writing everyone off the way you do.” I think about how he was too shy to use my bathroom when we first started dating, because he didn’t want me to hear him pee. I think about how comfortable he feels now—so comfortable that he’ll show up unannounced, drink all of my wine, and tell me off on my own turf.


I think about Jessica and her success. I think about why it bothers me. I think about the way she holds my arm when she greets me, or when we are walking down the street together. I think about the notes she sends me on my writing, always promptly: color-coded, marked-up with just as much praise as constructive criticism.


I think about Simran, and I think about myself. I think about missing the point of things entirely. I think about baggage. I think about baggage so old it might as well belong to a previous lifetime.



In my dream, I am eating the biggest T-bone steak in the universe, in Melinda’s office. I don’t have a plate or utensils, so I am carrying the steak around in my purse, ripping off pieces of it and feeding myself with my fingers, like it is a soft baguette.


Melinda asks why I am eating a T-bone steak during our therapy session. I say, simply: “Because I am starving.”

Without judgement, Melissa nods. From the bottom of her chair, she pulls out a colorful plate, a fork, and a steak knife—in that order. Then, she struggles to move her heavy desk in front of me, so I have a surface to eat on.


“Is this okay?” Melinda asks, pursing her lips to the side.



Our writing circle meets once a week, in an art studio for preschoolers (after hours, of course).


The seven of us huddle over two short tables cobbled together—both pieces of furniture stained with so much paint we can’t help but remember how everything is a canvas when you’re four years old. We sit on even shorter stools, with our strained backs hunched over each other’s manuscripts. We have all traveled from different corners of the city to really be here, to peer in each other’s minds for two full hours.


At the end of our meeting, while Mark is passing out the twelfth chapter of his mystery novel-in-progress, I announce to everyone: “I don’t have pages again and I was fired from my job a month ago.”


Everyone stops to stare at me, except Mark, who seems to be double-checking that his pages are stapled in the correct order. Jessica knits her eyebrows so plainly. Jason gives me a look like he’d rather be anywhere but here. Jenna crosses her arms like she is a disappointed teacher. Neil widens his eyes like he’s never heard a confession so sad before. Sam bares her teeth, like: yikes.


“You didn’t quit?” Jessica says.


“No, I got fired. Pretty publicly actually. It was a small mistake that had some medium consequences.”


Suddenly, Mark cackles loudly, breaking the tension he is oblivious to. “That’s so funny, dude. You should write about that for next time.”


Silently, Jessica walks to my side and squeezes my arm tightly. “Do you mind waiting another month to share though?”


“Not at all,” I hear myself whisper.


Then, like I am a ball being tossed around, the group takes turns hugging me, consoling me. I allow myself to move from person to person, to feel relieved in a way that seems too profound for the occasion. Each of them expresses to me—in their uniquely subpar ways—how it’s going to be okay. That is, everyone except for Mark, who is packing up his things, satisfied that pages one to twenty are in perfect, consecutive order.