Johnny could feel the sting, the itch of sweat running down his temple, but he kept his eyes locked on Clara’s. His body felt alight with fire, from the sheer exertion of keeping still. He focused on his hands, hot and gathering sweat, the right laying atop her left, her right atop his right. She was cool and dry, didn’t arch an eyebrow or smirk her lips, hardly blinked; and when she did, it was calmly, as steady a blink as he had ever seen, in high-definition slow motion.

He tried to put it off as long as possible, feeling the saliva collect under his tongue, but before he knew it he was swallowing, a giant gulp, his stubbled skin bobbling wildly over his gigantic adam’s apple. He fought the urge to clear his throat. The clock clicked ever loudly in his ears. He kept his eyes glued on hers.

“Well, that’s time.” Clara said it with a smile, but her eyes didn’t change. She opened her hands.

Johnny pulled away, a little too hastily, and he could feel his cheeks burning up.

“Thanks.”

Her eyes followed him up when he stood, and he looked away as he swung his jacket up over his arms.

“Same time next week?”

“Huh? Oh. Yeah. Next week.” He was trying to control his breathing – oh, to breathe like a normal person! – but he could feel his lungs straining for oxygen even as he drew in his breath, steadily. He felt the itching all over his body, inside his palms, under his armpits, between his shoulder blades, behind his knees. He stiffly swung one leg in front of the other toward the door, making his exit as quickly as he could without scurrying away.

Clara remained in her chair the whole time, until the final moment when the door swung shut.

He had done alright for his first session – at least he hadn’t burst out, shouting excitedly to disrupt the quiet, to the point where she’d had to excuse and remove herself from the room, like Mr. Riviera.

His eyes were tight the whole time, widening and squinting the whole time, overcompensating by being too big and too small and too normal.

And he was trying really very hard to suppress all the squirming, the tapping she normally sees in her clients – for minutes at a time before they realize from the tremble in her hair, her eyelashes, that they are vibrating the entire table top with their bouncing leg.

She could see the beat of the bulging pulse in his neck and temple. And her hands were positively moisturized by all the humidity that collected in the tiny pocket of space between his and hers.

But she was sad to know, instinctively and immediately, that though his humiliation at his lack of control was great, it was not great enough for him to endure more sessions of the same, the silence and white space and staring. It was too much and not enough at once; he had tried to hard and reaped too little. He was still under the delusion that there could be easier, less unpleasant ways of achieving godliness. The Alignment. Becoming one and being present and omnipresent at once.

Johnny was humiliated because she was an attractive twenty-something year old, in the prime of her life, just waiting to be whisked away by a rich and powerful man who could shower her with presents and encounters, with theater premiers and exclusive VIP rooms. And he felt wretched before her, all that he wasn’t. Because she was gazing upon him as he was gazing upon her, and she did not react. She stared at him, into him, through him, past him.

In reality, she wasn’t particularly good looking. She was clean, to be certain: cleanly dressed and made up. She was remarkably average: 5’5″, 150lbs, shoulder-length hair. She could disappear into a crowd at a moment’s notice. But he felt her presence like a fire, and rather than leaning into it, he shrank away from it. He couldn’t wait to leave. He wasn’t even curious. He was repulsed.

Repulsed by himself, and as a result, repulsed by her. And if she couldn’t win them over with that deep, inexplicable fascination, if she couldn’t cut through their thick layer of self-conscious self-loathing, then they would not return. And she could not chase.

Clara walked out the same door Johnny had escaped through and walked to the window at the end of the hallway lined with cold institutional linoleum tile. She gazed out and caught Johnny rummaging around his messenger bag, looking for his keys, in a panic. He took out a laptop, notebook, several pens, crumpled up receipts, then paused, resting his hands on either side of his belongings. He leaned against the car, letting his head hang as he realized – she guessed – that he would have to come back up and face her.

He banged his fists into the car and yelled, the sound reaching Clara just a milisecond later. She could guess what he had said. She continued to watch, her arms nested into each other. Johnny took a few more seconds, close to a minute, to mull over his fate – then stood up straight, swept his things back into his bag, straightened up his jacket.

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