Will is the group leader, the only man. He is unobtrusively but certainly handsome—a full head of brown hair; soft, kind eyes flecked with green; a blue button-down that accentuates an athletic figure, the cuffs rolled up at the forearms. His demeanor suggests benevolent authority, like a young high school teacher, the one everyone likes.
He had vetted each member of the group individually in a screening interview, then assured more than one in a post-screening phone call that, though he hadn’t predicted the group would be all-female, he was still the person for the job, aware of and sensitive to their unique needs.
He does seem attentive, the women think as Will scans the circle, stopping to acknowledge each group member, tiny personal checkins punctuated with encouraging smiles. His teeth are a tabula rasa of whiteness. When the women look at them, they each see somthing different. Bernice recalls the bone-white inlay of a bright blue dresser. Ashlee sees the glint of her own engagement ring. Gretel sees hard candy winking in sun. Raina sees her husband’s smile, all veneer.
Should the teeth be a tip-off? After all, they have already laid their fortunes in the hands of the most obvious psychopaths—billionaires and reality TV producers, metaphorical witches and literal wolves. Perhaps the women should wonder if something is amiss. Especially since one of them, yet to arrive, had already made a substantial error with regard to teeth.
Ashlee sighs loudly and looks around the room for a clock, though there isn’t one. Just as she’s about to ask for the time, a high-heel clatter comes echoing down the hall, louder and louder until the door bursts open and Ruby, the final group member, careens into the room. She stops midway between the door and the group to catch her breath. “Sorry, sorry,” she says. Her face is bright red and sweaty. Her lips are picked raw. Her hair is a disaster: much of it is stuck to the sweaty sides of her face; the rest of it hangs down to her shoulders in a tangle. An old pink dye job clings to the bottom three inches. Her clear-framed glasses, the lenses comically smudged, slip down her nose. Just as they seem poised to fall off, she pushes them back up.
It’s no wonder she’s sweating. She’s wearing a massive fur coat: gray with dirt and ridiculous in the summer heat. It hangs open, framing a red top and a black pleather skirt, revealing the coat’s worn beige silk lining. A thick lapel extends to a hood that’s fallen on her back. The sleeves are so long that only the ragged chewed tips of her fingers peek out.
She wipes the sweat from her brow with a furry sleeve, smudging a greasy tint of gray across her forehead, and squints around the circle. “Name tags!” she says, and clacks to the snack table to fill out her own.
When she spins back to the group, a chocolate chip cookie is shoved halfway in her mouth. The name tag rides along the hairs of the coat. LIL RED, it read in smudge all-caps. then, in smaller letters below: RUBY. She latches an arm around a chair and squeezes in between Ashlee and Raina. Ashlee wrinkles her nose.
“Welcome,” says Will, clapping his hands on his thighs. His voice is as calm and clear as a podcaster’s, comforting yet with an air of gravitas. He has the impressive ability, as he speaks, to keep scanning the circle, surveying the group, like a phone constantly checking for a signal.
He reiterates why they’re here, gives them the spiel they’ve each heard individually, about the groundbreaking preliminary research on narrative therapy, about how each week one woman will take the lead, tell her story, and the others will listen and react.
He reminds them that they are unique. they’ve each been through a trauma that played out, in some way, publicly. “People know of you, but do they know you?” he asks. No, they concur, shaking their heads, people don’t know them at all.
He reminds them of the conditions they’ve agreed to in documents they signed prior to group. They should be present and participatory—no missing meetings, no lateness (he looks at Ruby with a smile), no phones allowed. Above all, they must be completely and absolutely honest. No lies, not even white lies, not even lies by omission. No holding back. He calls this “Absolute Honesty.” He explains that a natural by-product of Absolute Honesty is tension and conflict. In this sense, conflict, like a fever, is a sign that things are working, and should be embraced as part of the process.
“It’s not going to be easy,” he tells them, “but if you stay open and do the work” —he spreads his arms wide, as if in benediction— “you’re going to learn more about yourselves than you ever imagined.” He lets the words linger, then his arms drop.
“Big sell,” says Ruby though a mouthful of cookie. “Let’s just get the show on the road.”