The Upside Down Girls

Brendan Todt

The girl comes home from the zoo and removes the books, one by one, from the folding card table that serves as her father’s desk.  She then turns it over, legs in the air, and sits on it.  No one notices at first.  Her sister does, but doesn’t say anything, such is their relationship; such is the girl’s novelty that to her sister it is no longer novel at all.  Then the mother walks in and she has to laugh, which is the worst reaction her therapist has told her she can have.  She must not reinforce this kind of behavior.  And so the mother straightens up and asks her daughter, “Excuse me, honey, what are you doing?”  And the girl says, “I’m a jellyfish.” And the mom laughs again.  And then the girl corrects herself.  “Actually, I’m not the jellyfish.  The card table is the jellyfish and I am the photosynthesizing sea algae living in symbiosis with the upside down jellyfish.”  And the mother doesn’t at all know what to say and so she nods her head as if this were common knowledge—nothing novel about it in the least—and exits the room and finds her husband and tells him he might like to rearrange his office sometime soon.

At her next session the mother tells the therapist how her daughter became a jellyfish—no—how her daughter became the photosynthesizing sea algae living in symbiosis with the jellyfish.  The therapist sits there thinking about that—much as the mother did: standing there, thinking about that—until she asks, “What is your daughter’s relationship with your other daughter?”

The mother does not have to sit there silently, thinking, for it is not a novel relationship at all.  It is the same relationship she has had with her own sister and the same relationship her mother has had with her sisters and the same relationship she imagines most women have had with their sisters since the beginning of time.  “Strained,” she says, quite simply, although it is apparently not as simple as she thought because the therapist sits, silently, thinking about that in her big overstuffed chair, just as the mother had stood there, silently, when her daughter told her that nonsense about the photosynthesizing sea algae.

“Who do you think it is your daughter wants to live in symbiosis with?” the therapist finally asks.  Now that is some novel shit, the mother is thinking.  “I don’t think she wants to live in symbiosis with anyone.  I think she wanted to take her father’s books off the desk and so she came up with this cockamamie story about the upside down jellyfish and the photosynthesizing sea algae.”  “You don’t think she wants to live in symbiosis with her father?”  “What are you suggesting?” the mother asks.  The therapist pauses.  “Nothing inappropriate, of course, but do you think that the daughter’s displacements of the books and the ‘desk’”—the mother hates how the therapist with all her “degrees” uses air quotes like that—“as a way of getting his attention?”  “No, I don’t.”  “Do you think she wants to live in symbiosis with her sister?  With you?”  “No, I think she’s an upside down girl who wanted to pretend to be an upside down jellyfish but forgot that when she sat on the upside down card table she couldn’t be the upside down jellyfish anymore so she had to settle for being the photosynthesizing sea plant.”

“Do you think your daughter makes a habit of settling?”  Now the mother is thinking What the fuck is that supposed to mean?  “No, I do not.  I think she gets good grades at school and has friends and NO I do not think she makes a habit of settling.  She’s very happy with the grades she gets and with the friends she has.”  The therapist sits there thinking about that.  “But you haven’t mentioned yourself or her father or her sister.  Do you think what she really wants is to have better more symbiotic relationships between the three of you but she settles instead for having good grades?”  This is getting ridiculous, the mother thinks.  “This is getting ridiculous,” the mother says.  “You’re suggesting my daughter cleared off my husband’s desk, turned it upside down, sat on it, and called it an upside down jellyfish because she doesn’t think we love her enough?  This is a crock of shit.”

“I can understand how you’d think that,” the therapist says, which oddly enough, was what the mother was thinking when she first saw her daughter sitting cross-legged on top of the upside down card table.  Excuse me, honey, what are you doing? – I’m a jellyfish.  [Pause.]  Actually, I’m not the jellyfish.  The card table is the jellyfish and I am the photosynthesizing sea algae living in symbiosis with the upside down jellyfish.  “Really?” the mother remembers saying, thinking to herself, I can understand how you might think that.

Brendan Todt earned his MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts.  Besides writing, his interests are Fußball, food, and physics.  He’s currently working on a series of erasures from Isaac Asimov’s Understanding Physics.  His work can be found in Ninth Letter, HOOT Review, South Dakota Review, among other places.  This story is for Becky, Andy, and their daughter Abby.