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Peer Review

Kristen Swan Morrison

There’s an infiltration in the group. I sense it. I see it a mile away. The library is my natural habitat, after all. My existence has been permanently entwined with libraries, so I know when something’s out of place.

“There’re two types of people,” James is saying. He casts his gaze around the circle. “And I’m the latter. Know what I mean?” He nods, to punctuate an explanation that doesn’t come.

I’ll probably die in a library.

Not anytime soon. But someday. It could be a public library, like this one. Or academic—I’ll probably still be working at the University of Toronto. Either way they’ll find me alone, face first onto a stack of journals, blending into the beige carpet.

But this is a negative thought pattern. A cognitive distortion. The one that nearly prevented me from coming back. I push it away with a Positive Thought Replacement: At least I belong here.

James has shown up for assertiveness therapy four other nights and not once has he shown a lack of assertiveness. Then he goes and brings donuts. Nobody in this group could make an important decision like that, picking out snacks. The box sits behind him on the table, yellow and yawning like an 8-bit Pac-Man. 

Next to the box sits a tray of small coffees, from which the facilitator has taken one. The other three, as usual, go untouched. Most of us can’t take the caffeine.

James looks at his dirt-encrusted work boots and shakes his head. “I told the client, I acknowledge where you’re coming from, but I can’t finish the job before next week.”

Sharon, the spindly-armed facilitator, nods like a cat following a toy on a string; her whole body gets into it. “James, that is excellent. It sounds like you really pushed yourself this week.”

The donuts are glazed, jelly-filled. If that isn’t the most assertive kind of donut, I don’t know what is.

Sharon is so eager for James to finish his story she’s literally on the edge of her seat. “When you gave the client your regrets, what were your automatic thoughts?”

James scratches the knee on his camel-colored dungarees. “That he’d tell me to blow it out my ear. Suck a lemon. Write an angry review on Yelp.”

“What was the outcome?”

James looks up at the ceiling and shrugs. He rubs his left eye. His right eye rolls around and stops on me. “What could he do? The man’s got a hole in his roof.”

“Thank you,” Sharon says. “Great example of clear communication.”

James leans back in his chair and crosses his legs. 

This is not the correct position, the position we assume after speaking. The correct position is to hunch over and examine our fingernails.

Cindy shares next. She speaks rapidly, flashing a nervous smile between each sentence. Halfway through, James leans over and grabs a donut. We listen to Cindy, but we’re watching James out of the corners of our eyes. Everybody but Jody, that is, whose ability to look above knee-level seems to have atrophied beyond repair. Jody shrinks into his chair even further, like a snail that’s been salted.

James eats the donut in three large bites. After each bite, a red string of jelly pulls from his lips.

An assertive person would point to the NO FOOD sign, which is laminated and posted on every wall around the room. A passive-aggressive person would draw attention to the donuts, perhaps offering a story containing donuts. 

There’s a new guy at work who leaves donuts in our office sometimes—donut carrion, really, him having eaten three-quarters of the box. A thirty-something TA in the History department writing his thesis on the Symbolism of Spoons in The French Revolution, or something like that. He wears oversized chunky sweaters that look appropriated from somebody’s grandmother. His mouth is often stained bright pink. He stained the sink in our shared bathroom, too. Maybe there’s pomegranate tea in his thermos. Maybe it’s NyQuil. I’ll never ask. I already spoke about him in last week’s session. It probably wasn’t a story worth sharing.

A tiny crumb of donut falls from James’s lap to the carpet. He catches me noticing and winks. It’s now our little secret. The crumb. His phoniness. The infiltration.


I blush. “Me?”

“Yes. How about you?”

I try not to hunch over. I pet a fingernail. “Um,” I start.

Last Thursday, my postdoc advisor handed me a stack of undergrad papers to grade. The topic, she said, was American Intelligence in the 21st Century. I used to find it funny when students would use papers to poke holes in the plots of Jason Bourne or Mission: Impossible films. Now, I can spot the students who’ll do it by the first sentence. 

My life, it seems, has transformed into an academic research paper. Subtle. Sterile. On the verge of being totally redundant. Professor Weiss could be credited as the principal author. Four years ago, when I moved to Canada, she agreed to oversee my research on British Intelligence during the Cold War. She said the department wouldn’t be the same if I left, so I haven’t. Three months ago, she said I needed to get out more, be more social. So I joined an assertiveness group. Now, she’s advising I shoot higher and look for something else.

 “Did you give any more thought to Dallas?” she said on Thursday, interrupting my exit from her office.

“Yes,” I said. 

I gripped her doorknob with white knuckles.

“I’ll set up the interview then.”

“All right.”

“You’ll love Texas. Trust me. You won’t miss this place a bit.” 

“Thank you.”

“Audrey’s going to love you.”

She beamed at me for a very long moment, during which I thought of, then discarded words.

“You’ll probably hear from her next week,” she said.

“Great,” I said. 

I hesitated four heartbeats. Then I turned the knob and left.

“And how did that make you feel?”

Scientific periodicals tower over Sharon’s head. It’s a stadium seating of cloth-bound spines in maroons and deep forest greens—colors of confidence, of emotional reserve.

I shift in my seat. The plush part of the chair adheres to the fabric of my trousers, pulling like a cat’s tongue. “Well…”

“It’s okay to have strong values and opinions,” Sharon says.

“It feels like she’d hate me if I told her the truth. Like, because she’s doing me a favor, telling her no would be like… spitting in her face.” 

A library patron walks by. He looks through the glass partition and locks onto my gaze, holding a stern expression as he floats across the entire length of wall.

“That’s a perfect example of catastrophizing,” Sharon says. “Also, mind reading. Don’t forget, you can’t read minds.” 

“Well, we can test that,” James says. He’s reclined, with his hands behind his head. His elbows jut out like wings. “What am I thinking right now?”

You’re thinking you’ll get away with it. You’re thinking, next time I’ll bring an audio recorder to get direct quotes. You’re thinking about the slant for your newspaper article, or blog entry, or self-published novel…. “I really have no idea,” I say.

Next to me, Jody is staring at his hands. He’s thinking: I wish I were invisible. He’s thinking: I should have stood up to that bully in fifth grade. 

But James’s Cheshire cat grin, the way he’s looking at me in my peripheral vision, I have no idea what he’s thinking. No idea at all.

“Jody?” Sharon says.

Mind-reading would have been useful after moving to Toronto. I’d know Professor Weiss saw me as a temporary asset to the department, rather than a permanent one. I’d know my roommate, Reeta, saw me as a pushover. I’d know I’d be lonely.

Maybe I wasn’t meant to know back then. Maybe I would have crumbled, turned to dust. Perhaps mind-reading would have driven me into the arms of the new TA, and right now we’d be sharing sloppy pink kisses in the Graduate Lounge.

“Jody, you don’t have to participate,” Sharon says.

The group’s silence is like a black hole ready to absorb the details of our lives, take them beyond our reach. It’s insatiable, forever accepting new stories about our seemingly infinite supply of indiscretions. It will hollow us out, if we let it.

“I had something,” Jody says, still staring at his hands. “I forget though.”

“You can say no,” Sharon says. “Cindy, would you like to take care of my aggressive pit bull while I take a two-week trip to Argentina?”

Cindy shakes her head. “No.”

“James,” Sharon says, “would you like to facilitate the rest of the meetings? I’d love to go home, spend some quality time with my husband.”

“Fuck no,” James says.

“You see, Jody?” Sharon flips her palms up, like she made a card disappear.

Jody nods, then peers under his sneakers, as if checking for gum. “Maybe somebody else should go now? Maybe I’ll try to remember.”

“I’ll go,” someone says.

Our heads turn in unison. 

Claudio has never spoken in group. Not even to say his own name. He carries a black leather satchel and the weight of the whole world. Right now his forehead is planted in his hands, like one of those fallen trees held up by crutches. He inhales in increments, a diver preparing.

“I think I’m losing my daughter,” he says.

“Where’s the evidence for that?” Sharon says. 

“I guess I’m the evidence,” he says, shrugging. “I’m weak.”

“Let’s try alternative thinking. Try sticking to facts and balanced reflection.”

He massages his forehead, the skin wrinkling like a belly. “Maybe the world needs weak people? Maybe not everyone’s meant to be strong.” He glances at Sharon. “Is that balanced thinking?”

“It’s not what I meant, no.”

Claudio re-plasters his face with his hands. 

There is a long pause, filled with the insect buzzing of fluorescent lights. The sound steadily increases until it’s clanging in my eardrums. Then comes a new, louder sound, which almost brings relief: the sound of Claudio sobbing.

A few of us look up. We look around at each other.

“There’s strength in expressing your feelings,” Sharon says. 

A few of us stare at Claudio. A few of us examine our hands, our feet, our lives.

Jody, of all people, slowly uncoils. He looks around, blinking, adjusting to the light. He gets to his feet and walks across the circle. He leans forward, and abruptly scoops Claudio in a hug. 

Has anyone in this group ever hugged? Or anyone in this desolate basement, ever? 

“Thank you for sharing, Claudio. Wow.” Sharon clears her throat, and Jody releases Claudio. He shuffles back to his chair. “Who would like to go next?”

A voice echoes inside, bouncing around like a pinball. Once out of my mouth, though, it’s barely a whisper: “Me.”

James rubs his nose, glances at me.

“Good for you, Justine!” Sharon says. “Twice in one night.”

I look down. I feel eyes on me, the way you feel a muted TV is still on. I see whites in my peripheral vision. 

“It’s nothing like Claudio’s story,” I say. 

I launch into my secret story from a week ago, the one I’d decided not to tell.

Back in our apartment, Reeta told me she talked to my mom.

“For how long?” I asked.

“She misses you,” Reeta said. 

I visualized my mother back in Ohio: a lone, seated figure in an empty house, trying to take up as little space as possible.

“Sounds like a sweet lady,” Reeta said. “By the way, I post-dated rent this month. Just FYI.”


“Because money? Anyway, I’ll be able to cover it by the time the landlord comes around.”

Our landlord is a hobbit-sized lady who reeks of cats and lentils. She had burst into tears last time she came to the door, the last time Reeta did this. No rent means no lawyer, the landlady said, tears cascading off her chin. Her only son, a good boy, is in jail. Please, no more, she said.

“Yeah, I know about the landlord’s son,” Reeta said. “The letter you slipped under my door. I remember. Maybe if she comes by, you write her a check and I’ll hit you back?”

I crossed my arms and bit my lip.

“She’s lucky we know how to write checks,” Reeta said. “I’m allowed to make a mistake. Tell her that. Don’t you work for the government?”

“History department.”

“Close. Are we cool?”

“I don’t have any checks left,” I said.

“E-transfer,” Reeta said.

I hesitated. 

I hesitate and I hesitate.

Half the group is looking away. The other half is looking at me like I left a baby in a car.

Cindy’s blue eyes widen. “You did nothing? What’s going to happen with the son?”

“I’m not sure,” I say. “He didn’t make bail, though. If that’s what you mean.” I make a couple false starts and add, “I don’t know what he did.”

Somebody across the circle is staring. It’s Jody. “You should have helped.” 

“I could,” I say. “I mean, I would.”

Sharon folds her spindly arms and shakes her head. “This is a judgment-free environment,” she says. “But in the future, Justine, I’d like to suggest you avoid the word would. Would is for beavers and termites. Would is not for people with integrity.” She wrings her hands. “You should know your values. What’s assertiveness if not the conviction of values?”

My opinion is that I’m done with this group. 

My value is nil. 

My value is that I am a terrible person.

During the break, I flee. I exit the library as fast as possible. I hurry down the sidewalk, tears pooling in my eyes. 

I pause outside the bar on the corner. Boisterous laughter and talking funnel through the doorway, ringing, like I’m pressing my ear to a wine glass. Then I feel a tap on my shoulder. It’s James, carrying the box of donuts. They’re clamped under his arm vertically. It makes me uncomfortable, imagining the donuts bumping up against each other like Connect Four pieces.

“Hey,” he says. He smiles. “Fuck those people, am I right? Fuck that bargain basement therapist. Let’s grab dinner sometime, maybe discuss this assertiveness stuff on our own?”

If I say no, he’ll feel bad. He’ll hate me like the rest of them.

If I say yes, I can still avoid his call. Or, better yet, change my number.

“I don’t know,” I say.

“You do know,” he says. “You know you’re gonna say yes.”

Reeta takes a puff of her e-cigarette and the room fills with the smell of bubble gum.

There’s no nicotine in her e-cigarettes. Reeta says she’s never smoked. She calls it “oral gratification,” something to busy her mouth with. I try picturing anyone from group saying “oral gratification” while looking another human in the eye.

“Are you moving to the States or what?” Reeta says, pulling her legs onto the couch.

“I’m not sure.”

“Well, give me a heads-up.” Vapor shoots from her nostrils. She is temporarily obscured by haze. “I don’t want to be left holding my dick, you know?”

Behind her, the bearded man looms. Day or night he’s there, gazing stoically at the ceiling. I didn’t mention the bearded man earlier. In some ways, he’s the most important part of the story—the part I didn’t tell the group. He’s a life-sized painting, part of Reeta’s collection.

“Have you seen the landlord?” I ask. “I thought about knocking on her door.”

“Your mom called again.”


“We don’t owe the landlord anything,” Reeta says. “Favors, I mean. We’re all just people trying to get by, you know?”

My eyes linger on the bearded man. There’s something calming about him, his weighty presence. An air of paternal sacrifice. So much so that I’ve started talking to him. 

Reeta caught me talking to the painting once and was nice enough not to say anything. I was begging for advice. For a sign, for anything. Should I move back home? Should I move to Russia? Change my name? Disappear?

That’s why I agreed to cover the rent—Reeta knows too much. She glimpsed the trajectory I’m on, getting along with paintings better than human beings. That’s the part I didn’t tell the group. It’s too embarrassing to talk about.

“I told your mom about Texas,” Reeta says. “She seemed surprised. I didn’t know it was a secret.”

I tap my fingertips together, thinking, stalling. It’s give-and-take, these relationships. Here’s something else I’ve learned: friends keep secrets, while enemies leak them.

Reeta lifts the e-cigarette to her lips, then freezes. “My coat’s at the cleaners. Can I borrow yours?”

My mother’s voice is soft as a rose petal, as thin as almond milk. “Dallas would be closer,” she says.

“No, it wouldn’t.”

“Than Toronto?” She pauses. “I guess not. It would just feel closer.”

There’s the sound of ice rattling in a tumbler. She slurps her drink. 

“Are you happy, sweetie?” she says. 

“Not really.”

“You could have your old room back. Would that make you happy?”

“Probably not.”

She sighs. “Your father would have killed me if I convinced you to move to Texas.”

“Don’t worry, you’re not convincing me.”

“Whatever makes you happy. You know that’s all I care about, right? Whatever makes you happy.” She pauses. “Canada’s just so expensive.”

“So come visit. Your dollar’s worth more right now.”

“Yes. But doesn’t Canada just seem more expensive?”

Voices envelop me like balloons, drowning out my breath, my heartbeat. Across from me, James’s forehead beads with sweat, beneath the canopy of his hair. He lowers his head and dabs it with a cloth napkin. Seeing him sweat is off-putting, like seeing a single stiletto on the side of the road. I’ve never seen him sweat before.

“If the food comes out wrong, who’s going to say something, you or me?” he says.

It must be a joke, because he’s smirking; but he’s not looking at me. He hasn’t looked at me this whole time.

“You sure are quiet,” he says, refolding his napkin.

I study the freckles on his face. He’s not looking up; it’s safe for me to look.

“Why’d you join the group?” I ask.

His eyes lock behind me, someone walking left, then someone walking right. They keep tennis-matching back and forth. “I wanted to improve my life and the quality of my relationships,” he says, gaze fixed above.

I grip my fork and keep my eyes on him.

We discuss our main courses, Caesar salad and lamb. We agree on “quite good” and “not too heavy,” and I wonder if either of us is telling the truth. Then James rests his hands on the table, right where his plate used to be. 

“Can I ask you a question?” He looks serious. The waiter starts to come over, but instantly flees. “Did you say yes because you wanted to? Or because you didn’t want to say no?”

Behind him, a bearded man looms. He’s alone, seated at the bar. He has white hair and a regal look about him. Like Santa Claus, or maybe Zeus. The man catches me looking and I feel exposed, like I’m on stage. Like I’m required to do something. I raise my hand in a little wave. He grins, baring his wine-stained teeth across the room. He raises his glass. Mine is empty, but I lift it too, in solidarity. Because we’re the same, of course: the bearded man, Claudio, and me. We’re four sigma off the mean, in undergraduate statistics. We’re outliers, required for a normal distribution.

If James pays the bill, I’ll probably sleep with him. Not out of obligation, or guilt, or to rectify a power imbalance. Nothing as simple as that.

James glances over his shoulder. “You know that guy?”

There’s no point in analyzing determinism. It makes as much sense as James’s tie, which appears to be made out of wood. “No,” I say. I signal the waiter for another round. “About as well as I know you.”