The water table lured a stream of children to its side. A large rectangle on legs, it stood by the window with funnels and tugboats floating on its surface. But the liquid itself was the biggest draw. Pouring it, feeling it, doing anything with water would lull these three-year-olds into its flow.
Today only Nina stood by the water, her black hair framing a solemn face. She filled a plastic cup with water and held it up in the air.
“This is milk,” she pronounced. She poured out the water and filled the cup again. “This is poison.”
Nina emptied and filled that cup over and over again in her own hypnotic rhythm. Another girl brought a baby doll over to wash in the water. Nina didn’t miss a beat.
“This is milk. This is poison.” She spoke out loud to no one, but I was listening.
After the seventh cup, I spoke. “This one is milk, and it is good to drink. That one is poison, and it can hurt you.”
Nina darted away. From the other side of the room, she gave me a sideways glance. She stayed as far away from me as she could get, while I bit my upper lip.
What had I done?
I thought my words would be harmless, a mere repetition of hers with a millimeter of meaning attached. I had hoped they would let her know I heard her. How did I alarm her instead?
She had been pouring poison in and out of her cup until my words stopped her, as if the poison turned real when I spoke. I should never have linked play with harm. It was weeks before she would come near me again.
I first met Nina on the second day of school. Sitting at a wooden table with a puzzle of a panda bear in front of her, she patiently turned each ear around to fit it into its slot. She finished the bear and moved on to a flower garden, quietly putting wooden leaves into holes, while other children said tearful goodbyes to their parents. She noticed me watching but did not return my smile.
She intrigued me, this quiet child. Some days Nina arrived at school early, handed her mother her jacket, and went off to play. Other times she negotiated the long stretch of sidewalk from the corner to the school all alone and burst into tears at the door. I imagined being Nina’s size, moving between tall people walking fast and children holding parents’ hands. Why had she been left to fend for herself?
At school she had been waking up sobbing in the middle of her nap. Nothing would console her. Her teachers thought maybe she was having nightmares. They asked me to meet with her mother about it. I was glad to have a chance to find out more.
“What do we know about her?” I asked the teachers
before the meeting.
“They’re from Cambodia, you know.”
“Now you know everything I know. Except the mother’s very smart. She’s studying to be a doctor.”
Her mother came in during her lunch hour just a few days later. She was working in medical records while studying for her MCATs.
“Nightmares? That is ridiculous! They should concentrate on what she’s learning, not on nightmares.”
“How does Nina sleep at home?” I asked.
“She wakes up crying and comes over to my bed.” She laughed. “I get up and walk away.”
Her laugh froze my questions. “Night must be hard,” I concluded.
“Her father is in Cambodia.” She looked at the door.
I looked toward the door too. “Will he be joining you?”
“Oh yes.” She laughed again.
What did her laugh mean? Did he say he was coming, but that was a joke? Maybe the joke was on me for asking.
She turned from me to the clock on the wall. It was time to go.
I watched her walk quietly through the doorway. It was May, but the air felt cold.
Nina had a friend named Stephanie. They liked to play dress-up together, winding their way across the room, draped in pink and green scarves. When Stephanie went off to play with another child, Nina bit her on the arm. Leaving was some kind of poison.
One evening, after I finished a late meeting at the day care center, I heard a despondent cry. I followed the sound to the basement. It was coming from the after-hours room, where after six o’clock, children of all ages waited for their parents.
There sat Nina in the middle of the floor, sobbing, while older children raced around her. She looked up at me, standing in the doorway, and put up her arms. In a strange place, I was a familiar friend. Nina quieted as I held her. When her mother arrived that evening, Nina was still on my lap.
I suggested that we meet. “How about next Thursday?”
She wrote down the time.
Thursday came, and I waited. After twenty minutes I figured the meeting wasn’t happening. I wasn’t entirely
surprised, since I hadn’t seen Nina at school that week.
I checked with her teacher. “Is she sick?”
“The mother put her in a different center.” Her teacher gave me a half smile. “Don’t worry, it’s got nothing to do with you.”
Nothing? Nothing shouldn’t make me feel like a pariah. As I moved toward Nina, she moved away. When she came closer, her mother made a U-turn that knocked me off the path.
I sat down beside the water table and watched two children float plastic boats. Where was Nina? Was she pouring milk and poison somewhere else? Would anyone decode the meaning of those cups of water?
I now had some clues. Sometimes people take care of you, but sometimes they walk away. Sometimes they read to you, but sometimes they laugh at you. Nina could fill as many cups as she liked with poison without feeling the pain that could come from people.
Her mother alluded to a similar story. People may say they are coming to join you, but they don’t. Leavings are a piece of sarcasm to unravel. Having been hurled out as part of the joke, I had my own dose of the danger of getting anywhere close to close. I could only wonder what lay behind.
What terrifying events might Nina’s mother have lived through as a young child in Cambodia? Who cared for her, and who did she leave behind? I wondered what kinds of memories filled the moments when she laughed at Nina’s tears.
I never found out. I only knew what Nina knew: milk and poison.
- Ellen Luborsky, PhD, has been in private practice with patients of all ages for decades, but she began her career by doing play therapy in a day care center. She has a doctorate in clinical psychology from NYU and did psychoanalytic training at the NYU Postdoctoral Program and the Stephen Mitchell Center. She assisted in Daniel Stern’s research lab while he was investigating attunement, a process she applies to her clinical work. Her study of creative writing with Grace Paley inspired her to use stories as a way to share her therapeutic journeys. She will be sharing some of those stories at WCSPP in a presentation called My Teacher Has Your Voice. Others were awarded prizes by NSYPA. She also assisted her father, Dr. Lester Luborsky, with psychotherapy research and co-authored Research and Psychotherapy: The Vital Link with him.
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