Tired of how much the temperature of her psyche changes in response to ambiance, she installs a thermostat. From the cockle of her heart it resides in, this piece of modulatory technology immediately delivers on the manufacturer’s promises, working just as she hoped it would to prevent the jarring, irritating temperature swings that have surged through her all too frequently thanks to her office’s workplace culture of swapping hot takes on chilling news stories. Now, instead of making her blood boil, her coworkers’ bombastic comments elicit only a mild flush lasting mere seconds.
Impressed with the comfortably warm interiority of her stabilized meta-physiology, she tests out different temperature setpoints, curious how they’ll feel. After several days of incrementally dialing down the thermostat with its remote control, she discovers that by maintaining a low baseline temperature, she gives off a frosty demeanor that wards off verbose coworkers. No longer is her workspace frequented by stressed and opinionated colleagues seeking sympathy—or just an outlet, in many cases. It’s as though the thermostat has altered the psychological weather patterns around her, blowing away the office’s high-pressure systems and warm fronts of copious hot air. Best of all, this thermostat setting handily accomplishes what her brusqueness could not: put an end to Swen’s rambling recounts of the familial drama absurdly omnipresent in the life of his roommate, someone she has never met and has no reason to ever care about.
Hot on the heels of this improvement comes another: the cool detachment granted by the thermostat makes her better at her job as an Inconsistency Mitigator, an eliminator of psychological incongruences. Feeling her way more rapidly than ever through tangles of emotions, memories and thoughts in clients’ minds, she swiftly and precisely locates the incongruences her psycho-scope has roughly charted out, the sources of cognitive dissonance she must excise. Undistracted by sentimental warmth and icy shudders they previously elicited, she works her dexterous, discerning touch to parse through mental realms, much as she’d use her keen, nimble eyes to speed read magazines. When she finds the troubling piece of mind she’s after, she extracts it with an ease she had thought only theoretically possible. In her firm grasp, the incongruence is now mostly a thing—an object with texture, temperature, density, resistivity—that will at most momentarily sigh hot breath or waft cool breeze upon her heart, any ability to inflame or chill curtailed. This state of sensation uncomplicated by reaction affords her unwavering clarity and focus while she determines and performs the necessary cuts. She also gains a new patience for the removal part of the procedure that follows—a willingness to maneuver the severed piece of self slowly and steadily through webs of thought and crisscrossed memories. As she ferries it out, prolonged contact with the incongruence doesn’t provoke any of the profuse sweating or bouts of shivering she would steel herself against. But occasionally, the intricate details of the psychological fragment prod curiosity while she holds on to it. A retrospective sympathy towards short-tempered parents incites wonder about its combination of faded pain and fresh commiseration. The unearned confidence conferred by prettiness bemuses her with its boldness backed by a history of ample affection and adoration.
Then she can’t help herself, and she takes home the incongruences that pique her attention, to leisurely consider the disruptive memories, ingrained beliefs and misguided ideas plucked from clients’ minds. This seems to her merely a minor deviation from company protocol, which stipulates that sources of cognitive dissonance must be disposed of onsite; she is just disposing of them offsite, without compromising client privacy. Equipped with this rationalization, she goes from apprehensively pocketing Quindy’s discomfort with praise to swiftly swaddling Pyrwick’s obsessive sibling rivalry in her scarf without a second thought only a couple days later. Soon, she has settled into an end-of-workday routine of smuggling out everything that intrigues her, breezily leaving work with this bounty hidden at the bottom of her tote bag.
In the evenings, she reclines on her sofa or deck chair and indulges in the embezzled psychological nuggets, feeling one after another, each jostling her metaphysiology with the potent emotion it contains until the thermostat takes corrective action. Taken in rapid succession, they rock her psyche as though making it a manic metronome arm.
One night, she revels in the jagged jolts of fierce heat imparted by affection, defensiveness, jealousy, indignation, yearning, annoyance, insecurity, anxiety—a surfeit of fervid emotions perversely luxurious, sure to leave the unregulated heart a hot mess. Lying in bed later, with sleep creeping into her, she feels settled, as though her clients’ memories and thoughts have roughened the surface of the sea her heart floats upon but cannot budge its anchor resting on the ocean floor far below.
These surreptitious acts of vicarious agitation become her preferred pastime. Her pass to the climbing gym goes unused. The TV stays off. The plot of the novel she had been reading hibernates in the book that lies on the coffee table untouched. The entire living room enters a state of stasis, except for the shoebox she has left beside her sofa. Adding to and withdrawing from it the fruits of her workplace thievery, the shoebox acts like a psychological candy bowl with a contents that goes through cycles of building up and dwindling down. Mostly building up.
When the shoebox is brimming with fragments from her clients’ minds, she knows exactly what to do: take a vacation to experience these incongruences on the verdant banks of Sastalama’s swift rivers. She hasn’t been back for a while, and it would be refreshing to have some solo time there, free from familial obligations of dining with aunts and uncles, shopping for groceries and clothes with her mom, evenings out with cousins.
Barely a week later, she’s deplaning into that familiar, quaint airport, feeling as though she’s gone back in time. Into that maze of waiting areas, mini food courts, souvenir shops and baggage claim carrousels; these long, bright corridors remain much as they were when she first saw them as a kindergartener, sleepy while she held her mother’s hand down the jet bridge and into a linoleum-floored vestibule. As it was then, the air is warm with that unmistakable touch of humidity. Filled with an unexpected sense of homecoming, she’s eager to breeze into the sun-soused, arborous little metropolis she wandered in her youth.
Instead, she languishes by a baggage claim conveyor belt, until all the other passengers have filtered away and she is left with the dread that she has lost the psychological trove contained in her suitcase—or worse, that it has ended up in the hands of someone who will set off a chain of events ultimately revealing her unscrupulous appropriation of private property. Worried as she is, there is nothing she can do besides report her issue to a sympathetic airline representative who assures her every effort will be made to track down the missing luggage.
Then, encumbered by only her backpack, travel fatigue and residual annoyance, she sets off for downtown, ready to embark on a street-food crawl and indulge in the comfort of savory snacks. An express train streaks her through the verdant hills and small towns to place her in a cityscape that’s active but not frenetic or even crowded, simply alive with mid-day traffic flowing on its streets and office workers on their lunch breaks milling about the sidewalks.
She makes her way down long blocks punctuated by food stands and open-air eateries wafting the fragrance of spices, thoroughly seasoned broths and frying oil. Breezes thick with cilantro-infused butter sweep by and evoke her fondness for the region’s griddled flatbreads, a predilection that quickly pushes up against concerns about the perils of consuming carbs. Which puzzles her since she’s never been conflicted about food in this way. To turn her attention away from the back-and-forth shoving of food cravings against health-conscious thoughts, she looks at the little storefronts she passes, their windows showing off stationary, handmade crafts and kitchenware. But the delightful distraction they bring is short-lived. Deep within her psyche, the tingling temptation to shoplift for a cheap thrill grinds up against aspirations to be a model citizen. Annoyed by this emotional friction of impulse against ethics, she heads towards a part of the city that won’t pit gratification against ideals.
Leaving behind the thoroughfares of the city, she feels her thoughts quieting as she approaches the river. On the grassy banks, she sits on a bench, backpack beside her, eyes gazing at the myriad little undulations of the river’s blue currents. This constant, lightly rambunctious flow soothes her as though washing away all the earlier thoughts.
The solitary serenity soon recalls middle school “missions” to build psychological self-sufficiency, like afternoons alone to conquer loneliness. A moment later, pride in the success of these missions is butting heads with the awareness that emotional interdependence is necessary in close relationships. Along with this clash comes the awareness that it isn’t between her youth and her adulthood; it’s Quindy’s past versus Quindy’s present.
The nature of these intrusive thoughts is clear now: her memories of her clients’ psychological hangups—the ones she experienced at home—are being evoked by this city that’s so entwined with the summers of her childhood. Her analytical reasoning claims control over her thinking and tells her that if she were at the office, the solution would be simple, only a matter of using her tools to locate and remove the offending memories.
So, can I improvise a work setup here? she asks herself.
Her thoughts work diligently to answer this question, determining possible steps that can be taken to see into then reach into her mind: buy a prosumer-grade psycho-scope, forge a prescription for mental dilator, sterilize her hotel bathroom with rubbing alcohol. The hypothetical plan steadily gains plausibility, until she hears her mother’s voice telling her, “Try taking a nap,” as though by telepathy. It’s just a memory, of course, an echo in her mind. Still, the suggestion has sway and conjures the enticing idea of checking into her hotel and napping on clean sheets. But is it worth the risk of sleeping too long and worsening her jet lag?
Jet lag—didn’t Mom like to “remedy” it with mindgrooming? Though maybe that was simply a distraction from the fatigue.
Nonetheless, mindgrooming. She hasn’t given much thought to this traditional mental hygiene practice. Modern methods like her profession of inconsistency mitigation are more precise, more effective. But mindgrooming is worth a shot. Though unlikely to dislodge the problematic memories, it should loosen them, allowing her mind to more easily slough them off later. And she hasn’t had her thoughts combed for a while—that always feels great, especially once the tangles are out.
With the abundance of groomeries in the city, she has her pick of several that lie along a street only a block from the river. One with a banner touting a satisfaction guarantee draws her over for a peek through the window of its front door. Just inside this house turned mini mental spa is a modest wooden reception desk. The proprietor or host sitting behind it looks up and waves. That makes the decision for her.
After a short wait by the reception desk, a groomer has her ensconced in a compact, candle-lit room redolent of sandalwood and lilies, her body suspended in a hammock—like she’s floating in the lush fog that hovers in an enchanted forest at dusk.
“All right, let’s start with deep breaths,” the groomer says in the accent that has faded from her parents’ voices.
With relaxed rhythmicity, she fills and empties her lungs, the room’s aromatic air flowing in and out of her nasal passages as the groomer caresses her mind.
“The atmosphere isn’t warming you much,” he observes. “We can change the scents if you don’t like them.”
“No, they’re great,” she murmurs. “It’s my thermostat.”
“Ah, one of those. It’s best to turn it off for this session.”
Accepting this recommendation, she taps the tip of her index finger over her heart three times, the shutdown gesture she hasn’t used for weeks.
Her psyche warms dramatically, a rapid escalation in temperature she hasn’t felt since the thermostat’s installation.
“So you’re a Sensitive,” he remarks.
“Sensitive… to what?”
“Things around you.”
“Yes, that’s why I have a thermostat.”
“That can be helpful—especially these days.”
“It’s practically indispensable. I don’t know how I’d survive otherwise.”
“Survive,” he echoes with considered thoughtfulness. “Well, that’s exactly what sensitivity allowed our ancestors to do.”
“Oh. I just thought it was something that runs in my family.”
“Indeed, it is something. Something precious in your family and in many families here that allowed generations before us to keep warm with mere sparks of joy during emotionally lean times. We wouldn’t be here without it.”
A soft glow spreads through her, followed by a gentle untangling of thoughts.
Why didn’t my mom and dad tell me?
She half expects the groomer to answer, bestowing another revelation, but he only rubs at a taut knot of anxiety.
Some things about yourself, about your heritage are best discovered for yourself, in their own time, her thoughts tell her.
With this comes an implication: the days that lie before her could be a time of discovery.
Unmistakably, an invitation.