Bad Mood Camp by Alison Bullock

Marjorie’s having dinner with a few friends on Newbury Street. They’re at a cute little sidewalk bistro with red umbrellas and lots of string lights. Marjorie’s telling about her recent stay at a wellness retreat.  Bad Mood Camp, as it’s popularly known, was featured in both  O Magazine and Goop. Even though the waiting list is a mile long, she finagled her way in through her chiropractor, who knows somebody who knows somebody.

Marjorie lowers her voice. “When you first arrive, you’re outfitted with a wardrobe for the week. The clothes are all incredibly comfortable. No tight waistbands. Fabrics so soft you want to rub your cheek on them. And they look pretty good on you, too.”

“Only pretty good?” Alexis asks.

“That’s the first lesson of Bad Mood Camp,” Marjorie explains. “Looking pretty good is good enough.”

The women nod. They’re thinking.  Someone bumps the table, sending a pink tremor through the Cosmos.

“I hear mirrors aren’t allowed,” Brenda says.

“No mirrors. No scales. No cell phones.” Marjorie confirms. “It’s like boot camp. You arrive. You get outfitted. You get your schedule.”

Courtney rubs her hands together. “I have to admit, I love a schedule.”

There is consensus that a bit of structure can be reassuring.

“Do you get to pick your own itinerary?” Alexis asks.

“Nope. They don’t assume you know what’s good for you at Bad Mood Camp. They make you try things.”

Brenda arches an eyebrow. “Let me guess… forced exercise?” She’s the only one at the table without a Fitbit.

Marjorie explains that yes, there are morning walks that get the heart pumping, but nothing too rigorous. It’s more about getting outside and into the natural light. “They go way beyond physical exercise there.” 

“Of course,” the women murmur, like they’d assume nothing less.

Their waitress, who’s previously introduced herself as Destinee with two ee’s, arrives. Her arms are laced with tattoos. She takes out her pad and pencil and asks the women what they want.

“For dinner?” Courtney says.

Nobody’s ready so Destinee leaves and Marjorie continues on. “Every day you go to something called ‘sensory lab’ where each of the five senses gets explored. For smell, you might wander through the kitchen while they’re baking banana bread, or you might play in the dirt until soil gets under your fingernails.”

Alexis, whose nails are always perfectly manicured, wrinkles her nose at that.

“For touch, you might go to the puppy barn and snuggle with these adorable rescue puppies they have.”

There is a chorus of awws. “That would work for smell too,” Courtney points out, rather practically. Everyone agrees that puppy breath is a top-ten smell.

“Along with baby’s heads,”  Alexis adds.  “They should add those to the sensory lab.”

“What parent is gonna let their baby’s head get smelled by a bunch of randos?” Brenda says.

Ten minutes pass.  Destinee returns to take their order. “I never know what I want,” someone complains.  The women choose impulsively.  Four saffron risotto croquettes. The place is famous for them.

Marjorie keeps going. “For sound, they have a listening lab, where you make a mood-boosting playlist. Talking Heads. Tchaikovsky. Whatever you’re into. They make you drive around and jam to it. Windows down.”

“Like when we were teenagers,” Courtney says. “Driving with no destination.”

There’s a lot of reminiscing of beater cars with missing bumpers. Cars that couldn’t go over fifty, or couldn’t go in reverse.

Then comes the brainstorming of songs– U2’s “Beautiful Day”, The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven”.

Destinee returns with a basket of bread and makes a suggestion of her own– Bobby Darin’s “Beyond the Sea”. It’s a great song, but  a bit unexpected coming from Destinee, with her arm tattoos. People are full of surprises.

Alexis has some unanswered questions. “Is it true, they give you job assignments?”

“Yes, but not the kind you might imagine. Nothing like taking out the trash. The jobs are more interpersonal. For example, everyone has to work on being a really good listener.  They put you in a room with someone and you have to ask them questions. They sit in the talking chair and you’re in the listening chair. You can’t interrupt or share about yourself. You’re just supposed to ask follow-up questions and be totally present. And if you can’t think of anything to say, you sit in silence and consider them.”

“Whatever that means,” Brenda mutters, but only half-heartedly.

“This goes on for a full hour,” Marjorie adds.

“Jeez,” says Alexis.

“I know.  Every single person who sits in the talking chair winds up crying. The counselors tell you that at the end.”

“I wonder why,” Courtney says.

“I’m not sure. I guess people just really want to be heard. And it happens so rarely that when it finally does, it can be… I don’t know… a bit overwhelming.”

The table goes almost completely still. The women are trying to soak in the thought.

Even Brenda, who, until recently, has been soaking bread in a saucer of oil and red pepper flakes, pauses to reflect. “How’s the food?” she asks finally, a wad of focaccia in her mouth.

“Good. Everything’s fresh and they let natural ingredients speak for themselves. On the last  day they send everyone to a farmer’s market with thirty bucks and you have to spend all of it. You bring back whatever looks good and everybody combines ingredients and prepares the meal together. Like a barn-raising type situation.”

There is a collective sigh. As if on cue, Destinee arrives with their food. The women stare down at their fancy puff pastries, swimming in rich sauce, suddenly aware of what they wanted all along. Something simpler but with more sustenance.

Photograph © Anne Jones Photography

Alison Bullock is a writer from Massachusetts whose short fiction has appeared in Peatsmoke, The Coachella Review, Sledgehammer Lit, Bright Flash Literary Review, The Writing Disorder, Every Day Fiction, and elsewhere. You can follow her on Twitter @AlisonB37801592