My relationship with the woman who comes after me at therapy.
It started with eye contact. And no this is not what you think—one of those “connected eyes on the subway moment and wondered if our lives would be forever intertwined even though I’m fairly content” moments. That may be my next piece. No, this woman is probably a half-generation ahead of me–a safe distance.
She usually has papers/magazines on either side of her on the couch, which means she hasn’t fully embraced the digital thing. Slight bags under her eyes; a Jewish bubbe-esque nose that’s not large but just a little curved and time-worn…maybe a touch waxy like plastic fruit. Our therapist is Jewish. I know this not because I’ve ever discussed it with her, but because she will sometimes let me know when she will have to miss a session, or a series of sessions, and then those dates just happen to line up perfectly with Jewish holidays. So it’s this unspoken thing we know. I wondered once if she ever took actual vacations, and at one point she told me she’d be gone for a longer stretch, on both sides of a weekend!—but I looked it up and it turned out it was just Simchat Torah.
My co-therapee has a scarf, spectacles (I believe they’re spectacles), above which she peers at me when I come out, in a soft, non-judgmental and maybe slightly maternal smile. I’m not sure if she has kids. She could. Or she might be someone who has reached this point in life without—and mostly she’s just fine with that and sometimes she thinks ‘what if?’ Hence therapy. We all think ‘What If?’ And a purple parka—not a natural purple like peacock or iris but a lighter, mauve purple that is the hallmark of a Century 21 or Woodies, if Woodies were still around. Her hair is mostly blond, with maybe dark underneath. It seems she’s recreated the color she most liked her hair to be but doesn’t always bother with the upkeep.
So it started with eye contact and a little knowing smile, that always has a touch of “what are you in here for?” which people in a therapist’s office always silently ask of each other.
I go to therapy before work. How is she able to take this later mid-morning spot? Is she retired? Is she a stay-at-home person. Does she blog? Is she Chocolate-Covered Katie?? No, that’s a pert young Reese Witherspoon-esque beauty…or is she?! Could someone stay that thin when they’re always coming up with new chocolate recipes? Really?! And would you have time to come up with a million ways to use applesauce and almond flour to make your fudgy brownies only 500 calories each instead of 550 if you were young and pert? You’d have that much time? Or…would you be an older lady in a mauve parka who reads paper magazines, goes to therapy during morning work hours on a Wednesday and then goes home to research and write up HUNDREDS of recipes for baking chocolate and chocolate substitutes? And if that were the case, mightn’t you find a shutterstock photo to put up as your picture, of a pretty, Reese-Witherspoon-esque smiling gal, since you know you’ll already have the female/baking enthusiast/gay/cultured crowd, but the demographic you really need in order to go viral is the teenage male hetero crowd! Then again, if you were my friend, the mauve parka lady, would you be that savvy about your online metrics and audience? Or would that be your son who works on that for you (Or in this case maybe your nephew or niece)?? Hmmm.
Anyways, it started out with eye contact. A smiling sigh. A kind of, here we both are. What’s that Paul Simon song, “say aren’t we in the same spot at the same time on the very same day?” There’s no hiding what we’re doing here–saying we are meeting a friend or have a ‘thingy’ to go to before-hand. We are both at the shrink’s office and there’s just no getting around that. So there’s an automatic relief. A conspiracy. Does this woman like me as a person? Do I remind her of someone? Does she feel a kind of need to take care of me and let me know it’s OK? Is her name Beatrice? Katherine (hence Chocolate-Covered “Katie”)? But Katherine is not very Jewish and that would throw off some of that speculation. Let’s say Beatrice or Rachel. Actually Beatrice isn’t very Jewish at all! Didn’t Dante write all of his poetry to Beatrice? Well you can bet she wasn’t Jewish! So where did I get Beatrice? And actually Rachel is too Jewish, almost like you’re trying to overcompensate. The truth is I have no idea what her name is, just like I have no idea if she has kids or if she likes me at all. The truth is I know very little about her, other than that she sees my same shrink, has a parka, reads, and is extremely patient. She’s always just sitting there on the couch, looking up from a magazine, even if I’ve gone several minutes long. It’s the total opposite of the look you get at Starbucks if you get to the front and don’t know what you want.
And I will say our relationship has grown. I recently started to return the smile. Or at first I nodded, as if to say, “Yes, I have received your smile and acknowledge the similarity of our circumstances, at least in terms of our choice of therapy.” But at some point a nod, after maybe like twenty weeks, starts to feel a little impersonal. So I added a smile back. Not a big booming smile, but one appropriate in measure to the one she’s been giving me. ‘I have received your smile and I return your smile because we know we are co-conspirators of the same cult, and our particular leader is a soft-spoken Jewish woman of 30s/40s range who, when we might meekly ask when would be a good time to talk about stopping, returns the question with, “Why do you think you’re asking this now?”
This morning I said “Hi.” Not just a smile, but a “hi.” A month ago we weren’t talking. Now we are saying “Hi.” Next month we’ll probably be talking about “This is Us” and having other cultural experiences together. I actually saw a billboard today for a clothing company on the way to work, “RESPECT ALL CULTURES,” at 36th and 8th Ave, and I thought, that would make a great slogan for a yogurt company! My parents always thought I should go into advertising. An ex-girlfriend was told the same thing by her parents. At one point we wanted to open up an advertising company called “Our parents always told us we should go into advertising,” but the relationship didn’t last long enough. Clearly I did not take my parents’ advice. I actually didn’t go into any ‘thing’ thing, where you go to an office and work regular hours and produce results. I write and do a million other things that tend to encourage chaos. I wonder, if I had gone into advertising and had a steady job, and was more (air quotes) productive, if I wouldn’t be at therapy so much, talking about how I want to be more engaged and productive. But if that were the case, I also would’ve never met my friend sitting on the couch when I come out, whom I’m now saying “hi” to and progressing further with, and of course I would have never written this. Which means that my whole life has been leading me to this moment. It’s nice when things feel so meant to be.
What does she talk about in there? Does she get chastised by the therapist for trying too hard to be a ‘good’ analyzant, instead of just being herself? Is she made to see how she’s so concerned with “making it” that it gets in the way of her actually making it? Or, is she worried that her cat talks to her but refuses to do so when other people are around? It could be any of those things. Life is very hard and very sad, and ends badly, so there’s always something to talk about. Is therapy working for her? She seems so relaxed before her session. Can she get any more relaxed after? Does our therapist spice up her life rather than calm it down? Does our therapist prefer listening to her or me for 45 minutes? Because you know she prefers one or the other. Therapists are human though they deny it.
I guess the most important question is, does my friend here feel like she’s becoming happier from therapy? Or…maybe an even more important question is, “Why does everyone have to be happy?”
Why do we just accept this as everybody’s goal in life? Aren’t people different? Let’s imagine, to use a hypothetical, that a cat decides to go to therapy because he can’t stop chasing mice. Nature or nurture, whatever—he can’t stop chasing mice. Through therapy, he questions why he wants mice so badly. What is it going to bring him once he catches the mouse? And once he does, won’t he just want the next mouse? Is the construct he’s created for himself, “must get mouse,” working for him? In other words, is it making him more happy/successful or is it getting in the way of that happiness?
The cat goes to therapy for years, and it’s a very good shrink, who’s cured his friends of all kinds of things—crinkly plastic, yarn, dog food, and general curiosity. He starts to feel different. He cleans himself up a little and takes care of his whiskers. He puts on a suit and goes to work. If he thinks he wants a mouse, he just gently sets that thought aside. He meditates and starts doing daily writing exercises. He tells all of his friends how great he feels, and how the introspection is opening up new worlds to him and breaking him out of cycles. Every now and then he wants a mouse, but he gets better at not engaging with that voice (which of course comes from trying to be as successful as his father and isn’t really his voice anyway). He stays in therapy, because you can always, always grow, and lives a very happy, contented life. But if he does all this, and even if he feels happy and more engaged with the world and cat humanity, is that happiness tinged by a little dishonesty? And that pleasant and contented cat, who dresses well and no longer thinks so much about mice, who no longer feels the need to “win” at everything and stand out, who has finally stopped “chasing” whatever it is he was chasing—because it was never really about mice—if all of that is the case, would he really still be considered a cat?
I wonder if my therapy friend thinks she’s getting more fulfilled. Or just less hungry.