After five sessions my therapist suggests we stop meeting and the timing couldn’t be worse. Today is the day I planned to open up to Gayle and tell her something about my life, an early trauma from second grade, getting my tongue stuck on the frozen handle of the school’s door. I licked the handle on a dare, and left behind a patch of skin the size of an anchovy. The pain brought tears to my eyes, and I had a lisp for weeks.
Gayle takes her seat next to the desk, and is wearing a khaki skirt and a white blouse. She tells me I may have legitimate issues for therapy, but also says, “I feel I’m pressuring you to talk.” She must see the blood draining from my face, because she follows this with “I would be willing to continue, though, if we could delve into some new territory.”
“Yes, Phil, what goes on each day. Maybe you could begin keeping a diary. I’ve done this with other patients and it’s been quite helpful. We’d then have material that would allow us to move forward.”
“A diary? Great idea. Boy, you had me worried¾I thought you were throwing me out.”
I’ve been seeing Gayle for “existential anxiety.” (I saw this term on the jacket of a self-help book, though I’m not sure what it means.) Even though I’m surrounded by coworkers, family and unreliable friends, I have a dire need to be sharing my private life with a special human being. I’ve joined the ranks of the millions before me, seeking this release through structured chitchat. I come to each session, ready to reveal the experiences that have left marks upon my soul, like when I lost my virginity in ninth grade, that dreadful night of wine coolers and getting snow wedged into my butt crack. Unfortunately this readiness breaks down as soon as I enter Gayle’s office. The anxiety of opening up ties my tongue and I fall into superficial conversation about my favorite brands of lunchmeat.
So far, my only complaint with Gayle, other than her habit of coiling rubber bands around her finger, is that she’s refused to discuss any type of diagnosis. She said I might use it as a crutch, and I wanted to say, Isn’t that the whole idea? A diagnosis may explain why balancing my checkbook is a two-hour ordeal and why I can spend thirty minutes picking lint off a sweater. So with books on psychiatry, I sat at my kitchen table to search for something that fit my personality. It was like thumbing through an L.L. Bean catalogue for the perfect spring jacket. The only condition that came close was something called “compulsive disorder.” I read that we compulsives were preoccupied with details, excessively devoted to work and noticeably stingy. Everything fit like an old pair of Levis, but stingy seemed way off the mark. Just last week I loaned a book to a coworker at Walgreen’s. Of course I asked him daily how the book was coming and when I could expect it back, and I reminded him not to fold the corners of pages, but I did make the loan.
“Keeping a diary can be fun,” Gayle says, with a sudden burst of enthusiasm. “Think of it as a collage of sorts.”
“This is such a good idea,” I say, wiggling in my seat. “I kept diaries in high school and college. Maybe I could bring them in some time.”
“Phil, that’s a nice idea, but let’s focus on the present. Maybe you could bring your new diary to your next appointment. We’d have something to discuss.”
I love that I’m working with Gayle on this project. While taking my twelve-minute showers I have imaginary chats with her, and I also keep a notebook of things we can talk about. Aside from the tongue incident, today I planned to bring up the sanitation of fast food. The idea entered my mind several days ago, when I couldn’t stop thinking about fast food workers masturbating in their cars on their lunch breaks. I had visited a McDonalds and witnessed a teenager grabbing the behind of a female coworker. It wasn’t a playful squeeze¾he had her ass in his hand!
Gayle then asks about my assignment from last session, initiating conversation with one new person each day to improve my social skills. I’m not a seeker of attention, and at thirty-seven don’t see myself changing. My last relationship ended nine months and sixteen days ago. Colleen, a telemarketer with an endearing lisp, took our two cats and all of our acquaintances when she exited my life. She claimed I was too neurotic, even more than her mother, a charming woman I often met for lunch. I now spend most nights with a nineteen-inch TV, watching teams of decorators ruining other people’s homes with scraps of bamboo and gallons of pukey green paint.
I tell Gayle about talking to my neighbor in the hallway. The woman has a friendly smile and gives me her old catalogues, and I’ve started to worry that we’re on our way to the quagmire of quickie sex, and that one day she’ll tire of me and I’ll be forced to move from the building.
“I talked to her as we collected our mail,” I say, “and I now have her recipe for zucchini bread. She invited me in for coffee, but I said no.”
“Phil, this is real progress. And don’t worry about setting limitations. Have you made the bread? You could offer her a slice.”
“No, but I could try over weekend,” I say reluctantly. “But I’d have to buy eggs and zucchini.”
“You might add cinnamon and nutmeg to the recipe. Or even molasses.”
Gayle then begins a pointless story about visiting her grandmother as a child and baking sugar cookies. One might consider this banter a waste of time, but for a mere twenty-dollar co-pay I’m able to spend fifty minutes with Gayle, someone who’s too old to date but attractive enough that I keep thinking about it. Gayle bares a remarkable resemblance to Barbara Streisand, with her sloping nose and sexy neck. I’ve had an intense crush on Barbara since seeing her in the role of Fanny Brice, and recently created a collage of her album covers on my bedroom wall.
Gayle takes out her scheduling book, the signal that another session has come to an end. I’m excited to tell her about my tongue and the door handle¾I’ve never revealed this to anyone¾but she hands me a card with my next appointment and begins walking towards the door. I shout, “When I was in second grade¾” with a tinge of hysteria, and she raises her hand.
“Sorry, Phil,” she says, “the session is over.”
Driving home I brood like a child who’s been punished for saying a bad word. To cheer myself up, I slip in one of Barbara’s greatest hits CDs, and begin envisioning the pen and ink drawings that will grace my diary, along with the poems and long essays questioning my country’s politics. I’ve taken the day off from Walgreen’s—my first in six months¾and have lots of time to get started.
In my apartment I pull down the old diaries from the top shelf of a closet, tattered spiral notebooks in all sizes and hand-sewn models with my initials on their covers. On top is the very last diary from my freshman year in college, the year I stopping recording the minutiae of my life. (This was around the time I discovered the joys of heavy drinking and bong hits, which dulled my enthusiasm immeasurably.) The diary’s cover contains a photograph of a monkey searching its fur for fleas. I must’ve been clairvoyant at the time, as I now shower twice daily and have developed a habit of plucking gray hairs from my chest.
With the diary in hand I go to the kitchen to set up my workstation. I then rummage through kitchen drawers and a file cabinet, collecting materials needed for a successful literary endeavor. I’m pleased to find a stack of graph paper. I’m planning to chart my moods using a basic bar graph, something I’ve done for years and a habit that Colleen said was a sure sign of my being a nutcase. (She didn’t know it, but I charted her moods, too.) I continue to wander through my apartment for more supplies, occasionally returning to refrigerator to try to identify a funky smell that’s been lurking for days. With everything now ready I caress the green Sharpie left inside the monkey diary’s cover.
With the pen in hand I shake out my arms and stretch my neck muscles. I plan to begin with a commentary on the worth of such an undertaking, how it may reveal new layers of understanding and enhance my relationship with Gayle. This diary could set me free; I feel Freud watching over my shoulder. I’m ready for that very first sentence and draw a small star in the upper right-hand corner to get the juices flowing. But the pen’s fiber tip only scratches the paper; my sword of truth is now useless.
But sliding back my chair, I snicker¾I now have an excuse to go shopping!
I pull out of the apartment complex and slip in the soundtrack from Funny Girl. I often carry this CD back and forth for days and really should own multiple copies. Barbara begins to sing, “Don’t rain on My Parade” and I join in, tossing my head as though I had her tresses. I wear my red hair rather short, but while getting a trim yesterday I had the barber take more off the top. Gayle didn’t comment on the cut, but I’m certain I saw a glance when I talked about my neighbor. I’m beginning to think that Gayle and I have a bond that transcends a normal patient-therapist relationship, even though she can never remember the names of my kidnapped cats. But I accept her flaws. At the first session her blouse was ripped, just a small tear in an armpit. I didn’t mention this, and forgave her for not taking the time to mend the blouse the night before, while watching TV with her husband. Actually, I don’t think she has a husband. Her engagement ring is a prop and the wedding band is borrowed from her mother. Everyone knows therapists must do this sort of thing when meeting with their more appealing clients.
Office Max is quiet at 3:35. A few small-business types in cheap ties are looking for the lowest prices on manila envelopes, and an older man is testing office chairs. Leaving the pens for last I begin my review of each aisle, looking for the latest innovations in binders, desk lamps and three-hole paper punches. I stop along the way to straighten a stack of loose-leaf paper and smile sheepishly when I notice an employee watching.
I’m in the section of planners and calendars, when a sales clerk walks in my direction. She could be sixteen, someone working part-time for the summer, a girl whose father is trying to protect from the world of fast food that now concerns me. I’m not in the mood to be sociable and think, Why can’t you people just leave us alone? I immerse myself in the planners, comparing price and design, hoping this urchin will sense my interest and walk away. The ploy doesn’t work. She takes a step closer, an aggressive tactic that puts me on edge. Before I can go on the offensive, she introduces herself as Stacy, and then adds, “Are you finding what you need?”
Her voice has a forced, I’ve-received-training-to-do-this quality that climbs my spine. “No,” I say, “I’m good.”
“If something’s out of stock we can get it from another store. It only takes a day.”
“No thanks,” I say, “I’m just looking.”
“But are you finding what you need?”
I’m ready to suggest she sniff some Wite-Out and look her in the eye, surprised to find someone who could be wearing a Brownie uniform. Stacy’s has on the official Office Max polo shirt, a bit too large, and poorly fitting black pants no doubt purchased for the job. Her brown hair is pulled back with a comb-like headband, leaving a row of bangs that are impossibly thin. She’s flat chested and her face is filled with uncertainty, the kind of girl that won’t date until college.
To avoid making her cry I say, “Thanks for your help. I’m just looking.” I then focus on the product in front of me, an executive model with a Velcro clasp.
Stacy doesn’t move. “You said that twice.” Her voice is now edgy.
“What do you mean?”
“You said ‘I’m just looking’ twice. You don’t have to repeat yourself¾I’m not a child.”
The last thing I want is a tug-of-war with a neurotic teenager. Instead of telling Stacy to get lost, I simply walk away.
Within ninety seconds I’m standing in Aisle 3 and facing the Wall ‘O Pens. I shake off the confrontation with Stacy and narrow my search to the rollingball pens, the Rolex of retail writing instruments. The store management wisely leaves out pads of paper for testing, and I experiment with eight pens, laying down letters, numbers and stars, my favorite symbol. Three pens make the final cut, and I begin to assess their design, including weight, comfort and overall appearance. One pen is easily dismissed because it does not have the rubbery sheath where the pen is held; any pen connoisseur knows to look for this advancement. Without it, I may as well buy a Paper Mate.
I unscrew the bodies of the last two choices. Both have quality threads and meet my standards, so I identify their place of manufacture. Japan is preferred over China, Mexico over Japan, France over Mexico, and Germany over France, a ranking loosely based on office-supply intuition. Holding a pen up to the light I see that the one I’m drawn to has been manufactured in France¾what a surprise! I brush the tool against my cheek, enjoying the cool plastic, and then notice someone standing behind me. It’s Stacy.
“Are you finding what you need?” She’s now relaxed, her lips and tongue blue, as though she’s been gobbling candy in back.
“Yes, exactly what I need.”
“Are those good pens?” Stacy leans in to examine the rollingball in my hand.
“Yes, absolutely. Here, watch.” I write my name on a pad of paper with exaggerated flair, and we examine it. I hand her the pen and she writes out her own name, Stacy Andrews. We both smile when she finishes.
“Sorry for being such a bitch earlier,” she says. “It’s my first day.”
“You’re doing fine. I’ve had fifteen jobs and the first day is always the worst. Just ask a lot of questions. It kills time and gives the impression you’re ambitious.”
“Last summer I worked at Baskin Robbins and my arm hurt all the time. Then I got stung by a bee in the forehead and my face swelled up¾I’m allergic. I stayed home for two weeks and watched my little brother. It sucked big time.”
“That must’ve really hurt. When I was in second grade¾” I stop myself, not sure if I’m ready. Stacy looks up with shining green eyes, and I feel a boost of courage. “When I was in second grade, I touched my tongue on the door handle of my school, in the middle of winter. It stuck and some skin came off. Talk about pain.”
“Ewww, that’s gross.” Stacy follows this with a laugh that’s surprisingly sophisticated. I change my mind about her getting dates; her laugh will become a magnet for men. She talks about waiting to buy a car and the start of school in September. I tell her I’m a pharmacy tech at the Walgreen’s on Temple Street and invite her to come in for free “mind-altering drugs.” She laughs again, and I want to be twenty years younger.
I thank Stacy for her help and wish her luck. She tells me to enjoy my pen and to keep my tongue in my mouth. I practically skip to the checkout and chat with Nathan, my favorite cashier. He has a new tattoo on his forearm that says MR. LUCKY, and I wish I had one too. I carry my pen away from the register, and then look for Stacy as I exit through the automatic doors. She’s disappeared into the maze of the store, and I consider going back inside. But then everyone knows this is bad retail etiquette.
After a dinner of Stouffers teriyaki chicken, I sit at the kitchen table with a cup of herbal tea and the monkey diary. Barbara is singing in the other room,and I’ve made a list of the days’ experiences on a legal pad. My plan is to transfer this information to the diary, to avoid poor grammar and misspellings, and I’ve started with “burned two pieces of toast at breakfast.” I then finish with a full account of my conversation with Stacy, three paragraphs devoted to this delightful interaction.
It’s now 10:15, my usual bedtime, and I stretch like a cat. I then tap the pen against the legal pad, unscrew the barrel and remove the cartridge. Gazing inside, I recall Stacy’s laugh, her blue teeth and her apologizing for being a bitch. I’m pleased that I told her the tongue story, and wouldn’t have wanted to reveal it to anyone else, not even Gayle. I picture my therapist yawning after hearing my tale, and then see her as a stranger trying to interrupt my birthday party. With this in mind I turn to the first page and write, “Bought a new pen.” I then close the cover and heave a sigh, pleased with my progress.