She showed up a half-hour late for her session. The girl wore black lipstick and dark eye liner, her hair hanging over the left side of her face. Her jeans were torn — I couldn’t tell if she’d purchased them like that or if she’d done it by hand — and her hoodie was black with thin purple stripes running across it.
As she took a seat in my office, she brushed back the hair that covered her face. Couldn’t have been older than twenty. Pretty girl.
“Great to meet you, Aida.” Her eyes wandered around the room, but she didn’t respond. “So, Father Cortolo mentioned that you’ve been going to the church…” Still nothing. I knew the priest’s idea was terrible.
What could I do? I wasn’t a licensed shrink, I wasn’t trained in psychiatry or psychology. I can’t even explain why those aren’t the same thing. All of my other patients basically just came in and blabbered, but this one was sitting there, silent. I was fresh out of pretend-Adam bullshit. All I could do was be… me.
A terrifying notion, I’ll admit — putting myself out there, making myself vulnerable to a stranger’s judgment. It was much easier to pretend, to continue playing the role of Dr. Jeremy, the wise and respected therapist. What he said was valued, important. What I said was useless, disposable.
“When I, um — ” I cleared my throat and took a deep breath. “I lost both of my parents when I was younger. My dad in high school and my mom freshman year of college.” Little did Aida know, it had been my only year of college. I continued, “My brother and I, we were close to begin with. But each death brought us closer. I’ve always been grateful to have somebody to share those experiences with, however shitty they may be. It’s nice to have someone who understands you.”
I had nothing to lose by being myself and being vulnerable. After all, that’s exactly what these people were doing when they talked to me. And now, just like them, I had somebody to listen and nod.
“You don’t have to say anything if you don’t want to, Aida.” She finally made eye contact with me. “But I’m here to listen if you do. It’s okay to feel vul— ”
“My parents died, too,” she murmured.
I nodded slowly, searching for the words. “How does that make you feel?” Typical, but I legitimately wanted to know.
Aida shook her head. “I don’t know, I guess lonely?”
I asked her if she meant lonely or alone. She didn’t see a difference between the two. I explained that alone is a status and lonely is just a feeling. Lonely is usually temporary, fleeting. You have no control over it. Alone is often a conscious decision.
Aida didn’t have siblings. She didn’t have any loved ones to share those devastating experiences with. She didn’t have anyone to tell her it was going to be okay. So, she turned to drugs. The priest hadn’t mentioned that part.
Her dad left when she was a kid. He came back after a decade of radio silence, following her mother’s passing. Her mom had lost a two-year battle with cancer, prompting Aida’s drug addiction. Her father’s return meant nothing to her because he’d abandoned her when it mattered most. He got drunk and shot himself three months later.
As Aida told me her story, I prayed she wouldn’t choose the same fate.
“I’ve been sober for six weeks now.” Her voice resonated a prideful uncertainty. She knew for a fact it’d been six weeks, but she wasn’t sure how long she’d be able to keep it up.
Sharing her life experiences with me made Aida feel vulnerable, a feeling she’d usually combat with any pills she could get her hands on. But since she couldn’t medicate her issues into submission this time — or at least, she didn’t plan to — she experienced something totally foreign: She felt human.
Aida wanted to schedule another session for later in the week. As I walked her over to Mel’s desk, I saw Mr. Garner in the waiting area. He appeared anxious.
“Mr. Garner, why don’t you come and take a seat in my office?” I held the door for him. Looking down at my watch, I said, “A few minutes early, are we?”
“Your previous appointment ran approximately six minutes and forty seconds late,” he informed me.
“Right. Sorry about that.” Behind me, I heard Mel ask Aida how she’d be paying for her session. “Can you just give me one second?” I said to Mr. Garner, closing the door before he could answer.
“Mel, she’s good.”
“I don’t understand, Dr. Je — ”
“I already took care of it.” Mel crinkled her brow. “I’ll see you Thursday, Aida.”
“Today was going well, Doctor…” I could already tell Mr. Garner was about to drop a bomb on the rest of my week, just by the way he said the word was. “…But on my way over here, I…” He couldn’t finish the thought. “…I…Something… happened.”
“Well, I was coming around the corner on 3rd and an SUV came into my lane, so I had to swerve. My car got really close to the curb and I felt a bump, like I’d hit something.”
Please don’t be a kid. Please don’t be a kid.
He continued, “It wasn’t a big bump, but a subtle one.” Oh god. “I’d definitely run something over, so I pulled to the side of the road. As I looked in my rear-view mirror, I saw what it was.”
A toddler? A scooter? A puppy?? Oh jeez, I’d hoped it wasn’t a puppy.
“A dead cat lay next to the curb.” Whew, just a cat. “Now, I don’t know if I actually killed it or if it was dead before I even hit the poor thing. But I do know I feel awful, Doctor.”
After a painfully long pause, I collected my thoughts and delivered Mr. Garner the comfort he so desperately sought: “Yeah, the thing was probably already dead when you ran it over.”
He had his head in his hands. Clearly, he wasn’t up for Stratego today.
“Or maybe it was on its way out, and you put it out of its misery.”
I know that probably wasn’t the best thing to say, but give me a break. I’d just spent over an hour talking to a troubled, broken down young woman about losing her family and kicking her drug habit. So, excuse me if I couldn’t feign sympathy for a cat that wasn’t even Mr. Garner’s.
After Mr. Garner left the office, I couldn’t stop thinking about Aida’s session. For once, I was able to share personal information — which may not have been professional, but what, am I going to get fired? — to help somebody else feel better. And in the process, it made me feel better, too.
These sessions were doing as much good for me as they were for my patients, and only now did I see how rewarding this line of work could be. My brother had spent years learning new methods of connecting with people. A lot of times, all you have to do is listen.
Maybe that’s why priests are such effective communicators. They always seem to know how to relate to you, like it’s intuitive. I was able to connect with Aida by talking out an issue, and my words resonated with her — much like Father Cortolo’s words resonated with me.
“Adam, I have an urgent call for you — it’s Mrs. Julia Waters.”
“Okay, Mel, transfer it to my office. Thanks.” As I sat down at my desk, I wondered what could be so urgent. Mrs. Waters, as I recalled, had a flair for the dramatic.
“Hello, Mrs. Waters. Dr. Jeremy here. How can I help you today?”
“Doctor, I can’t find him.”
“Can’t find who?”
Who? Whom? These things always confuse me.
“Sajak’s gone missing. I think he got out. I went to get my mail, and I must’ve left the door open. He usually likes to hide under the bed or in the bathroom, but I can’t find him anywhere.”
She was hysterical.
“Mrs. Waters, please try to calm down. I’m sure Sajak is fine — he’s a smart cat. He’ll find his way home soon.”
“Can I come in today?”
I glanced at my schedule before setting up a late-afternoon appointment. So bizarre. I have this amazing, productive session with Aida, and then spend the rest of my day talking about cats. First, Mr. Garner and his road kill. Later on, Mrs. Waters and the runaway Sajak. I could not wait for the day to end.
Wait… You don’t think… Oh, god.