Five Minutes

Melissa Miles McCarter
Jul 30 · 12 min read
geralt on Pixabay

The first things I noticed in her office were the teddy bear and crayons. They sat on a ledge by the window, the teddy bear’s brown suit on backwards and the box of crayons ragged from extended play. My focus stayed on these remnants of childhood for so long that she noticed. Five minutes of my session were to be consumed by this idle glance.

“Those are for my clients who are children. Sometimes they find them useful,” she said. I silently understood. I wasn’t a child and so these tools were off limits to me. I put away any thoughts of coloring on her crème walls or holding the bear while I slept on her mauve leather couch. I was here to talk about grown up problems even though I wasn’t sure exactly what these problems might be. I was only twenty-one and not at the point where I understood the dividing line between made up issues and the kind that needed therapy. Perhaps the children who came in to see Dr. Judy Rampopart would know better and would be better prepared when they grew to be my age.

Her brown riding boots clomped on the tile floor as she sat down. The first five minutes had passed and I had spent the time crying. Everything was wrong, the world was wrong, my life was wrong. “I spent a year with a psychoanalyst,” she said. I listened to her talk about dream analysis. I could not afford such a luxury and had reluctantly found her in the yellow pages, at my boyfriend’s urging. Five minutes of my crying was like nails on a chalkboard to him. I smiled through my tears and tore the tissues she had so compassionately given me into little bits, which were to make a small mountain at the bottom of my feet when I was to leave. Dr. Rampopart, or Judy, as she insisted, crossed her legs. I called her Judy even though I couldn’t comprehend why she wouldn’t want all her clients to call her doctor.

Judy settled into her velvet green chair, the Monet print hanging behind her. I knew it was a Monet from a senior seminar in French art I had taken in college the previous year. I made sure to compliment her on her choice of decoration the next time I saw her.

​The next time I visited her, she had moved into a different office in the counseling center’s building. She never explained why she moved and I fantasized that she had marched into the senior therapist’s office and demanded a room with large bay windows and a tiffany lamp hanging from the ceiling. Secretly, I liked her previous office better, with the books lined up alphabetically in the built-in stone bookshelf, above the unused fireplace filled with boxes of paper. Now the books were gone and replaced by an aquarium. I did not like fish, but again I said nothing.

She was wearing a sweater — blue — and black stretch pants. I looked down and noticed that I was wearing the same thing, except that my sweater had holes in it and I had a few stains on my pants. My clothes were wrinkled while hers were pressed. I wondered how much her dry cleaning bill was. My own clothes came from the goodwill box in the dorm I had lived in the previous year.

“Nice outfit,” she said, grinning. The office was square now, rather than rectangular, so the chairs and couch had to be in a different position. I looked around trying to find the teddy bear, and noticed that it was on a different shelf. The box of crayons was nowhere to be found. She took out her notebook, pen readied. She asked, “Now where were we?”

I remembered exactly, and felt irritated that she did not. I had told her about my confusion about whether or not to go onto graduate school in psychology and whether my relationship with my boyfriend was going anywhere, even though I thought he might be cheating on me. I wondered, how many clients had she seen since the week before? Each Tuesday at 9 pm was precious to me, and I could not stand that it was not so for her. My anger melted when I saw her grinning.

“Sounds like you have a lot on your plate right now,” she said. I nodded. Finally down to business. She had mastered the art of getting me riled up and then the crescendo of time stopped when I finally felt listened to. My other confidantes, the boyfriend who ridiculed me every time I cried, and the girls who I had lived in the dorm with and since college had only spoke to on the phone — all of them listened only in passing. I made eye contact with Judy, and this made me feel strong, like the coffee boiled to the top in a Styrofoam cup, only moments ago softly dripping in the corner of the room.

The last five minutes, the conversation turned. “I went to the opera for the first time this week,” she said. “It was hot and muggy and the heel on my black shoe broke on the way out.” She looked at the clock. “Same time next week,” she interrupted herself, and I wanted more but said nothing.

45 minutes, once a week, give or take five minutes. A fifty minute hour was what I was paying for, but I was too kind, or stupid, or naïve or shy to mention the fluctuation of time, like the other discrepancies I was achingly aware of and pushed into the corners of my brain. I noticed each and every change — the teddy bear moved again. It sat in a basket in the corner of the room. It looked like a wastebasket, and at night I dreamt that I had saved it from the dumpster at the back of her log cabin that she told me leaned against Mt. Baldy.

Again, I noticed that at the end of the session, five minutes left, she tried to subtly eye the clock. It sat right behind me; the red digital numbers flipping soundlessly like the time I knew was passing. I said nothing and grinned with my lips sticking against my teeth. But I noticed. “I need to get a new car,” she said. “My red Dodge Neon broke down going up the mountain last week, and now I have to rely on my boyfriend to drive me everywhere.” My lips felt dry and cracked and I murmured something sympathetically. My own car had a belly button in the back of it from where my boyfriend had been run into by a half-blind uninsured driver. A new car sounded tempting, but I could only live vicariously through Judy.

The next time she sat on the couch I had claimed on previous visits. I felt irritated. I told her, and she smiled knowingly. Her eyes squinted and I imagined twinkles of light emanating from them, and I felt my left eye twitch in a spasm of nervousness. We sat there silently, her legs crossing and uncrossing and my throat felt as dry as my mind was empty. Finally, she spoke. I listened to her — she was telling me that her father had committed suicide when she was 18. He was manic-depressive. She said, “Once in a manic episode, he jumped on my bed around four in the morning, waking me up, wanting me to play with him.” She crossed her legs. “I was 12 at the time.” I tried to fit this information into my image of Judy, on top of the visual details like her diploma from graduate school from Ealen Theological Seminary in Santa Barbara, California and the supple cracked leather briefcase that I once tripped over going out the door.

​The next time, thankfully, everything about her office was the same, but now she had a new haircut. I felt the ends of my hair; the split ends grazed my fingers. Her hair was black and her skin was white. My own brown hair felt limp. “My mother is out in Manchester, Connecticut. I went to school in the East Coast. Came here to California in order to go to graduate school,” she said. Her arms seemed slimmer than usual, and the puzzle became more complete when she said, “My mother and I took the train out to Long Beach this past weekend, and we sipped margaritas. She misses my father of course, but I can’t help but feel like he sometimes did us a favor.” ​

​I skipped the next visit. I lay in bed for two days straight — therapy takes hard work.. “Sometimes people get worse before they get better,” she explained at the next visit. I felt guilty — I was ready for hard work, and on the phone when I had first called her before beginning these weekly sessions, she had cut her regular price in half for me. “I am writing a children’s book,” she said. “It’s a twist on the princess and the pea, and the bed.” I nodded. I didn’t tell her about the children’s book I had written years before. I asked her where the teddy bear was because it no longer sat in the plastic gray bucket that I had feared was a wastebasket. “You’re sitting on it,” she said laughing. I felt under my sweatpants, and felt comforted by the furry arm that stuck out from underneath me.

At the end of this session, the five minutes became glaringly apparent when I suddenly stopped talking. I realized I didn’t even know the name of a single person in her life. “My sister is two years younger than me. She likes to visit me and we go up to Mt. Baldy and she likes to show off her skiing. Of course, I have no balance, and it makes her feel good when I fall down. Part of the problem of being the oldest,” she said.

The next session she slipped. Paul was now a name she used. Her boyfriend was to take up another five minutes — he liked scuba diving, and he was a technical writer. He had introduced her to sushi and comforted her about her marriage to a painter than had ended a year before. Once I saw her with Paul in the local supermarket. His black hair grazed his shoulders and his t-shirt was yellowed and worn. She was behind me in line and held a full-sized frozen turkey in her arms. I said, “Hi.” I noticed he had a beard. Now I had a picture with the name and I coveted this unexpected information like I coveted her title of “Dr.”

“I hope I didn’t make you uncomfortable.” Judy broached the accidental meeting in the next session. “Some clients don’t like to be acknowledged in public.” I nodded. Her pen was at the side of her thigh. It hadn’t occurred to me to be uncomfortable — I imagined that seeing your therapist in a Von’s grocery store was like seeing your elementary school teacher there. If anyone was supposed to be uncomfortable, I had supposed it should be she, like being caught without make-up when you wore it every day of your life. She crossed her legs. The notebook and pen always lay beside her legs in the last five minutes. The pen fell on the floor, tapping on the tile twice. She shifted the subject, and I tried to keep up, “I got Rolfed once — I gained two inches. My friends all say that I have a waist now.” In the previous sessions I had racked my brain, trying to figure out how these ritual five minutes were supposed to relate to my life, but now I felt calmly aware that our time was now up and no more answers were necessary until the “Now where were we?” I would be faced with at our next session.

I told my friends (who I now made an effort to see in person past the sporadic phone conversations I had with them since graduation almost a year and a half before) about the sessions with Dr. — Judy — Rampopart. Those five minutes, the culmination of 10 months, once a week, allowed me to convey a new story, some new information, which sometimes seemed much more interesting and relevant than my own life.

“Wow, you know so much about her,” one of my friends said.

“Well, this week I found out that her mother is coming out to visit again,” I said. I nodded knowingly to myself— where did I see that nod? “She isn’t looking forward to it. The last time she discovered that her mother was going to get married again.” I smiled with such assurance and imagined the teddy bear again, crushed and matted from my regularly sitting on it. “It can be hard having a mother who is widowed under such difficult circumstances,” I said, and then went on to talk about Paul’s penchant for kite-flying and his job as a sushi chef in downtown Los Angeles.

She was late at the next session. I sat in the waiting room and looked at the flyers for couple counseling, group therapy, intensive grief work. Right before I was to walk out frustrated and tired, she ran in. Her hair was wet and her riding boots had trailed mud onto the terra cotta tiled floor in the lobby. “It’s hard working at a nursing home and here at the counseling center,” she said when we went into her office. My thoughts of never coming back after such an error of punctuality were gone and I eased into her five minutes. Judy kept explaining, her tone as apologetic as a teenager being caught shoplifting, “Especially when it rains. Then I have to drive in the most awful traffic. What is it about Southern Californian drivers and rain?” I tried to think up an answer, but stopped when she opened her notebook. Pen poised, she asked, “Now where did we leave off at the last session?” I pushed the word that I had learned in psychology my senior year of college out of mind but it rose up when I saw the numbers on the digital clock signal the witching hour. Resistance. As I wrote a check for this session and then handed it to Judy, I wondered if therapists could exhibit resistance too.

I was late at our next session. She didn’t ask for any explanations, and I was not good at being apologetic, and it seemed like punishment enough when we began five minutes late, and forty minutes later our time was up. She said nothing about herself, and I felt a gap of intimacy, intimacy that had kept me going now for almost a year. I couldn’t ask her to speak more about herself since that wasn’t what I was paying her for. Now time was up, and I made sure that I was on time for our next session.

“My best friend wrote me a nasty letter this weekend,” she said during those five minutes at our next session. She laughed, almost hiccuping. “She’s a narcissist, a hysteric, an actress. She moved here to be near me, and then for some reason I did something — what, I don’t know — which made her feel abandoned.”

She nodded, pausing a moment, maybe waiting for me to comment. “I was there for her for 20 years, closer to her than my family. Oh, well. I’ll just wait her out.” I felt scared. Three weeks before, I had told her I wanted to quit therapy and now here was the last day, the last session. I never asked her if other patients kept in touch, although once she volunteered some tidbit about a client with multiple personality sending her thank you notes every few months. I also knew that she had attended the wedding of a patient with Munchausen syndrome, the woman’s urge to eat stainless steel surgical tools being curbed by my therapist’s psychological prowess. But these were unusual cases, and I recognized that I couldn’t ask for these weekly five minutes to come with me once I left her office. I couldn’t visit her log cabin at the base of Mt. Baldy and curl up in a chair and listen for five minutes.

“I was married to a painter for five years,” she said, abandoning her angst towards her narcissist best friend. “I am much happier with Paul,” she said, her voice plaintive but not entirely unpleasant.

10 minutes this last session, I noticed — catching us looking at the clock at the same time.


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The New North

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Melissa Miles McCarter

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Melissa Miles Mccarter lives in a rural Civil War era home that’s under constant renovation with her husband, stepson and daughter. melissamilesmccarter.com

The New North

// Home of storytellers // Facebook: @thenewnorth

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