This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
Nothing in this room will change my mind. Clare repeated this thought like a mantra as she scanned the room. It was irksome to find such unexpected beauty in a place Clare had dreaded ever since that cranky old judge ordered her to see a shrink. There was a rug in her favourite palette of crimson and cerulean blues on the shiny wood floor. Clare slipped her tanned feet out of her flip-flops and ran them over its rugged texture, leaving traces of sand to mark her disrespect. She recognized the print of Raeburn's Little Girl from her art history class, a child smiling innocently and holding a bouquet of wildflowers in her chubby arms. Naïve kid: she was up for disappointment. Clare’s meanness backfired, as it often did; when she looked again into the child’s imploring eyes, she saw a sadness that stung in her own.
Under other circumstances, Clare would have enjoyed a room filled with beautiful old stuff that smelled like her grandmother’s house. Not today. Dimmed lights, Zen music, none of it would trick her into letting down her guard and spilling her guts to a complete stranger. Much too scary. Clare’s eyes settled on the fancy nameplate fastened to the door at the far end of the waiting room. Dr. Avery Frontiera, Psychologist. The antique clock on the coffee table said two fifty-six; four minutes until the appointment time.
A wave of breathlessness and nausea suddenly overwhelmed Clare. She swallowed hard and reminded herself that she was here by choice, to avoid even more unattractive options. Two fifty-eight. She had this under control and told herself she was nothing like the other pathetic people who chose to come here. She was here only to go through the motions.
At the periphery of her vision, Clare noticed a collection of figurines on the cherry wood bookcase beside her. She reached for one, her eyes never leaving the closed door, and slipped it into the pocket of her roomy skirt. Two fifty-nine. The wave of nerves reached its crest, now feeling more like excitement, and then ebbed away, leaving a flood of soft wetness between her legs. Her fingertips traced the precise, naked features of the young man carved from white Italian marble resting in the folds of her pocket. The weight of the new possession on her thigh was cool and strangely comforting.
Clare was now ready for the door to open.
Avery Frontiera sat in her antique armchair, head bent over the referral letter describing her new client. Her name was Clare Thomas Lane. She was a twenty-two-year-old fine arts student, adopted at age five following the death of her biological mother; biological father unknown; normal development; good student; no history of mental health problems. A psychiatric assessment report had been completed at the request of Clare's lawyer.
With time running short, Avery skimmed through the documents. The judge had endorsed the psychiatrist's recommendation for “four to six months of intensive psychotherapy at the treating psychologist's discretion so that this otherwise talented young woman can overcome the disturbing pattern of shoplifting and petty theft that has repeatedly brought her to the attention of the courts." Avery sighed. She’d accepted the referral because she knew Clare's lawyer; he’d caught her off guard on the telephone and left her with a more positive impression of the circumstances than what she now saw in the paperwork. She should have just said no, as she taught her clients, but it was too late for that now. Avery took a deep breath and resigned herself to a therapy relationship that, at best, would be challenging, and, at worst, would fail.
This afternoon, however, her new client Clare was the least of Avery's worries. Her real anguish lay buried by paper towel at the bottom of the trash can in her office bathroom. She was only one day late, but against her better judgment had rushed out on her lunch hour to buy a package of pregnancy tests. Once again, no pink lines, no signs of life—not on the first test or the second one she’d used in desperation—just clear-cut negatives on the disappointing pieces of plastic.
How had her life come to a point where she’d rush around for a pregnancy test in the middle of the day? Avery felt so steady, so confident in most ways. She still loved her job and was good at it; many of her therapist friends had lost their passion and complained about feeling burnt out. Tonight, she’d talk to Roland about starting the adoption process while they kept trying for pregnancy; that seemed like a better plan and she was pretty sure that, as a couple, they’d be solid candidates for adoption.
Her new client, Clare, was going to be a challenge, but she was up for it. Avery smoothed her skirt as she stood up, then opened the door to her waiting room. A slim, young woman slouched in the armchair, her wavy long hair a half-curtain over her face as she bent over a book on her lap. Eventually, her chin tilted upward and the curtain parted to reveal unblinking, grey-green eyes and a mouth set in defiance. For a split second, Avery saw a strangely familiar sadness flash in the young woman's eyes.
"Please, come in."
Clare looked up at her court-appointed psychologist. Just as Clare had anticipated: boring, middle-aged, annoying shrink smile, with her right hand so caringly outstretched. Did she think she was inviting a child to come in from the playground for milk and cookies? This doctor was so predictable, so condescending. She had this completely under control, Clare told herself. She stood up from the armchair with ostentatious effort, grabbed her keys in one hand, and kept her other hand entertained with the little, white Italian man in her pocket.
Clare offered a half-hearted smile, but ignored the extended hand as she made her way into the inner office and flopped down on the love seat. Its spicy leather scent brought back a sickening memory of the last time she had sat on a similar style of sofa, unfortunately, with the pudgy arm of a middle-aged art dealer around her. His hand had edged toward her breast before he signed off on buying the first painting Clare had ever sold. Clare dismissed the uncomfortable feelings pooling in her gut and told herself he was just another disgusting man she’d used for her own purposes. She tossed her book onto the coffee table. Satisfied with her entrance, she sat back with arms crossed to study the doctor.
Frontiera didn’t appear offended. She was just sitting there, appearing calm, even kind, but much too passive for Clare's liking. The shrink started to speak, something about some form that had to be signed, but Clare muted the sound of the doctor's voice and continued to watch her. Screenshot: Marginally attractive woman in her forties. Lines around her eyes and mouth, shapeless teal blouse, uninteresting tan-coloured skirt falling midway down her calves. Her forelegs were more defined than expected, like those of a ballet dancer, an aging ballerina past her prime. Married? Yes, there's the ring. Adventurous in bed? she mused. Hardly, Clare determined, and put on a full smirk. Did she have children? Not sure, there were no give-away framed photographs. It felt unfair and unnerving that the doctor had read a file of information about her, but Clare knew nothing about the doctor. In her head, she knew that it had to be this way, but the looming mistrust that came over her felt overwhelming. Suddenly fragments of the doctor’s annoying monologue were breaking through: … I’ll send a progress report to the court … the sessions will be billed to your lawyer …
This mention of court and her lawyer annoyed Clare.
"How much do you charge?" In it for the money? Why else would the doctor agree to see someone who didn't want to be there?
"I charge two hundred dollars for each one-hour session, Clare," the middle-aged shrink responded. She didn’t look the least bit guilty.
"How’d you decide that?" Clare barked. Maybe one more insulting question would get under the good doctor's skin. Clare didn't care about the money at all, as her adoptive parents were willing to pay whatever cost. They were only too eager to help their beloved daughter whose little problem with kleptomania just had to be the result of being an adopted child.
The do-gooder just sat there, saying nothing. Without reading a word, Clare signed the consent form that Frontiera had placed on the coffee table in front of her.
"Clare, I’ve read the report the court psychiatrist wrote and I see why the judge thought you should come to see me. What I’d like to hear about is your understanding of why you’re here. What do you think about all this?"
Clare crossed her arms over her chest before she spoke.
"I’m here because I’m a thief. But the judge thinks I can be redeemed by you. Supposedly that’s worth doing because of the potential of my artistic talent." She placed the dramatic emphasis of two-fingered quotation marks around the last two words. “Oh yes, and what do I think about all this? Hmm, let's see. I don’t buy any of it. But since I’d rather not see the inside of a jail cell, here I am, chatting with you."
Clare leaned back on the couch, feeling quite satisfied as she put on her best sarcastic smile. What would the shrink do next? Screenshot Number Two: The doctor was leaning forward, her eyes appearing genuinely interested, her arms resting in her lap. Clare scanned for signs of irritation, aversion, or rejection. None detected. Confused, Clare reached inside her pocket for the figurine.
"A thief. What do you steal?"
"I usually steal … I don't know … just, kind of beautiful stuff. It's too hard to explain," Clare stumbled. She thought about the shimmer of the antique emerald earrings; the shiny charcoal slip with the deep purple lace and satiny feel; gold leaf stencils and other expensive art supplies; figurines like the one in her pocket.
"What is it you feel about these beautiful things?"
They move me, Clare thought, they make me hungry and weak and sad. I don't know; I just need them. Somehow … they take the edge off of all that longing … for her.
"I don't feel anything about them. I just want them," Clare said, bracing for another possibly disturbing question.
"Perhaps the next time you’re drawn to some beautiful object, notice the sensations you experience," the doctor suggested with an encouraging smile.
Four thirty-eight. Twenty more minutes of this doctor trying to screw with her head. Clare felt her eyelids fluttering as she rolled her eyes up to somewhere close to the ceiling. She realized at this moment that eye rolls were gestures she’d left behind with her teens, and it suddenly bothered her that her presentation was anything less than the savvy young woman she wished to portray.
“Ok, I guess that’s worth considering,” the savvy one said.
"In the time we’ve left together today, Clare, I’d like to hear more about you and your life. I understand you’re studying fine arts, but I know little else about you."
She had no idea why, but Clare suddenly felt a softening within herself, a feeling somewhere between relief and gratitude, as if she’d just been let off the hook. She dismissed this confusing feeling and went on to sketch herself as a confident young woman. She reassured herself that she knew exactly who she was and wouldn’t bend to the doctor's annoying attempts to make a dent in her personality. Clare explained that she was a third-year student interested in multi-media abstract realism paintings, sculpture, and photography. By choice, and not because she doesn't get along with other people, she lived by herself in a studio apartment overlooking a coffee shop not far from the campus. Of course, as a feminist, she preferred to be on her own and saw men casually.
And what about your family? Dr. Frontiera prompted.
Her parents—“adoptive,” she emphasized, “not real parents; don't have any of those”—visited her about once a month for lunch or dinner, but Clare was too busy these days to go and see them because it involved a two-hour bus ride—well, except for at Christmas and, you know, other commercialized, family holidays.
At this moment, an image of her adoptive parents, Molly and Jim, hugging Clare and her new teddy bear on that Christmas morning when she was seven filtered through her mind and caught in her throat. How coldly she had described her parents. What was wrong with her? They’d been there for her no matter what. She did love them, but she also saw them as weak for letting her get away with everything.
What else did she want to say about herself? She ate whatever she pleased, unworried about her weight. Clare pointed to her feminist book on the doctor’s coffee table and took a heady spin into the importance of showing real women's bodies in her art. Even those of amateur dancers past their prime, Clare thought, surprising even herself with the depth of her nastiness. Health habits, including smoking, were on the doctor's typical list of shrink questions. No, not cigarettes, but a joint at a party or sitting on her balcony; she could always get into that. She loved drinking wine, especially smooth, Spanish red. Just to be clear, that wasn’t something she was considering giving up or would even be willing to talk about again. She liked whatever gave her pleasure and had no interest in social conventions or rules of any kind.
Dr. Frontiera listened, nodding and taking notes. The doctor appeared satisfied to have extracted, come to think of it, much more information than Clare had expected to release. It was four forty-seven, but Frontiera wasn’t quite done with her yet.
"And when do you feel happiest, Clare?" she asked.
Didn't therapists only ask about misery and mistakes?
"Making art, on a good day when it's just kind of flowing out of me," Clare said truthfully. Four fifty. "And, of course, when I’m stealing objects of beauty," she added, proud of her boldness.
The doctor smiled ever so slightly. "We’re coming to the end of our time together. Do you have any more classes today?"
"Actually, my sculpting class is on Friday evenings," Clare said, wondering why, at this very moment, she was almost liking this doctor.
"I hope you enjoy your class, Clare. Let me take a quick look in my appointment book," the doctor said, flipping through its pages. "Now that we’ve met for the first time, I see that I have a weekly session available … not on a Friday, like today, but on … Wednesdays at four. Can we make that our regular time?”
Regular time? How did this happen when she was against regular anything? The fleeting feeling of connection with the doctor drowned in Clare's irritation.
"I suppose that'll work, but sometimes stuff will come up and I won't be able to make it," Clare snapped.
She stood up abruptly and, with a moment's hesitation, plucked her appointment card from the doctor's outstretched hand and put it in her pocket. Suddenly, another wave of nausea like she had felt in the waiting room overcame her. Clare covered her mouth with her hand and caught sight of a door standing ajar near the back of the therapy room.
“I’m just going to use your washroom before I go,” Clare said, as she rushed in that direction.
“There’s a public washroom …” Clare heard the doctor saying as she closed the private washroom door behind her.
Clare turned on the water, pressed her hands onto the countertop, and leaned over the sink to catch her breath. When the panic gave way, Clare washed her face and gulped water from her cupped hands. She pulled a paper towel from the dispenser and blotted her face dry in front of the mirror. The mirror was mounted on the front of what looked like a medicine cabinet. Hmm. What might the good doctor keep in her medicine cabinet? Maybe she was on medication to handle her own mental health? Yes, she was a thief and a snoop, Clare thought, as she watched a smirk coming over her face in the mirror’s reflection.
Clare flushed the toilet to create a sound barrier and opened the medicine cabinet as quietly as possible. Lipstick, hand lotion, a disappointing bottle of Aspirin, some extra toilet paper rolls … But look at this, she thought triumphantly: a package of pregnancy tests, same brand as she kept in her bathroom drawer at home. The toilet had finished flushing and Clare turned on the water again. Dr. Frontiera would think her new client very conscientious about washing her hands, she chuckled to herself. Clare carefully opened the pregnancy test package to find two of the three tests missing. She reclosed the package, placed it exactly where she found it on the shelf, and shut the medicine cabinet door. Her violation of the doctor’s privacy was almost complete.
Clare sat down on the toilet seat and pulled the trash can onto her lap. She shook the container until the paper towels fell to one side and the familiar shapes of the two plastic tabs were revealed on the bottom. She’s not pregnant, times two—the result Clare was always relieved to find with a single test—but judging from the doctor’s age, probably not the result she was looking for. Checking for pregnancy during the workday, not once, but twice, after the first test didn’t give her the answer she wanted, must mean she’s desperate for a baby. Maybe Frontiera’s one of those professional women who looks like she has everything, but is missing what she really wants?
It felt satisfying, reassuring even, to have some personal scoop about this psychologist who was going to report to the judge after she was finished screwing with Clare. The anger about this unfairness flared up again. Clare took some tissues from the Kleenex box and used these to pull the two pregnancy tests from the trash can and place them neatly side by side beside the sink; the doctor would be sure to find them on her next visit to her private washroom. Frontiera should know what she was up against.
Clare threw out the Kleenex, hurriedly washed her hands, and opened the door to find Dr. Frontiera standing in front of it, looking alarmed.
“Clare, are you alright? I was about to knock and ask if you’re ok.”
“I’m so much better now, thank you, Doctor,” Clare said, feeling that smirk spreading over her face again. “But I’d better hurry on out of here and get to my sculpting.”
Clare grabbed her things and rushed to the door of the waiting room, where she saw a sad-looking man sitting in the armchair. Clare glanced at the washroom key hanging from the hook near the door with a sign pointing to the public washrooms down the hall outside the office suites. These were exactly the kind of instructions Clare tended to overlook—or, truth be told, to happily ignore.
Clare’s unusually long stay in the washroom set into motion a string of worries for Avery as the slow minutes passed. Perhaps she was throwing up because of a panic attack and running the water to hide the sound; or maybe she’d fainted because of some medical condition that Avery didn’t know about yet? At what point should she knock on the door and offer to call for help? When Clare finally stepped out of the bathroom, an indelible smirk on her face, Avery’s concerns evaporated and left her with an uneasy feeling that she’d been had. Without another word, Clare turned her back and hurried out of the office, leaving the door to the waiting room wide open. Avery’s next client was already sitting there.
"I'll be with you shortly, Paul," Avery said, managing a weak smile before retreating to her office and closing the door to the waiting room.
Avery pressed her back against the door and took a deep breath. Gone was the sense of accomplishment she’d felt about the first session with Clare unfolding much better than anticipated. Avery’s cheeks warmed and a sick feeling rose up from her stomach as she crossed the room and pushed open the bathroom door. The light was still on. Avery gasped when she saw the two plastic tabs sitting on the countertop. She felt outside her body as she slammed the door and locked it. As if in a trance, Avery smoothed her skirt one more time as she crossed the room and opened the door to the waiting room to see her last client of the day.