There is something unsettling about having a therapy session at the home of your therapist. It is on par with a Halloween night of childhood trick or treating and having to step through the threshold of a nameless neighbor’s doorway for handful of candy corn or tootsie rolls. Your seven-year-old nose inhales a waft of scents that aren’t those of your family’s apartment: foreign pet odors, heavy candles, the wrong fabric softener, sweat from another kid’s father. But you are seven, you want the candy; adults are tall, they are authoritarian, and you are easily directed by them. In your periphery: a chandelier your mother would never hang, lamps with shades too flowery for your family’s taste, a deep shag rug – it’s time to leave. Finally, a friend braver than you tugs at your homemade Snow White costume and guides you and your crew out the entrance you never should have crossed – what’s a few candy corn? Would you have entered for circus peanuts? Possibly. Guidance from strangers with a dangling reward luring me towards them has lead me astray not just on children’s holidays.
The only therapist I could find in Astoria held her sessions in her apartment off Broadway. She was willing to discuss a sliding fee and had an open slot Wednesday evenings at 6pm. I am not a fan of therapy, especially if it is being “practiced” by social workers in ill-fitted pantsuits and pumps. I usually end up sitting on a couch that is more cat fur than fabric focusing my attention on a home-sewn quilt that continues to creep on to my shoulders. I can’t listen to what he or she is asking me because my eyes are busy searching the walls for a degree: Devry, University of Phoenix, Apex Tech? How is this better than a palm reading on Canal Street or calling Ms. Cleo (of the once renowned psychic hot line) in her jail cell? But with no healthcare I wasn’t getting any PhD. treatment.
I buzzed Karen’s apartment and walked up to the fourth floor, crossed the threshold of her door and introduced myself. She was barely up to my shoulder, she wore bifocals like my father once had worn while reading, a chain looping around her neck secured them to her, hair as long as Joan Baez and as dark, adorned head to toe in a black cloth dress, she looked to be in her late fifties.
The place was a railroad apartment. I didn’t know whether to lead or follow. There was nowhere to go but forward, I let Karen lead. To my left the walls were heaped with framed slogans and quotations – as if a crossword puzzle for self-esteem vomited on it and to my right mirrors replaced what would have been walls, top to bottom all the way to the sitting room: mirrors, mirrors, mirrors. Then the apartment sprung a wing housing a couch, a chair, a coffee table, more mirrors, and knick-knacks as if a vending license had been obtained to run a flea market out of this one particular corner of Karen’s home. Oh my god and the dust – now picture this doubled – due to the fun house like effect of the mirrors.
“Sooooo do you think that the mirrors make your apartment look bigger?” How could I not ask?
“Yes!” Karen replied. “That was the initial intention.”
“My Dad thinks that too. I never bought into the illusion. Just seems dogs and people hurt themselves.”
Karen then told me a story about someone she knew who walked into a full-length glass door due to how stupendously clean it was.
“I know plenty of people who have done that, porch screens too, I think it’s hilarious. My Dad thinks I have a sick sense of humor.”
“Do you like mirrors?” Karen inquired.
Wow and now we are totally off track, trailing off on to a tangent. I didn’t come here to discuss your mirrors.
“No. I don’t have any mirrors. I wouldn’t want to double the size of my life.”
I don’t take to therapy because of these types of banal conversations. “All About Mirrors, etc.” I spent a chunk of cash one year bitching about my cat.
“Why the hell does she trip me all the time?”
Sue, my therapist during this neurotic my-cat-wants-me-dead-series, would seemingly reserve judgment and say, “Well, who has the choice to get out of the way?”
I would belligerently reply, “Umm she has four legs, what do YOU think!”
One therapist told me not to sling my jacket over the back of my chair, “Hang it up!” he insisted.
He had no rationale as to what it mattered where my jacket went. I knew the answer. I was taller than him, he was bald, and gay – done and done. That session was over in 15 minutes rather than 50.
Another asked me if my parents thought I was a failure. I told him “yeah, of course they do.” He wanted to know how that made me feel. I said it made me feel like they were on to something.
A therapist on the Upper West Side stood during our sessions. I wanted to know why. He told me he had sciatica. I found it quite unnerving to have him lording over me each session and I could not stop myself from chanting “sciatica, sciatica, sciatica…” In a “Dog Day Afternoon” Al Pacino way – naturally we parted ways.
People, neither client nor provider, never leave their shit at the door, though that maybe the intention. And I never made it back to Broadway Karen and her room of reflections. I don’t need to double my fun and waste my funds.
My history with glass is plentiful. It is probably why I was first sent to therapy at the age of seven. I piled my carefully coveted dearly beloved glass menagerie into a multicolored Fisher Price train blew its horn and hurled it down our spiral staircase. When I saw the splintered dolls smashed on the tile floor below I was inconsolable. It was as if I had taken a pick ax to each of them.
In 7th grade I would open the window of my science classroom on the third floor and toss test tubes and textbooks down to the asphalt only when an audience was gathered to witness the incidents. By 10th grade my steel toes and me were knee deep in telephone booth glass. And my ears came alive with the sound of empty Absolut bottles meeting the porcelain of my sink.
French windows were destroyed by my field hockey stick or softball. I loved the sound of shattering glass. By my twenties the relief of ripping a medicine cabinet mirror from its hinges and watching it explode on the floor of my studio apartment was roar galore orgasmic! Busting wooden cabinets was never as cathartic as the fire works of flying glass. I can’t even tell you how many French Presses I’ve gone through, there is always an understudy beneath the kitchen sink.
My landlord in Chelsea used to give me tons of glass mugs – the kind cheap diners serve bitter coffee in – and told me “just smash them over the rug.” I wore goggles, used a hammer and bang, bang Maxwell did what I loved. I have history with glass.
I have been more proactive smashing it than sitting in a room surrounded by it and a stranger trying to get me to look at life in double. So I stopped seeing Karen. She called me to “calmly” discuss the situation. I could hear the buttons of her microwave being pushed while she told me I was “never going to get well.” She was probably irritated because she was doing the phone shoulder hold and had to be on her tiptoes to get the microwave to work. Ooooh and the kitchen is on the left so she could see all this reflected in the mirrors – bet she wanted to smash it, the image that is, instead she just continued yelling at me. Karen is a therapist, a social worker, not family, not a significant other – I don’t pay people, sliding fee or not, to yell at me. I dissolved the relationship permanently.
Everyone has their non-debilitating secrets. So my cat trips me, she doesn’t charge me and she lets me nurse Vermouth while I’m on the couch. We’ve taken a more Freudian path. Her ascot is pristine, her monocle is clean. We don’t use mirrors, but smoke is fine with me. She never interrupts and I never shut up. Things that happened in the past – well that’s where they stay, it’s progressive in a cognitive behavioral kinda way.
Abigail A. Frankfurt’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, Minneapolis Observer, Lost and Found: Stories from New York, and on this website since 2000. She has read on NPR’s Savvy Traveler, and is currently living in Astoria.