By Devena Kasinathan
The music plays in the background like so much scripted noise to set a film noir scene. I whistle softly, then hum along with the notes under my breath. The receptionist doesn't seem to notice. She is poised and pleasant behind the counter. She doesn't even ask me any questions, although it would have been easy to; I am the only one left in the waiting room.
After ten minutes have passed, the receptionist looks up and says, "You can enter now."
I stare at her, puzzled. Nobody has exited the therapist's office from my side of it. There must be another way out.
The receptionist clears her throat, smiles and nods towards the brown door opposite.
I get up quickly and make my way into the therapist's room, shutting the door behind me. I expect soft pastel colours and silence, the way it is in the movies, and I am not disappointed.
The therapist and I introduce ourselves and I sit down in the comfortable armchair across from him. He is a middle-aged, rotund man with sparse, graying hair and round spectacles. Behind the glasses, his eyes are quite beautiful, a light brown that catches the light at odd moments. His hands are elegant, the fingers long and tapered; I can almost imagine them in their youth, clean and smooth, without their few wrinkles.
The therapist holds a pen in his hand and looks briefly at the notebook in front of him. He smiles, prepared to begin the session.
"Our mutual friend speaks highly of you."
"Oh?" I lean forward, wondering which friend this was. Realisation strikes. "How foolish of me to forget. It is Dr Rob that you're talking about? He's very good, isn't he?"
The therapist laughs, but it is a weak laugh.
I am uneasy; the unspoken comparison is unintentional on my part. "He wouldn't have referred me to you if you weren't good at what you do too, of course."
"And what is that exactly?"
A bit unorthodox, this one. "You know, go through my childhood dilemmas. Try to find out what makes me do what I do."
"What do you do, by the way? Rob wasn't very specific." At my disbelieving look, he relents. "Alright, his case notes are all here. But –" he holds up a plump finger when I almost say something, "it's always wise to hear things from the beginning."
I shrug. Rob is paying for the sessions after all. "It's a long beginning," I say simply. "Are you sure you wouldn't prefer the middle? It's far more interesting."
The therapist puts down his pen, links his hands behind his head and leans back. "From the beginning please, my dear."
"It was a pebble, at first."
"Yes. Well, more of a stone. One of those ornamental things. It was smooth and round. So tempting. It was black, by the way, in the middle of all the white pebbles."
"They were decorating a flower pot, fitted onto the top of all the earth." I pause. I can still remember that dark, black stone. I would have missed it, but it was a very sunny day and all the white pebbles caught my eye somehow, and then the black stone… "I was walking past the restaurant. And all these huge pots of flowers were decorating the sidewalk. The black stone was ornamental. And tempting."
"Yes, you said that before," the therapist remarks. He makes a note in his notebook, and says, "So, you took it."
"Borrowed," I correct him.
"You mean, you intended to put it back?"
"Then, how could you say you borrowed it?"
"It sounds better than stealing, doesn't it?"
I find my words humorous, but silence greets them. The therapist seems to be struggling with himself about something. After a few seconds, I say. "Anyway, the point is, I took the stone and went home."
"Weren't you working?" The therapist consults his notes again, scratches something off, then puts the pen down.
"Well, yes," I say, "but I didn't feel like working anymore that day."
"Ah," the therapist says, as though he understands exactly how I felt. "And the next occasion?"
"May I have a drink?"
The therapist immediately moves to a small side table and cupboard on the other side of the room. "I only have fruit juice."
I make a face that he can't see. "Water would be good."
The therapist continues to pour out the fruit juice into two small glasses. "Sorry, something's wrong with the plumbing, and I can't stand bottled water. I can ask Rose to get you some?"
I shake my head, thinking of that calm, poised receptionist walking out of the office and into the sweltering afternoon heat to get me some bottled water. "It's alright."
After I take a sip of insipid, pinkish fruit juice, I feel better and start thinking of the second time.
"The second occasion," I begin, while the therapist settles his rounded frame comfortably into his chair, "was at a friend's party. She wasn't really my friend, you understand. A friend's friend, really."
He nods, makes another note with a flourish, trying to set me at ease, I think. It isn't easy to know that someone is writing down what they think of you while you're still in front of them. I have an irresistible urge to tear that notebook out of his hands and read the entry about me. At the thought, I look up, find him staring at me curiously. I realize I have been silent for too long and clear my throat. "Sorry, hot day."
"Isn't it always? Let me turn up, down – I can never get the terminology right – the air conditioning."
As the therapist does that, I glance at my watch. The session is going a bit too slowly for my taste. "The friend I was talking about," I say, "she was very wealthy, extremely wealthy. Beautiful house, grand gardens, lots of small, curious things everywhere."
"Very tempting," the therapist says, beating me to the words.
I glance at him, before repeating, "Yes, very tempting. Objects from different countries, different places, different… people. It was a dinner party and there were lots of people everywhere, drinking champagne, smoking slim cigarettes. Rob was busy networking, talking to some friends from the hospital. I wandered into the second floor of the house. Nobody bothered me. My friend trusted everyone there, so there was no security or anything like that." I suddenly feel a bit ashamed, but stoically relate the episode with the shears.
"Shears?" The therapist seems struck by the image of a woman in a dressing gown hiding shears in her bodice. "How on earth did you manage that?" The therapist reddens suddenly. "I mean – Um, you had the shears with you for the entire night? Throughout dinner?"
I nod, suddenly filled with good humour. "I have no idea what someone was doing with shears in their bedroom, but they were such nice shears that I couldn't leave them alone there. I took them home. They're still in the garden shed."
"Along with the spade, broom and bucket you… borrowed… from elsewhere?" The therapist chuckles, obviously thinking he is being funny. I tilt my head, wondering what he would think if he knew that I had in fact carefully stored such items away through the years.
I sneeze, and the therapist stops chuckling abruptly, hastens to offer me a tissue. I take it gratefully and say, "Time's almost up."
The therapist looks at his watch in surprise. "Oh. Yes, almost. Are you in a hurry to leave?"
"No," I admit. "Rob's working late today."
"I don't have any other patients this afternoon. We can extend the session."
I look at the therapist in surprise.
"No extra charge," he says quickly. "Rob says you didn't want to come today, and I'm not sure you'll be back if you leave now. Am I right?"
I nod grudgingly. I find therapists in general quite tedious, Rob being the only exception.
And he doesn't really count now, does he? I say to myself.
The therapist is thinking about something. I can see it in his scrunched up nose and turned aside brow. Finally, he turns to me and says, "Why do you think you do it?"
I am surprised. "I came to you to get that answer."
"Maybe you already have the answer."
"Is this a new kind of therapy?"
He seems disconcerted, and a bit annoyed. "No. Um… alright, let's try something else. What's the most valuable item you've sto – borrowed?"
I think about that for a moment. Value is such an ephemeral, subjective thing. Monetary, emotional, physical?
"Monetary, emotional or physical value?" I ask finally.
"Anything you like." The therapist sits back, relaxed.
Suddenly, it strikes me that he is talking about what was most valuable to me. The thought strikes a chord inside me. A strange, alarming chord. I decide to ignore it.
"Well, I suppose the one I wanted the most was… it was a small, rather dirty looking thing. An old hair comb."
"A comb for your hair?" The therapist was intrigued.
"No," I try to explain, "It's like a small comb, but it's used to stick into a coiffure to hold it in place." I've never been good with the names of such accessories. "The one I took was gilt-edged, with a butterfly pattern in gold and silver. Not real gold and silver; the entire thing was metal with paint on it. Some of the teeth were broken, but it was very pretty otherwise."
"Where did you get it from?"
"It was given to my mother by my grandmother." Before the therapist can say anything, I observe, "I'm sure it would have been handed down to me in due course, but I couldn't wait."
"Is it a heirloom?"
I laugh, then say, "That's funny. Hair comb, heirloom."
It is a lame attempt at humour, and the therapist looks down, lips pursed. He looks like a pinched duck and I want to laugh again, but reluctantly restrain myself.
"Do you think there is a pattern in the items you take? A common denominator?"
It is my turn to purse my lips in thought. Finally, I venture, "They are all beautiful."
"Shears? A used toothbrush? A torn rug?"
I wince. "You've been studying Rob's notes, haven't you?"
He smiles. "He insisted I do. Look, I think his concern is that your friends don't mind your taking things from their homes. Nothing important or particularly valuable anyway. But if you start to take things from other places…"
"You mean shops, of course."
"I'm not a thief."
"Yes, you said."
"Or a shoplifter."
I frown. "Not ever."
The therapist looks at me steadily. I look back at him steadily. Finally, he says, "We need to sort this out, my dear. There is a reason for your … habit… you know, and we'll work it out somehow."
"What if I don't want to work it out," I say. It is a reckless statement to make in a therapist's office, but I don't really care. "Maybe it's a choice I've made, to be a possible shoplifter."
"Your habit can become a crime," the therapist says gently. "Don't you think we should find the reason for it?"
"I already know the reason for it."
"I always have."
"What is it then?"
I sigh, then say quietly, "They're lonely."
"Who's lonely?" The therapist starts scribbling again.
"The things I take."
The pencil stops moving for a fraction of a second, but I can't help noticing, and inside I squirm at what's to come.
"The things you take," the therapist repeats calmly. "And have you always felt this way?"
"Well, I've only ever taken the lonely ones. At least they have friends now."
"In your home."
"Yes. It's really quite sad, isn't it?"
"That I have to come all the way here to tell you this, and all you think is that I'm just a bit unhinged."
"Oh, surely not a bit unhinged," he says.
For a moment, I am alarmed and surprisingly offended, but then he laughs and I realize he is joking. I smile weakly, my fingers curling into my palms.
"Don't worry, my dear, you are certainly not insane."
"No, I think we both know why you think these things you take are alone."
"We do?" I am confused.
The therapist puts down the pen and clasps his hands together lightly on the tabletop. "It's perfectly naturally to feel lonely. Life seems unusually perverse, doesn't it? A digital world can be very isolating."
I can't disagree with what's the therapist is saying, so I nod equably.
"You are reaching a time in your life – yes, I know age is a sensitive topic for you, but we are of a similar age and I know quite well what you're going through."
"You do?" I very much doubted he did.
"Of course." He seems very certain of himself. I lean forward to better hear his words. "We are into our forties, our children are growing up…"
"I don't have any children," I interrupt.
"Sorry," the therapist fumbles. He seems aghast at the mistake, consulting his notes again and then once more, before continuing, "You've been married for quite some time now."
"You must have been quite young when you married," he comments. "So was I, actually. It can be a challenge to grow into a marriage from a young age."
He grimaces, before saying, "I'd rather concentrate on your marriage. Rob told me that you seem more lonely than usual this past week, less willing to go out, speak to him."
"I almost forgot that he had his session yesterday."
"Do you think that the items you take are lonely because you feel lonely?"
"That's possible," I concede.
"When did you start taking these things by the way?"
"About ten years ago."
"Not too long then."
It seemed a long time to me, and I said so.
"You'd be surprised how long such behaviour can go unchecked." The therapist steeples his fingers. "I had a patient who shoplifted for something near fifteen years before he was caught."
"Did you find out why he did it?" I was absurdly hoping he did.
"We did, actually. The items he took were always tied to food, groceries, that sort of thing. He was in fact very wealthy, but it turned out that his childhood was extremely wanting in that regard. It took a number of sessions, but from what I understand, he has lost the habit."
"That's fantastic," I say.
"It is, isn't it?" The therapist is pleased. "Do you think you'd be willing to invest in a few more sessions to resolve the issues surrounding your problem?"
"Rob," I say absently.
"It's Rob's investment, not mine. I'll have to ask him."
The therapist is encouraged by the enthusiasm I paste into my smile, and the vigour of our handshake shortly after. He makes a comment about the weather, and wishes me a good evening. I am shown out of the room via a different door from the one I entered through earlier, and find myself in a hallway that leads to other offices, an elevator and, finally, the outside road.
When I return home to the small apartment in a quiet part of town, I feel tired. I pour myself a glass of wine and sit at the kitchen table. Rob is working late, I remind myself, and wonder if the therapist is right, if I'm just projecting my loneliness onto inanimate objects.
I am nearly convinced, but then I remember the shears in the body of my friend – the one who had betrayed me with Rob – and then the hair comb piercing the skull of one of Rob's other lovers, a woman I had known all my life, and finally the bloodied rug below the body of Rob's latest bitch. And I cannot stop myself from laughing at the foolish assumptions of that rotund, friendly man.QLRS Vol. 9 No. 1 Jan 2010