Live Oak Counseling
a birthday session
Margaret was early for her second session at Live Oak Counseling. Last week had been a disaster, but this week Margaret was prepared.
She'd pressed a new pair of linen pants and donned a trio of accessories. Hoop earrings. Statement necklace. Understated lipstick. Nothing too overdone. A simple white tee shirt and flat sandals, not heels. Nonchalant was what she was going for this time. Men liked a confident, hard to get woman.
Last week she’d gotten butterflies in her stomach driving here. It was all new. Coming into the city for something other than Friday lunch with Gretchen. Venturing blocks off main street. Hearing the GPS bark commands. MAKE A U-TURN. REROUTING.
Last week she’d questioned everything as she weaved through the unfamiliar one-way streets. Why had she confessed to Gretchen about wanting Botox? What had Gretchen meant when she said, “It’s feeling young, not looking young that everyone’s after these days?” Was counseling really better than Botox? What did she need to share with a talk-therapist? Why did she have to commit to at least three sessions?
No questions today. Margaret already felt more alive. Gretchen was always talking about finding her truth and letting her inner essence shine. Maybe that’s why she was so alluring. Dr. Eric was old. She’d been disappointed by that. But he was attentive. It was just question after question with him and lots of nodding. And he simply could not take his eyes off of her.
Margaret couldn’t think of one more personal thing that she could tell him. So, what would today’s session include? She was giddy considering. She pulled down the visor and slid open the mirror. She winked at herself. You still have the beginnings of crows feet, but that primer conceals them well. She rolled the window down on her side before turning off the car.
The wind whistled a cat call as she climbed out. She answered with a flirtatious smile.
Today belongs to me.
She stopped on the sidewalk, staring at her destination. This session is all mine. You will not get to me today, old house. I remember every detail about our first session, Dr. Eric. I won’t be surprised by anything this time.
This week I’ll ask why this place is called live oak when the only tree I see on this lot is a little sapling. You won’t make me cry today, little sap! Last week you taunted me with your youth.
Remember. The doorbell won’t work. I won’t pound twice with the big brass knocker. I am not a guest asking to come inside. I am a client. He is waiting for me. The door will be heavy. A loud bell will announce me as I enter. But I will not startle today. I will not trip.
The waiting room will be what was the living room. There will be one little squared off area, a makeshift foyer, with an umbrella stand and coat rack to the right. The furniture will be sparse and old fashioned. One couch. Two chairs. A coffee table. A small sign will say “Please sit. Your therapist will be with you shortly.” There will be no receptionist and I will not look for her.
I will not sit like I’ve been shoved to one side of that couch, rubbing my sweaty hands together, afraid that I’ve come on the wrong day. I’ll sit in the middle, perhaps reapply my lipstick until he calls.
Margaret’s cell buzzed, her five minute notification. She’d decided last night that five minutes early was the perfect time to make an entrance. She pranced up the steps, ready to dazzle him, holding the iron handrail with one hand and her parasol in the other. Yes, she’d taken to carrying a bright canary colored parasol, to protect her delicate skin from the sun. It reminded her of Mary Poppins.
But the door - it was locked today.
And there was no brass knocker. Margaret stood frozen, confused. A woman’s voice was calling from the other side. “Do come in!”
The door seemed to open on its own and a 1950s homemaker was greeting her like she’d arrived for some cocktail party. She took Margaret's parasol and handed her a glass. “Hope you like sweet. We are in the South.”
“I don’t.” Margaret was shocked at her own brazenness. “I don’t like sweet tea.”
The woman simply turned and walked away, down the hall in the direction of Dr. Eric’s room. The bottom of her dress came right to her knees and seemed to swing unnaturally fast, like she was running. Margaret wanted to follow, but hesitated, placing the glass of sweet iced tea on the coffee table.
“That’ll leave a mark.”
No. Margaret steadied herself. Coffee tables do not talk. “Dr. Eric,” she called out, “I need you, Dr. Eric.”
Nothing. This isn’t real. She decided to go ahead and find her place in his room. And there it was. The thing she had remembered most vividly was there. The green chair!
It was real and it was hers. There was only one other chair in the room. But Dr. Eric’s chair was plain, a wooden rocker.
“Yoo-hoo,” she called out,
The room echoed. “Yoo-hoo.”
“I asked first.” Margaret tilted her head towards the fan hanging overhead and waved her right index finger at it. “You do not answer me with questions.”
With that, the ceiling fan began to swirl. Margaret smiled. She moved so that she was standing between the two chairs.
“Dr. Eric is late.” She looked seriously at the rocker.
Then she turned, reached out and petted both the armrests of the velvet chair, like it was a puppy. Leaning down as best as she could without falling over, she gave it a hug.
“He thinks I’m magic,” it whispered to her.
“Aren’t you jealous?” she asked the rocker and gave it just enough of a push to start it, back and forth.
“I’m going to sit right here,” she continued. “I’m going to sit right here in my magic chair and you are going to tell me the truth.” And she did sit, though not all the way back into the magic chair, just at the edge of the magic chair, all stiff and straight backed, facing the rocker, all Poppins-esque, looking at her subject and waiting to be obeyed. “So my essence will shine.”
Everything was just alive enough. Two chairs, one filled, one rocking.
“Let’s begin,” instructed Margaret.
And just like that, footsteps. Just like that, the click clack of the rocker seemed to announce, he’s coming.
“Margaret, forgive me.” His voice was soft and soothing. Dr. Eric walked in the room and placed his left hand on the rocker, stopping it. In his right he was not holding a clipboard or her file. No, of course he didn’t need that. She was unforgettable. Dr. Eric was instead holding a small plate with one slice of chocolate cake.
“How did you know?” Margaret laughed. “How did you know it was my birthday?”
“You told me on your last visit, dear.” Dr. Eric handed her the cake, almost bowing to her as he did so.
“Now, I see you have taken quite the liberty here, claiming a spot in the …”
“Magic chair.” She giggled, finishing his sentence with him. “What are we doing today?” she asked.
Dr. Eric was in no rush. “Let’s take time for you to eat that cake.”
Margaret relaxed into the green chair and picked up the tiny silver fork. “Fancy.” The plate was white, a gleaming kind of new white, even though the pink floral pattern was reminiscent of some heirloom china meant only for display now.
“Aren’t you eating, too?” she asked.
“No, Margaret. I made just the one slice today."
Margaret didn’t ask. She didn’t ask how you make just one slice of cake. She did hesitate, though, before taking a bite.
“Don’t think, Margaret,” Dr. Eric instructed. “Let the magic chair do its work. You can’t force these things.”
Margaret searched her mind. “DO NOT SING TO ME.”
“That’s a very good start,” said Dr. Eric.
Margaret took one bite. “You made this?” She was quite surprised that this thin old man, well versed in psychotherapy, in words, would know how to work such a yummy thing with his hands.
“Just eat,” he said, rocking now, back and forth. “Is there anything else you want, Margaret?”
“Hmmm.” She paused and considered that this was the first time she could ever remember being served. The first time she’d had chocolate cake, her favorite, on her birthday. The first time she’d eaten from real china.
“We will do only what you want,” he said.
But this was all she’d ever wanted. To eat chocolate cake, not her grandma’s famous lemon pound, on her birthday. Without sharing. From a real plate like grownups. Not paper plates that you throw away. She’d wanted to have a birthday with no singing and no candles and no presents. She’d wanted to sit in a magic chair with someone who remembered every little thing she’d ever told them.
Margaret finished her one slice of chocolate cake and saw the clock above the door just as Dr. Eric was getting up from the rocker.
“That’s all for today.”
But she wasn’t ready. She wanted more. Lots more. Though she could not say lots more of what. Still, she was obedient, her body responding in typical fashion though her heart was pounding. She gathered herself, stood up, shook his hand, and walked out of the room, through the short hallway, and back into the little reception den. She grabbed the yellow umbrella and on her way out the heavy door slammed shut.
It was raining. She could see puddles forming in the street. Her car! She’d left the driver’s side window down and could imagine the seat, soaked. Then she saw it. The tree. Oh how it had grown. It was not a sapling anymore and she did want to cry. It’s branches spread wide over the porch where Margaret stood, shading her from the downpour.
“Hey, tree!” she hollered. “Thank you!”
Ready to dash to the car, Margaret looked down at the yellow umbrella in her hand and was glad she’d brought it.
She pushed open the umbrella and saw them. Letters, new cursive letters, stitched inside the plastic lining. She stopped to decipher them before starting down the porch steps. That is when she first noticed its size. The umbrella she’d brought in with her just… how long was a session? Fifty minutes, ninety minutes ago?
Her umbrella was now only the size of a toy. A cute doll accessory, it would be no protection from any weather. She felt so large. What kind of birthday was this? What was this place? The umbrella’s words came into focus as she dropped it and she started to run. She ran down the porch steps and over the yard made uneven by oak roots pushing up through the sod. She ran towards her car as it, too, was shrinking.
She held her gaze on it, trying to hold time still as she fought with two thoughts.
The first, I want another slice of chocolate cake.
The second, the umbrella’s words, a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.