Careening through Paul’s head are tricycles mounted by clowns. Their makeup is runny, pasty white augmented by skin tone stripes. Their laughter is malevolent, scraping Paul’s eardrums raw. The shrink’s waiting room is cold. Outside the temperature is 93 degrees Fahrenheit. The circles under Paul’s arms are drying, his armpit hair still wet but cooling.
No one comes out but the receptionist picks up his phone and says she’ll see him now. Paul gets tangled in his messenger bag as he rises. The strap was curled around his legs, habitual in a city where thieves are bold enough to run down the street grabbing cellphones right out of people’s texting hands.
The office is bright with sunlight. The shrink’s hair, neatly bunned at the nape of her neck, shines white-hot in the rays streaming through the window behind her. She is too young. Paul is too old.
Hello, Paul, she says. The clowns do wheelies on their tricycles and leave the stage, leaving caged lions behind them. Paul chooses the chair. The couch is low and demeaning.
He says nothing. His hands are clasped loosely in his hands, his legs crossed womanishly. He isn’t flexible enough to do this comfortably. The pain in his thighs provides a focal point around which to organize his thoughts.
There is nothing this woman can do for him. He has been fired again, his journalistic integrity questioned by the neighborhood paper’s buff boss. The man works out in his own office, for chrissake. He had those little five pound barbells in his hands while he was firing Paul. Paul had hit on boss’s assistant at an office gathering only to find out she was gay. She didn’t look at him as he left her boss’s office.
The shrink catches Paul’s eyes and raises her eyebrows. The lions in his head are roaring now. The tamer comes out with a chair and opens their cage. They come out one at a time, soldiers obeying the commanding officer. The chair is entirely unnecessary.
I’m unhappy, Paul says. This is an oversimplification but it works as a starting point. The shrink nods to go on. She’s one of those. The silent ones. Paul’s ex-lover recommended her. You know I know Madison, he says. The shrink nods again. Does it matter, Paul asks.
No. I am your therapist during this hour.
But I shouldn’t talk about her.
You may talk about whatever you wish to talk about, Paul.
Her use of his name grates. The lions are dissolving into mist. The tamer is an illusionist now, taking off his signature red coat and donning white gloves. Paul wishes he’d get on with it, but magician types are so dramatic, twirling their hands and whirling their capes.
Paul’s regrets are stacked high, a pyramid worthy of Egypt. The pinnacle sits in low-hanging clouds. Paul can never put a finger on it. He suspects the blocks shift themselves around when he sleeps, changing their order and prominence from the inside out and back in again.
I got fired, Paul says.
What did you do, Paul?
Journalist. Well. That might be a big word for it.
Is there a better word you can think of, Paul?
Local paparazzi. Nagging the barely famous for barely relevant details about their barely lived lives.
The shrink smiles. She doesn’t ask why he was fired. Paul doesn’t say. There is nowhere further to lean back, the chair is soft but doesn’t bend. It cuts into his back when he tries. The illusionist is sawing a woman in half. Her face is alternately Madison’s or the shrink’s. Her body is neither’s.
How much is this costing me, Paul asks.
My fee is three hundred dollars per session. Your insurance may cover part of it. We’ll need to check, Paul.
Paul doesn’t like this we. The office will check, but this woman will get paid either way. He on the other hand will have to fork over this ludicrously high fee, he will have to balance his budget and cut down on alcohol, food, entertainment, life. The shrink will not have to do any of this. File papers, maybe. Then again, maybe he just won’t come back.
The clowns are back, on mute now. Paul sees their wide-open mouths, their heaving chests, but he can’t hear even the squeaking of their rusty tricycles. They should learn new tricks.
I hate my life, he says. Another bald statement.
This time the shrink says, Many people do, Paul. Why do you hate yours?
Because I’m unemployed, middle-aged, divorced, I don’t see my kids as often as I should be allowed to, my ex-wife is a bitch, my ex-girlfriend is a bitch, I need to make rent, there’s a recession on, newspapers are folding, print is dying, I’m an old hack from an old regime and no one will hire me unless I learn how to use Wordpress, my underwear is too tight, my lightbulbs aren’t eco-friendly, I spit my gum out on the ground, I don’t buy Seventh Generation brand cleaning stuff because it’s expensive, my farts are contributing to the greenhouse gas emissions rate, my parents are going senile and my brother is working for Legal Aid and doing some good in the world, I’m not cool enough for the neighborhood I live in, I’m going to have to start using Viagra soon if anyone even deigns to sleep with me, I go out to gay bars to make myself feel better sometimes, I’ve got a circus in my head, my palms sweat all the time, my A/C is broken and it’s hot as hell this time of year, I can’t sleep because I have nightmares about my daughter getting knocked up by her thirteen year old boyfriend, my socks all have holes over the pinky toe, not even the big toe, the pinky toe, and I haven’t finished a novel in fifteen years. And I’m bored.
Christ, I am so fucking bored.
The shrink takes notes during this little speech though she keeps her eyes steadily trained on Paul. They are brown and should not be so cutting, but they are chef-knife sharp. The acrobats have come out now, though the clowns are still pedaling lazily around beneath them. The acrobats fluidly lurch and tumble and mock fall out of the air, always catching themselves on a piece of silk hanging or a hand held out by one of their own.
The shrink looks at her notes now. Paul waits. A grin is spread across his face which he fails to notice or put away.
There’s a lot that makes you unhappy, Paul, the shrink says. Paul nods. But you know, I notice that a lot of these things are behaviors of yours. You don’t dislike yourself, Paul, but the things you do.
Paul doesn’t know what to say. He looks at the shrink’s face. She has been smiling, close-lipped, since his arrival. This feels inappropriate, like going to a funeral in a onesie.
Does Miranda talk about me, he asks after some time has passed.
The shrink shakes her head and shows some teeth. You know I can’t tell you that, Paul. I am each patient’s own therapist and no one else’s during that patient’s hour.
Paul can’t deny this. She is unequivocally his therapist at the moment. Charging him five dollars a minute. There is a rancid flavor in his mouth.
Oh yeah, and I have acid reflux about four times a day, he says. The shrink doesn’t note this down, which he finds disrespectful. The acrobats are doing something choreographed now, swinging in tandem and making shapes with their bodies. The clowns are gone. The illusionist stands underneath, though, waving his arms, as if he is controlling the airborne tumblers. Maybe he is.
The shrink’s mouth is very red. Paul notices this even though he is staring into her eyes intently, trying to see which one of them will break the gaze first. He does, of course.
The shrink says, what are you looking for, Paul? Why did you decide to come see me?
Something shifts under him. Was that an earthquake, he asks.
No, the shrink smiles. When someone slams the door in this building the whole thing shakes. I apologize for the distraction.
Um, Paul says.
It’s perfectly safe. I’m told that this is how buildings are built now to survive earthquakes. I don’t really know how it works but I trust the contractors. She laughs a little bit and the sound ripples outward. It sounds vaguely familiar to Paul. Maybe she laughed on the phone when he made the appointment. No. That was the secretary.
If you say so, he says.
Paul, let’s get back on track. What do you think being here can do for you?
He says nothing. He uncrosses his legs and recrosses them the other way.
Because as a therapist, I want to help you. I need to know what you’re looking for, what you expect to get out of this, so that I can find the best way to talk to you.
This feels a lot like a job interview. Paul straightens in his chair. You know the way bosses talk these days, asking you how you can contribute to the company, what special skills you have, he asks the shrink. She nods. He continues. None of that matters, because when you’re hired all they do is give you orders anyway, make you dance the hula or wear polka dots on Fridays and then get pissed when you don’t follow them to the letter and then also get pissed when you don’t show initiative, which means working overtime for no pay, which is technically illegal and if I knew any lawyers who weren’t scumbags I would sue the pants off these bosses. And the kicker is the yuppies do the extra work because what else have they got to do with their life straight out of college with no money. They’re like rats, sniffing for stories, plugged in or whatever they call it. I’m a better journalist than all of them combined, I broke the factory conditions story back in ninety-eight, I got that interview with the hookers on skid row, but they get the work because their faces look better on the online editors’ page.
You seem to be very frustrated, Paul. Very angry.
Paul rolls his eyes.
No shit, he doesn’t say. He looks down at his lap. Paul’s head begins to feel fuzzy. The acrobats are spinning in circles on their silk hangings, faster and faster. The illusionist claps his hands and they let go, falling, crashing into the ground which is revealed to be a pool of perfectly still water. The illusionist is standing in an island in the middle of it and the waves lap against his black pants, soaking them. The acrobats are swimming away, switching places with the lions. Can lions even swim? Paul wonders.
The shrink murmurs, Paul? Where are you right now?
I’m right here, what the hell is that supposed to mean?
You seem lost in thought.
Yeah, I’m thinking about how much this costs and how much I miss the smell of my kids’ heads after they shower even though they haven’t had baby smell since my wife and I were together—my ex-wife I mean—and I’m thinking how stupid this whole thing is, being here, and I don’t know how you’re supposed to help me.
Turtling his neck down gives him a view of the space underneath the desk where the shrink’s legs are. They contrast her neat button down shirt with the color folded down demurely and the gray pullover sweater vest on top of that. Her legs are encased in bright yellow stockings and her shoes are red and white and vaguely shiny. They seem too big for her feet. Faintly, Paul hears the squeaking of wheels.
Ilana Masad is an Israeli-American writer and editor living in NYC. She is currently a columnist for McSweeney’s and has been published in Four Chambers Press, One Throne Magazine, Tin House’s blog and more. In 2013 she received the Rex Warner Literary Prize from Oxford University. She has a story forthcoming in Printer’s Row. Find her at ilanamasad.com and @ilanaslightly