As the cab pulled up to the mirrored building on 59th Street and 6th Avenue, I slipped a diamond platinum ring onto my finger and sighed, promising myself this would be the last time. My therapist and I had a standing appointment for the past six months, Friday morning at 7:30, and I had made the same promise every week. But today was the day I would fire my therapist, because I was tired of pretending to be so many things I was not -- a divorcée who was happily married, for instance.
Lawrence opened the door to his office, wearing a bright turquoise turtleneck.
I can’t do it. It’ll ruin him, I decided, before I even entered the room. “That shirt looks great on you,” I told him.
“Well, you said I should wear more blue, so …” I wish there was a more masculine word for twirl but there isn’t, and it is exactly what he did. Like a little girl showing off her princess costume to a roomful of doting grandparents, he twirled.
Lawrence was just out of college and hardly in his second year of practice. He was gentle and excited, genuinely a sweet man. I don't know that he would have called me out on my lying, even if he had caught on. He wanted me to believe he was professional, a brilliant and accomplished therapist. It’s as if we were both pretending to be something we weren't.
He adored me, and I adored him right back. He once described me as a “classic, chic New York woman” to a colleague. The reality is that I have colored many loads of laundry pink and I have no idea how to tie a scarf. But in his office, I was sophisticated; I wore black leather pumps that cost only slightly more than my rent (giving a whole new meaning to the woman who lives in a shoe). My naturally nasally tone became a purr. I traded my normal text-message speak for a lexicon that showed off my post-baccalaureate education and I occasional threw in some French. The version of me who sat across from Lawrence was highly successful, strong and feisty. She climbed mountains (literally and metaphorically), and had strong relationships with her family, friends and especially her husband. She only saw a therapist to keep a shopping obsession in check and because it’s New York; you are required to have a metro card and access to therapy at all times. In short, she was the woman I always wanted to be.
It was on our first visit when Lawrence asked me, “So tell me who you are, tell me about Jessica.” He spoke in a soft voice, in an otherwise silent room. Silence is hard to find in New York; silence is terrifying in New York.
Well, I’m totally unsuccessful, and I make coffee and send emails on behalf of highly successful men, spending my days wondering where my ambition went and counting down seconds until this city chews me up and spits me out. I don’t climb mountains. In fact, I haven’t stepped foot inside a gym since George W. was reelected. My family does not discuss the divorce my parents got 34 years into their marriage. Oh, and the gorgeous ring weighing down my left hand – that was a parting gift from my ex-husband.
But that is not what I said. Instead I began carefully, “I grew up in South Florida with two older brothers. I was home-schooled until we moved to North Carolina when I was 14. I met my first boyfriend straight out of high school and we got married before I graduated from college.” I was about to say more when Lawrence interrupted.
“I just adore high school sweetheart love stories, especially when they last!” He spoke in a pitch too high, even for him. He cleared his throat and continued, “My parents and grandparents both met their true love in high school. How did you meet your husband?” Lawrence thrust his hands under his thighs and leaned forward.
This is the part where the sane, normal functioning part of my brain corrects the error with a simple statement. Oh no, we are actually divorced. Five simple words could have remedied the situation. Four words really, if time was of the essence. But no, I think a big part of me was too tempted by the idea that I could be free of all my past problems. I’ve never been much of an actress, but in that moment I decided that playing the role of normal and sane would be much easier than actually becoming normal or sane. And when I saw the grin on his face and the anticipation sparkling in his eyes, I couldn’t help myself. I kept going.
“We met on a blind date, set up through a mutual friend.” I began to tell him every detail of our falling in love over the summer. How he bought me a kitten for my 18th birthday (which I sold online because I find cats both lazy and hateful). I indulged him with the story of our first kiss, the first utterance of “I love you,” the marriage proposal soon after my 19th birthday.
We lasted 18 months -- 18 incredibly, unbearably long months. Our final days of living together consisted of a makeshift divider in our home office using a bed sheet and thumbtacks. But when Lawrence asked how long we’d been together, I too easily lied and told him three years. And that first meeting ignited the row of firecracker falsehoods that would follow. Before I knew it, I was her -- and I was stuck.
The reality is this: Only a crazy person lies to their therapist, right? But it went on like this for six months – me telling stories, Lawrence responding with doe-eyed amazement. I figured I must have temporarily lost my mind, and unexpectedly, the very person I hired to ensure that didn’t happen was now encouraging this behavior, spoon feeding it with his positive responses. And so there was no choice. I had to give him the boot.
I’d never fired anyone before. I thought about posting a sticky note on his door: “You’re fired! Love, Jess.” But I knew he deserved more than that. Should I just tell him the truth?
But I couldn’t allow myself to tell Lawrence how damaged I truly was -- that I stole from Wal-Mart too frequently to use the word “occasionally,” that the number of men I slept with whose names I didn’t remember far outweighed the number of men I slept with whose names I did. I couldn’t bring myself to tell him about the miscarriage I was partly relieved about or that while my body looked nice from the outside, it was slowly failing me each time I saw my doctor. I couldn’t bear to let him look at me with sad eyes, insisting that it was against his moral judgment to treat a patient who once returned an adopted cat to the shelter in a duffel bag (calm down, it was alive – I just hadn’t bought a carrier yet). He would be firing me, releasing me back into the wild like an exotic pet, one who can never be tamed, never helped.
But this could not continue. I was exhausted. And so that afternoon, my alter ego and I joined forces and found the courage to come clean.
“Lawrence, ” I began. I cleared my throat. “Ican’tseeyouanymore,” I mumbled angrily as I stared at the floor, like a child who is forced to apologize to his sister for throwing knives at her while his mom was at work. (Yes, that was my childhood.)
“Excuse me, I didn’t hear that,” he said, scooting his chair forward.
“I said I can’t … seeyouanymore.” I slurred.
“Jess?” Lawrence asked, so innocently, so unaware.
“This is our last session, Lawrence.” I said loudly and clearly this time.
“Can I ask why? Did I do something?” he asked, genuinely hurt.
Maybe I didn’t have to end things. Maybe there was some other way. Lawrence was such a great listener, so zealous and encouraging to my made-up persona. How could I just let him go as if our time together had meant nothing? It was going to be so hard to replace him. Finding a therapist as lovely as Lawrence wasn’t as simple as I’d hoped. I went through a racist, a sexist and a Baptist before I found him. It was awful auditioning therapists week after week but the first time I left Lawrence’s office, I felt so happy, so light, so … unlike myself. The problem was that I dug a grave of lies deeper and deeper every week, and I was now drowning in details I couldn’t remember. I had to end it.
“Lawrence, you’ve been absolutely wonderful. It’s not you, it’s me ... I am not …” who you think I am who you think I am who you think I am, repeating the words in my head, hoping my mouth would follow suit. But it didn’t. “I’m not going to be living here anymore.”
“Oh?" He asked, caught off guard.
“I’m moving.” My eyes darted away, searching for a way to remedy this tailspin.
“What? Where?” he asked, surprised.
It was a good question. I stared down toward the floor as I searched for a location in my mind. Iraq? No, too angry. Greece? Too hairy. France? Yes, France.
“To Paris, actually. I’m moving to Paris.”
“I didn’t know you were thinking about that,” Lawrence said.
“Well, I have always wanted to live in France and I figure if not now, when, right?”
For someone who was about to lose his favorite patient, Lawrence seemed surprisingly supportive, giddy even. He grabbed his notepad and came to sit on the couch beside me, demanding that we make a list: What I hope to find, what I am leaving behind. That was so Lawrence, to write in rhyme during therapy. For the next hour he pushed me to look inside of myself, to seek my strength and find my truth. Seriously? This was the advice that people pay for? Then again, who am I to judge? I was the one paying someone to let me live in denial one day a week.
Watching him add each bullet to the page, I realized that there was too much about my real life that I was unsatisfied with. But was I dissatisfied enough to actually walk away from it and start over? As we finished off the hope to find column, my heart began to beat faster and my mind, against my will, flashed images of what my future life could potentially look like. What if it was necessary that I start over in order to create, honestly, this version of myself that I was proud of? That I no longer had to pretend to be? What would it take for me to actually become her?
With a double kiss goodbye, I left his office for the last time. Something in me had shifted; I floated down the street, feeling utter satisfaction knowing that my life could change. I was in love already with this idea, this possibility of an exciting future. I had to lock in this feeling immediately before I had time to think the whole thing through. My pace doubled as I walked along 47th Street in the diamond district, waiting for the first jewelry dealer to invite me in. I took off my glove and twisted the ring off of my finger.
“How much do you want for this?” a pair of thin lips hiding behind a curly beard asked me.
“Enough to change my life.” I smiled back. “But no less than $3,500,” I said, just to be clear.
While it wasn’t the $3,500 I was expecting, it was enough to book a flight on Air France and leave a deposit for an apartment rental in Marais. How is that for locking in a feeling? This is where my seedling of a white lie became the sprout of a terrible, terribly wonderful idea and bloomed into the ludicrous reality of starting over, from scratch, in French. After six months of therapy, I was ready to change my life; perhaps Lawrence was a brilliant therapist after all.