Fridays, we rarely see patients. After transcribing therapists’ notes, learning all the details of our clients’ messed-up lives—details that I will later pretend not to know as I offer people coffee, schedule appointments, collect co-pays—I spend a few hours tending to the 1000-piece puzzle in the corner. Timmy (not his real name)—a third-grade bully being treated for OCD and anger, whose father ran off with a stripper—likes to mix things up. His favorite trick involves forcing puzzle pieces into the wrong places, making the pieces wrinkle and fray. He tries to smooth them down with his thumb. Last week, he fitted the dolphin with anemone tentacles and shark teeth.
While Timmy’s puzzle concoctions drive me crazy, I can relate to him. My father abandoned me too. I was sixteen. He had terminal cancer. At least my dad didn’t have a choice.
I pry the misplaced pieces loose with tweezers, dab Mod Podge on the tip of a toothpick, glue the vivid linen edges back on their pressed-board bases, then put them back in their proper places. When I crawl under the table to look for strays, my skirt catches on the table’s leg. A throat clears behind me. I wiggle out like a clown fish and face Dan D. (not his real name)—a middle-aged, gay man being treated for depression and narcissistic ambivalence, who recently left his wife and 12-year-old daughter for Joe, his longtime lover.
“So, this is what you do on Fridays,” he says.
I ask him if I can help him. He is lucky I ask politely. Last week, he called, insisting that I give him his therapist’s private number. I reminded him of John’s three-week, Hawaiian vacation and offered a Friday meeting with Patty, who is filling in. He threw a tantrum. I practiced the deep-breathing technique that Patty taught me last year and listened to him bitch. He finally scheduled with her, from which appointment he has just emerged.
He sits, reconnects a piece of the border, mentions his daughter’s weekend visit. I offer him a soda, wait with him while Patty updates his prescriptions. I learn that his daughter is acing math and science, loves her new tabby kitten, Moxie, and just got fitted with glasses—she got to pick the hot-pink frames and thinks they make her look smarter. They are going to eat pizza, and Dan will give her a manicure, paint her fingernails to match her glasses.
“Great choices,” I say.
Monday, Patty calls me back to her office. She tells me how, this morning before school, Mr. D’s daughter discovered him dangling from a belt in his basement. I hug a throw pillow to my chest. Patty reminds me to breathe. I wonder who will teach the girl to drive, scare away horny boys, call her beautiful and make her believe it, walk her down the aisle at her wedding someday. I think about the hot-pink fingernails of Dan D’s daughter and hope they brought her joy. Soon, the nail polish will chip and peel.
When I return to the waiting room, I force a smile. Timmy is putting a narwhal tusk on the octopus.
“Like in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” he says.
“Oh! Like the island of misfit toys.”
This time, I let his creations be.
Tanya Cliff is a breast cancer survivor and resides in the beautiful Driftless Region of Southwestern Wisconsin with her children, two horses, chickens, a Maine Coon Cat, and rescue husky named ShayBear.
Photography by Nathalia Segato (@nathsegato)