Authors: Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen
“I’m going to dinner,” she says. “It’s my wedding anniversary—forty-two years.”
“Forty-two years,” I say. “That’s wonderful.”
I walk back to the small counter that separates the kitchen from the living area.
“I’ve never had my
makeup done by a professional before, but I have this coupon, so I thought,
” Mrs. Graham pulls the slip of paper off the refrigerator, where it was secured with a magnet shaped like a daisy, and hands it to me.
The coupon expired two months ago, but I pretend not to notice. Hopefully my boss will honor it; if not, I’ll have to eat the cost.
The kettle shrieks and Mrs. Graham pours
the steaming water into a china pot, then dips in two bags of Lipton tea.
“How about we work right here while we have tea,” I suggest, gesturing to two high-back stools pulled up to the counter. The space is barely adequate for my supplies, but the overhead light is strong.
“Oh, are you in a rush?” Mrs. Graham asks as she covers the pot with a quilted cozy and sets it down on the counter.
“No, no, we’ve got plenty of time,” I say reflexively.
I regret it when she goes to the refrigerator and takes out a pint of half-and-half, then retrieves a little china pitcher and transfers the cream into it. As she arranges the cups and teapot and cream and sugar on a tray, I steal a glance at the clock on the microwave: 4:12.
“Shall we get started?” I pull back Mrs. Graham’s stool
and pat the seat. Then I reach into my case and select a few bottles of oil-based foundation, which will be kinder to Mrs. Graham’s skin. I begin to mix two together on the back of my hand, noticing my burgundy polish has a tiny chip.
Before I can begin to apply it, Mrs. Graham bends over and peers into my case. “Oh, look at all your little pots and potions!” She points to an egg-shaped sponge.
“What’s this for?”
“Blending foundation,” I say. My fingers feel itchy with the need to continue. I fight the urge to turn around and glance at the kitchen clock. “Here, let me show you.”
If I select a single shadow for her eyes rather than a trio—maybe an oatmeal hue to bring out the blue—I can finish on time. Her makeup will still look good; it won’t betray the shortcut.
the last bit of concealer under her eyes when a telephone rings a few inches away from my elbow.
Mrs. Graham eases off her stool. “Excuse me, dear. Let me tell them I’ll call back.”
What can I do but smile and nod?
Maybe I should grab a cab instead of taking the subway. But it’s rush hour; a taxi could actually take longer.
I steal a glance at my phone: It’s 4:28, and I’ve missed
a couple of texts. One is from Noah:
Sorry I couldn’t meet you last night. How about Saturday?
“Oh, I’m doing just fine. I’ve got this nice young lady here and we’re having tea,” Mrs. Graham is saying into the receiver.
I quickly type a reply:
The second text is from Dr. Shields.
Could you please phone me before our appointment?
Dr. Shields has written.
sweetheart, I promise I’ll call you back as soon as we’re done,” Mrs. Graham says. But her tone contains no indication that she’s trying to wrap up the conversation.
The room is overly warm, and I can feel perspiration dampen my armpits. I fan myself with my open hand, thinking,
Wrap it up!
“Yes, I visited earlier today,” Mrs. Graham says. I wonder if I should just call Dr. Shields now.
Or at least send her a quick text explaining I’m with a client.
Before I can make a decision, Mrs. Graham finally hangs up and returns to her stool.
“That was my daughter,” she says. “She lives in Ohio. Cleveland. It’s such a nice area; they moved two years ago because of her husband’s job. My son—he’s my firstborn—lives in New Jersey.”
“How nice,” I say, picking up a copper eyeliner.
Mrs. Graham reaches for her tea, blowing on it before she takes a sip, and I clench the eyeliner a little tighter in my hand.
“Try the cookies,” she says, hunching her shoulders conspiratorially. “The ones with jelly in the middle are the best.”
“I really need to finish your makeup,” I say, my tone sharper than I intended. “I have a meeting right after this, and I can’t be late.”
Mrs. Graham’s expression dims and she sets down her teacup. “I’m sorry, dear. I don’t want to hold you up.”
I wonder if Dr. Shields would know how I should have handled the quandary:
Be late for an important appointment, or hurt the feelings of a sweet older woman?
I look at the butter cookies, the little pink-and-white china pitcher and matching sugar bowl, the quilted cozy over the freshly
made tea. The most any other client has ever offered me before is a glass of water.
Kindness is the right answer; I chose wrong.
I try to regain our merry banter, asking about her grandchildren as I dab a rose-colored cream blush onto her cheeks, but she is subdued now. Despite my efforts, her eyes appear less bright than when I entered her apartment.
When I finish, I tell her she
“Go check yourself out in the mirror,” I say, and she heads to the bathroom.
I pull out my phone, planning to try to quickly call Dr. Shields, and see she has sent me another text:
I hope you receive this before you come here.
need you to pick up a package on your way to my office. It’s under my name.
All she has provided is an address in Midtown. I have no idea if it’s
a store, an office, or a bank. It’ll only add ten minutes to my journey, but I don’t have them to spare.
“You did such a nice job,” Mrs. Graham calls.
I begin to take our teacups to the sink, but she comes back into the room and waves her hand at me. “Oh, I’ll take care of all that. You have to get to your meeting.”
I still feel guilty that I was impatient with
her, but she has a husband and a son and a daughter, I remind myself as I pack up my things, tossing my brushes and cases into my kit rather than taking the time to organize them.
Mrs. Graham’s phone rings again.
“Feel free to get that,” I say. “I’m all finished here.”
“Oh, no, I’ll see you out, dear.”
She opens the closet door and hands me my jacket.
“Have fun tonight!” I
say as I slip it on. “Happy Anniversary.”
Before she can reply, a man’s voice fills the room, coming from the old-fashioned answering machine next to her phone.
“Hey, Mom. Where are you? I was just calling to say Fiona and I are heading out now. We should be there in about an hour . . .”
Something in his tone makes me take a closer look at Mrs. Graham. She is staring down, though,
as if she is trying to evade my eyes.
Her son’s voice grows rougher. “I hope you’re doing okay.”
The closet door is still ajar. My gaze is pulled inside, even though I already know what will be missing. Her son’s tone told me what I’ve misjudged.
Mrs. Graham isn’t going to dinner with her husband tonight.
visited earlier today,
she’d told her daughter.
I suddenly know where
she went. I can see her kneeling to set down a bouquet of flowers, lost in the memories of the almost forty-two years they had together.
On one side of the closet hang three coats—a raincoat, a light jacket, and a heavier wool one. They’re all women’s coats.
The other half of the closet is bare.
Thursday, December 6
You’re fighting the urge to peek inside, aren’t you?
You picked up the package a few minutes ago. The wrapping reveals no clues about its contents. The sturdy, generic-looking white bag with the reinforced handle and no logo, is stuffed with tissue paper to protect the object within.
You retrieved it from a young man who lives in a small
apartment building. You probably barely got a look at him as he handed it over; he’s a taciturn individual. There was nothing for you to sign; the object had been paid for and the receipt e-mailed to the purchaser.
As you quickly stride down Sixth Avenue, you might be rationalizing that it really wouldn’t be snooping. There is no seal to break, or tape to remove. The next time you pause at
a street corner waiting for the light to turn, you could simply peel back a few layers of tissue and catch a glimpse.
No one will ever know,
you might be telling yourself.
The bag is heavy in your hand, but not uncomfortably so.
Your mind is curious by nature, and you alternately shy away from and embrace risks. Which side of you will win dominance today?
You will need to see the contents
of this bag, but you should only view it on the terms dictated in this office.
You’ve been told these are our foundational sessions, but there is more than a single foundation being laid.
Sometimes a test is so small and quiet you don’t even notice it’s a test.
Sometimes a relationship that appears caring and supportive carries hidden danger.
Sometimes a therapist who coaxes out
all of your secrets is holding the biggest one in the room.
You arrive at the office at four minutes past the appointed time. You are out of breath, though you try to conceal this by taking quick, shallow inhalations. A lock of hair has worked itself loose from your topknot, and you are wearing a simple black top and black jeans. It’s surprisingly disappointing that your ensemble is uninspired
“Hi, Dr. Shields,” you say. “Sorry I’m a little late. I was at work when you texted.”
You set down your large makeup case and offer up the bag. Your expression does not convey guilt or evasiveness.
Your response to the unorthodox request thus far has been flawless.
You agreed immediately. You did not ask a single question. You were not given much advance notice, yet you
rushed to complete the task.
Now for the final piece.
“Are you curious about what is inside?”
The question is asked lightly, without the slightest hint of accusation.
You give a little laugh and say, “Yeah, I was guessing maybe a couple of books?”
Your response is natural, unfiltered. You maintain eye contact. You don’t fiddle with your silver rings. You don’t exhibit a tell.
You suppressed your curiosity. You continue to prove your loyalty.
Now the question you’ve carried for the past twelve blocks can be satisfied.
A sculpture of a falcon—Murano glass containing gold leaf flecks—is carefully eased out of the bag. The crest of the falcon is cold and smooth.
“Wow,” you say.
“It’s a gift for my husband. Go ahead, you can touch it.”
A frown creases your brow.
“It’s not as fragile as it looks,” you are assured.
You run your fingertips over the glass. The falcon appears poised to take flight with a beat of its wings; the piece embodies coiled, dynamic tension.
“It’s his favorite bird. Their exceptional visual acuity enables them to identify the presence of prey through the slightest ripple of grass in a verdant
“I’m sure he’ll love it,” you say.
You hesitate. Then: “I didn’t know you were married.”
When a response is not immediately offered, your cheeks redden.
“I always watch you take notes with your left hand and I’ve never seen you wear a wedding ring before,” you say.
“Ah. You’re very observant. A stone was loose, so it needed to be fixed.”
This is not the truth,
but while you have vowed to be scrupulously honest, no similar promise has been made to you.
The ring was removed after Thomas confessed to his affair. For a variety of reasons it is back on.
The falcon is returned to the bag, the tissue paper nestled around it once again. It will be personally delivered to Thomas’s new rental apartment, the one he moved into a few months ago, tonight.
It isn’t a special occasion. At least not one that he knows about. He will experience surprise.
Sometimes an exquisite gift is actually a vessel utilized to issue a warning shot.
Thursday, December 6
I freeze up when Dr. Shields tucks the sculpture back into the bag and says that is all she needs from me today.
I’m so thrown I can’t remember the exact wording of my question, but I plunge ahead anyway.
“Oh, I was just wondering . . .” I begin. My voice comes out a little higher than normal. “All the stuff I’ve been telling you, is
that going to be used in one of your papers? Or—”
Before I can continue she interrupts, something she has never done before.
“Everything you’ve shared with me will remain confidential, Jessica,” she says. “I never release the files of my clients under any circumstances.”
Then she tells me not to worry, that I’ll still be paid the usual amount.
She bows her head to look at the package
again and I feel dismissed.
I simply say, “Okay . . . thank you.”
I walk across the carpet, my footsteps swallowed by the delicately patterned carpet, and take a last glance back at her before I close the door behind me.
She is backlit by the window, and the low sunlight turns her hair the color of fire. Her periwinkle turtleneck sweater and silk skirt skim her long, lithe body. She
is completely motionless.
The vision almost makes my breath catch in my throat.
I exit the building and walk down the sidewalk toward the subway, thinking about how I put together a few clues—Dr. Shields’s missing wedding band, the empty chair across from her in the French restaurant, and the possibility of her wiping away a tear—and formed an assumption. I thought that her husband might
be dead, similarly to how I misread signals and inferred Mrs. Graham’s husband was alive.
As I descend the subway steps and wait on the platform, I glance at the guys around me, trying to imagine the kind of man Dr. Shields would marry. I wonder if he is tall and fit, like her. Just a few years older, probably, with thick blondish hair and the kind of eyes that crinkle in the corners when
he smiles. He’s still boyishly handsome, but he doesn’t inspire double takes the way she does.