Authors: Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen
The seat opposite her will remain empty tonight; the waiter removed
the extra silverware and plate right after Dr. Shields handed him her menu.
At a table for two in a romantic restaurant, Dr. Shields is completely alone.
Wednesday, November 28
You enter the white-brick building on East Sixty-second Street and take the elevator to the third floor, as instructed. You press a buzzer to be admitted into the office, and you are welcomed inside.
You introduce yourself and offer your hand. Your grip is firm, and your palm feels cool.
Most people are intrigued by someone they’ve communicated
with but have never met. They take a little time to reconcile the vision they may have created with the one standing before them.
Yet you make only perfunctory eye contact before you scan the room. Have you undertaken some research of your own?
Well done, Subject 52.
You are taller than presumed, perhaps five foot six, but otherwise there are no surprises. You unwrap the fringed blue
scarf looped around your neck and smooth your hair, which is heavy with loose brown curls. Then you remove your coat, revealing a gray V-neck sweater and green cargo pants.
You’ve added subtle touches to your outfit: Your pants are rolled up to mid-calf length, just above your leather ankle boots. Your sweater is tucked in at the front to display a red woven belt. The ensemble should be a
disaster, with the commingling of clashing colors and assorted fabrics. Yet it looks like something that could be featured on a fashion blog.
You are invited to sit down.
Where you choose to position yourself will be informative.
The seating area contains two leather wingback chairs and a love seat.
Most people select the love seat.
Those who don’t are typically men because,
subconsciously, it allows them to feel authoritative in a vulnerable environment. The general rule is that clients who select a wingback are uncomfortable about being here.
You bypass the love seat and settle yourself in a chair, even though you exhibit no discomfort.
This is pleasing, and not completely unexpected.
The chair places you opposite the psychiatrist, directly at eye level.
You look around again, taking an unhurried moment to orient yourself. The practitioner’s office must make clients feel welcome, protected, and safe. If the environment is not harmonious, a client may find it more difficult to achieve a sense of ease, and therapeutic goals will prove more challenging.
Your eyes skim across the painting of steel-blue ocean waves, then past the fresh-cut camellias
with crisp green stems wrapped inside an oval vase. Your gaze lingers on the books lining the shelves behind the desk. You are sharp; you take in details.
Perhaps you have even noticed the first rule of therapy: The clinician must remain somewhat of a blank slate. The items in the office that have drawn your eye cannot be identifiably personal. There are no family photographs; nothing controversial,
such as an item that identifies political leanings or social causes; and nothing ostentatious, such as an Hermès logo on a couch pillow.
A second rule of therapy: Do not judge your clients. The clinician’s role is to listen, to guide, to excavate the hidden truths of a patient’s life.
The third rule is to allow the client to direct the initial course of the conversation, so the session
is generally opened with a variation of, “What brings you here today?” But this is not a therapy session, so this particular rule is broken. Instead, you are thanked for your participation.
“Dr. Shields,” you say, “before we begin, can I ask a few questions?”
Some people stumble, not knowing what form of address to use. You seem to understand the protocol instinctively: Despite the intimate
revelations you have shared, boundaries need to be maintained . . . for now. Eventually the other two professional rules, as well as many more, will be broken for you.
You continue: “You said you’d explain about expanding my participation in your study. What does that mean?”
The project you have become engaged in is about to evolve from an academic exercise into a real-life exploration
on morality and ethics, you are told.
Your eyes widen. With apprehension?
The scenarios will be perfectly safe, you are assured. You will be in complete control, and can back out at any time.
This appears to placate you.
You are reminded that the compensation is significantly higher.
This accomplishes the goal of further enticing you.
“How much higher?” you ask.
are trying to move ahead too quickly. But this trial cannot be rushed. Trust must first be secured.
It is explained to you that a baseline must be established as the next step. You will be asked foundational questions.
If you agree to proceed, they will begin immediately.
“Sure,” you say. “Fire away.”
Your tone is nonchalant, but your hands slowly begin twisting together.
In response to the prompts, you describe your childhood in suburban Philadelphia, your younger sister with the traumatic brain injury and resulting cognitive and physical challenges, and your hardworking parents. You segue into your move to New York. Your eyes soften as you mention the little shelter dog you adopted, then you talk about selling cosmetics at Bloomingdale’s.
You break eye contact
“I like your nail polish.”
Deflection. This is a tactic you’ve not exhibited before.
“I could never wear burgundy, but it looks great on you.”
Flattery. Common in therapy, when a client is trying to be evasive.
Clinicians are trained to avoid making judgments about their patients. They simply listen for clues that will reveal what the client already knows, even
if only subconsciously.
However, you are not in this office to explore your feelings, or to delve into unresolved issues with your mother.
You will not pay for this session, even though others who sit in your chair are charged $425 per hour. Instead, you will be compensated very generously.
Everyone has a price. Yours has yet to be determined.
You are staring at the therapist.
The carefully constructed facade is working. It is all you see. It’s all you will ever see.
However, you will be stripped bare. You will need to summon skills and strength you may not have known you possessed in the coming weeks.
But you appear up to the challenge.
You are here against all odds. You snuck into the study without being issued an invitation. You didn’t share the same
profile as the other women who were being evaluated.
The original study has been indefinitely suspended.
You, Subject 52, are now my sole focus.
Friday, November 30
Dr. Lydia Shields’s silvery voice is a perfect match for her sleek exterior.
I perch on the love seat in her office during my second in-person session. Like the first one a few days ago, all I’ve done is talk about myself.
As I lean against the armrest, I continue peeling back the layers of lies I’ve told my parents: “If they knew I gave
up on my dream of working in theater, it would be like they’d have to give up on theirs.”
I’ve never been to see a psychiatrist before, but this seems like a traditional therapy session. A part of me can’t help but wonder: Why is
the one who is paying me?
But after a few minutes, I’m not aware of anything other than the woman across from me and the secrets I’m sharing with her.
Dr. Shields looks at me so carefully when I speak. She waits a few moments before responding, as if she is rolling my words over in her mind, absorbing them thoroughly before choosing how to reply. Beside her, on a small end table, is the legal pad she occasionally reaches for to jot down notes. She uses her left hand to write, and she isn’t wearing a wedding ring.
I wonder if she is divorced
or maybe a widow.
I try to imagine what she is jotting down. On her desk rests a single manila folder with typed letters on the tab. I’m too far away to read the words. It could be my name, though.
Sometimes after I answer one of her questions, she pushes me to tell more; other times she offers insights so kind I’m almost brought to tears.
In such a short period, I already feel understood
by her in a way I never have by anyone before.
“Do you think I’m wrong to deceive my parents?” I ask now.
Dr. Shields uncrosses her legs and rises from her cream-colored chair. She takes two steps toward me and I feel my body tense.
For a brief moment, I wonder if she plans to sit beside me, but she merely walks past. I twist my head and watch her lean down and grasp a handle at the
bottom of one of her white wood bookshelves.
She pulls it open and reaches into a built-in mini refrigerator. She takes out two small bottles of Perrier and offers me one.
“Sure,” I say. “Thanks.”
I didn’t think I was thirsty, but when I watch Dr. Shields tilt back her head and take a sip, I find my arm rising and I do the same. The glass bottle is comfortably substantial, and I’m
surprised by how good the crisp, bubbly liquid tastes.
She crosses one leg over the other and I straighten up a bit, realizing I’m slumping.
“Your parents want you to be happy,” Dr. Shields says. “All loving parents do.”
I nod, and suddenly wonder if she has a child of her own. Unlike a wedding ring, there’s no physical symbol you can wear to show the world that you’re a mother.
“I know they love me,” I say. “It’s just . . .”
“They are accomplices in your fabrications,” Dr. Shields says.
As soon as Dr. Shields speaks those words, I recognize the truth. Dr. Shields is right: My parents have practically encouraged me to lie.
She seems to realize I need a beat to take in the revelation. She keeps her eyes on me, and it feels almost protective, like she’s trying
to assess how her proclamation has landed. The silence between us doesn’t feel awkward or heavy.
“I never thought of it that way,” I finally say. “But you’re right.”
I take my last sip of Perrier, then carefully set the bottle down on the coffee table.
“I think I have all I need for today,” Dr. Shields says.
She stands and I do the same. She walks over to her glass-topped desk,
which holds a small clock, a slim laptop, and the manila folder.
As Dr. Shields slides open her desk’s single drawer, she asks, “Any special plans for the weekend?”
“Not much. I’m taking my friend Lizzie out for her birthday tonight,” I say.
Dr. Shields removes her checkbook and a pen. We’ve had two ninety-minute sessions this week, but I don’t know how much I’ll be getting.
is she the one whose parents still give her an allowance?” Dr. Shields asks.
The term “allowance” takes me by surprise. I can’t see Dr. Shields’s expression, since her head is bent as she fills out the check, but her tone is mild; it doesn’t seem like a criticism. Besides, it’s the truth.
“I guess that’s one way to describe her,” I say as Dr. Shields tears off the check and hands it to
At the exact same moment, we both say, “Thank you.” Then we laugh in unison, too.
“Are you available Tuesday, same time?” Dr. Shields asks.
I’m dying to look at the amount on the check, but I feel like that would be tacky. I fold it and slip it into my bag.
“And I have a little something extra for you,” Dr. Shields says. She reaches for her leather Prada purse and
extracts a tiny package wrapped in silver paper.
“Why don’t you open it?”
Usually I tear into gifts. But today I pull an edge of the little ribbon to unravel the bow, then slip my index finger under the tape, trying to be as neat as possible.
The Chanel box looks sleek and glossy.
Inside is a bottle of burgundy nail polish.
My head jerks up and I look into Dr. Shields’s eyes.
Then I glance at her fingertips.
“Try it, Jessica,” she says. “I think it will look nice on you.”
The second I’m in the elevator, I reach for the check.
, she has written in graceful cursive.
She’s paying me two hundred dollars an hour, even more than she did for the computer surveys.
I wonder if Dr. Shields will need me enough in the next month that I’ll be able to
surprise my family with a trip to Florida. Or maybe it’ll be better to save the money in case my father can’t land a decent job before they use up the buyout fund.
I tuck the check into my wallet and see the Chanel box in my bag. I know from my stint at the Bloomingdale’s makeup counter that the nail polish costs close to thirty bucks.
I was planning to just take Lizzie out for drinks
for her birthday, but she’d probably love this polish.
Dr. Shields had said.
I run my fingers over the elegant letters on the ebony box.
My best friend’s parents are well-off enough to send her a monthly stipend. Lizzie is so unassuming I didn’t realize until I went home with her for a weekend that her family’s little farm” is composed of a couple hundred acres. She can afford
her own nail polish, even the fancy brands, I think to myself. I deserve this.
I walk into the Lounge a few hours later to meet Lizzie. Sanjay looks up from slicing lemons and beckons me over.
“That guy you left with the other night came in looking for you,” he says. “Well, he actually was looking for a girl named Taylor, but I knew he meant you.”
He rummages through a big beer mug
next to the cash register that’s stuffed with pens and business cards and a pack of Camel Lights. He pulls out a business card.
BREAKFAST ALL DAY
it says across the top. Underneath is an illustration of a smiley face: Two sunny-side-up eggs serve as the eyes and a strip of bacon as the mouth. At the bottom is Noah’s name and number.
I frown. “Is he a cook?”
Sanjay gives me a mock-stern
look. “Did you talk at all?”