Once Jolene heard the outer door of reception close, she stood up and stretched, arching her back and yawning fiercely. She'd been fighting a yawn almost since Mrs. Gribolt walked in the door. The woman had been a patient of Jolene's since before she opened her own practice, loyally following the nervous, young psychiatrist out into the suburbs, away from the hugely impersonal psychiatric center where she'd started her career.
Good old Mrs. Gribolt, thought Jolene, loyal to a fault. It's just a shame that her problems are so god-awful dull.
Taking the opportunity to stretch her legs, Jolene walked out into the reception area. Andrea, her receptionist, quickly clicked off of the game of solitaire she was playing on the computer and tried to look busy.
"Put the red nine on the black ten," said Jolene idly, yawning again.
Andrea smiled, "Long day, Dr. Carmichael?"
"Not really," said Jolene, rubbing the back of her neck, "but Tuesday afternoons are not the most interesting. That's why I scheduled our last patient for Tuesdays. I need the calm before I deal with him."
He's trouble," opined Andrea, "isn't he?"
"Not exactly the word I would use," said Jolene, "but he's very... intense and... infuriating."
"He seems friendly enough," said Andrea uncertainly, "and awfully cute."
Jolene ignored the comment. "I feel like I'm walking on eggshells with him. He doesn't miss a damned thing. At our first session, I had a run in my stocking. I hadn't even noticed it. He told me he hoped our special arrangement didn't mean that I thought it was okay to be sloppy."
"Well, that's rude," said Andrea.
"What made it all the worst is that he was right," said Jolene. "He came across as so easygoing at first that I felt like it would be all right for me to let my hair down a little during our sessions. In less than ten minutes, I'd completely forgotten what Dr. Kilmartin told me about him."
"You're not getting a thing for him, are you?" asked Andrea.
"Certainly not," said Jolene quickly. "I'm his psychiatrist. Besides, I'm ten years older than he is."
"He's only twenty seven?" asked Andrea. "He seems too sure of himself to be so young."
"I know," said Jolene, smoothing her skirt. "It's more pronounced in session. How do I look? I'm determined not to give him anything to nitpick today."
"You look fine," said Andrea after giving her a quick glance.
"Really look, please," said Jolene. "He will. And, trust me, he won't miss a detail."
Jolene knew it was an odd request, but Andrea rose gamely to the challenge. Taking her boss by one shoulder, she looked the doctor up and down, then turned her slowly. Finally, she said, "You might want to redo your bun. You've got some wispies going in the back."
"Thanks," said Jolene, running over to the open door of the patient washroom she'd had installed in one corner of the reception area to look in the mirror. The modern, sterile room was the only big change she'd made to the historic house she used for her office. Everything else was the original polished mahogany and black oak.
"So," asked Andrea behind her, "he really undresses you with his eyes, does he?"
Jolene looked over her shoulder, "I could handle it if that was all he did. I'm used to it. But, it's like he doesn't stop at skin level. It's once he finishes undressing me and starts vivisecting that I start to get uncomfortable."
"Well," said Andrea, biting the end of her pen, "tell him if he wants someone to undress, I'm available." She giggled. "And, he doesn't have to stop with his eyes. He can use whatever he wantsóhands, teeth, tongue..."
"Andrea," said Jolene reprovingly. Then, more gently, she added, "That's an uncharacteristically bawdy comment for you."
"I know," said Andrea, "but you're right. There's something about him that makes me want to forget my receptionist's oath."
"There's no such thing as a receptionist's oath," said Jolene.
Andrea just smiled, "Speaking of dressing and undressing, I've got a study date tonight that I'd like to get ready for. Would it be okay if I cut out after he's in session? All of his paperwork is in order and he takes care of his payments up front."
Jolene wanted to say no. She was nervous enough to be alone in her office with that man. The idea of being alone with him in the house gave her a little frisson of fear. But, she refused to let her irrational concerns force her to refuse a reasonable request.
"Sure," she said, "you can go now if you want. As you said, his paperwork is all in order. I can enter a check into the system easily enough."
"No," said Andrea, smiling crookedly. "I'll make sure he's checked in, then go."
Jolene shook her head at her receptionist's uncharacteristically shameless behavior before examining herself one last time in the mirror. She was generally proud of the way she looked. But this patient made her uneasy. Tan suit, tanned skin, her sun-streaked blonde hair, alternating light and dark stripes, stylishly retro black-framed glassesóeverything seemed to be in order.
At five twenty-two, she went back into her office, sat behind her desk, and began to do deep breathing exercises to calm her jittery nerves. This was only the fourth session, but she already knew her patient well enough to know he would be there at exactly five twenty-five.
At the appointed minute, she heard the door to reception click open. While she couldn't hear the words, she could hear her patient's rumbling baritone and the receptionist's contralto laughter in counterpoint. It sounded like Andrea was flirting. Jolene wished she wouldn't do that. It gave the wrong impression.
At seventeen seconds after five thirty, the door to her office opened and her patient strode in. Andrea took a small bit of relief in the idea that he did not do so exactly on the minute, then wondered if maybe her watch wasn't seventeen seconds off.
"Good afternoon, Dr. Carmichael," he said, flashing her a warm smile and extending a hand to shake. "Are you ready to get started?"
"Yes, Marcus," she said, smiling back, "Why don't you have a seat and we'll begin."
He lounged across the patient couch, arms thrown carelessly across its back and side, legs spread a little. He was immaculately tailored and coiffed. Jolene had yet to see him with a hair out of place.
Once he was settled, Jolene said, "This week I'd like to focus on..."
Marcus interrupted, "Why are you sitting behind your desk?"
"What?" asked Jolene.
"I said," he leaned forward and spoke more slowly, "why are you sitting behind your desk? For our previous sessions, you always sat in this leather armchair, over here. Now, you're behind your desk. Why is that?"
Jolene cursed inwardly. It had been foolish to think he wouldn't notice. She decided to try to use it to her advantage. "Is it important to you that everything remain exactly the same every time?"
"No," said Marcus. "It's important to me not to have to raise my voice. I've been repeatedly told that I am very intimidating when I raise my voice. So, I try not to do it. Come sit over here."
Jolene found herself rising to obey before she'd even thought about it. Once she'd started to rise, she felt foolish at balking, even though his request had not been worded as a request. Her foolishness made her a little bit petulant and she said as comfortingly as she could, "You're not going to intimidate me, Marcus."
Marcus refused to rise to the challenge. "I found myself a copy of this couch. I have it in my office now."
"Oh," said Jolene, "I didn't know they were making replicas. I've been meaning to move that one to the main house before it gets too ragged."
"They're not," said Marcus. "I found an original at auction in Vienna and had it shipped here."
Jolene rubbed the back of her neck. "That seems like a lot of effort to get a couch."
"I find this one very comfortable," said Marcus, "considering that I sleep two or three nights a week in my office, a comfortable couch is very important."
Jolene felt the conversation going off track already, but a horrifying thought crossed her mind, "Not in your suits?" The charcoal gray suit Marcus wore hugged his body like a glove and looked to be extremely expensive.
Marcus laughed. "No. It wouldn't do to get them all wrinkled. I have a private shower off of my office. Before I go to sleep, I take off the suit and take a shower. Besides, I sleep better naked."
Jolene felt a flush threatening to rise in her chest as she got a momentary visual flash of Marcus sleeping naked on her couch. She pushed down the urge and the image quickly, but not so quickly that she didn't see a sardonic grin momentarily flash across his face.
"On that subject," she said, trying to cover her awkwardness. "We really need to talk about why you came to see me. In three sessions, we've talked about your business, my mode of dress, my couch, but nothing about why you're here. You're paying a lot of money for this after-hours session. You may want to make better use of it."
"Actually," he said, "I'm making my company pay for it. And, don't knock the couch session. It was more useful than anything I got in three months with Dr. Kilmartin."
"Your company insisted you come here," said Jolene, "as part of a legal settlement."
Marcus corrected her, rising and pacing. "The venture capitalists who funded the company insisted on it. Originally, they wanted me to take sensitivity training or some similar new age bullshit. I told them I would go to a real psychiatrist if they insisted. If I'd known they were going to suggest that freeze-dried hippie..."
.... There is more of this story ...