Shawanda Parker glanced across the receptionist's desk at the lone woman in the waiting room, wondering what her problem was. This was a Friday, the end of her second week on the job, and the overwhelming question she had, every day, with everyone who came in the office, was 'What's your problem?'
Shawanda had just turned 21. She was a pretty girl, of mixed Latino-African American background, who lived with her Puerto Rican boyfriend in an apartment just outside of town. She had graduated from the local business college a year ago, the modern version of secretarial school, and had ended up with a temp service as a secretary. This job looked to be her longest gig yet, and even had the possibility of turning into a full time job, but she generally wondered about the people coming in -'What's your problem?'
Dr. Jonathan Barnes was a psychologist specializing in couples therapy and family counseling. It was a small office, with just himself and a secretary/receptionist. His regular receptionist had left on a maternity leave three weeks ago and was now due any day. The first secretary the temp agency had sent over had proved a rude and stupid disaster and had been sent packing at the end of the first week. Shawanda was determined to do much better. If the regular secretary decided that motherhood was a better deal than working, which was a real possibility since her husband had a decent job, then Dr. Barnes had told her he would probably keep her on. Her contract with the temp agency allowed her to go to work for him after twelve weeks, and the money he paid to the temp agency would go to her instead. It was a twelve week contract; she had worked two and next week the office was closed because the doctor was going on vacation. Then it would be another ten weeks and she might be able to work full time directly for him.
The only downside so far was the people coming in the door. She wasn't sure whether they were clients or patients or customers, but they seemed uniformly fucked up. Twice so far she had to play referee to a pair of battling spouses, and some of the children brought in for family counseling must have been raised by wolves! She had even asked the doctor about it one evening before going home.
"You really can make these people normal?", she asked.
Dr. Barnes had laughed at that. "Define normal!" He had chuckled as he sat on the edge of the desk in the lobby, tucking one leg under the other, and smiled. "Yes, sometimes we can help. Sometimes we can simply help people tolerate a situation better. And then there are the other times, when you can only try to keep a bad situation from getting worse."
"I don't understand."
The therapist shrugged and made a wry face, acknowledging the uncertainty in the girl. "Well, the most important thing you need to understand is that I can't really fix their problems. No psychologist or therapist can." He smiled at her look of astonishment. "Nope, only they can fix what's broken."
"It's like, well, like an addiction. You can't make an addict change their behavior, you can only point out to them the consequences and the costs, and a way to make things better. Like smoking - no matter what you tell a smoker about quitting, if they don't want to quit, they won't."
Shawanda nodded in understanding. Her father smoked over a pack a day, and showed no interest in quitting at all.
"So, the most important thing I do is try and figure out if the people want help and want to fix things or not. If a married couple is having problems, but both the husband and the wife want to fix things, we can probably help. If they don't, or one does but the other doesn't, I really can't do much. It's the same with families and kids. Some are so screwed up they don't want help or can't accept the help."
Shawanda had shaken her head at this. "I don't know, Doctor, but as soon as I get home, I'm throwing Mario out, buying a dog, and getting my tubes tied!"
Doctor Barnes had laughed loudly at this and stood up. "No, don't do that! I promise, I'll give you an excellent employee discount!"
That had been just last Friday, which was normally a relatively light day. The doctor tried to limit his schedule, especially in the afternoon, so that he could 'play hookie' and skip out. He'd let Shawanda go early, too, at full pay, so that was just fine with her. Today he had a 9-10 session with a couple on the verge of a separation, and an 11-12 session with a teenager ordered by family court into counseling. Then, at half past eleven the woman in the waiting area came in the door.
Shawanda had glanced at her computer screen and double-checked the schedule. There wasn't another appointment until two, but she wanted to be sure. "Can I help you?"
The woman had glanced at Shawanda and smiled. "I'd like to see the doctor, please."
"Doctor Barnes is with someone right now. Do you have an appointment?"
Another smile. "No, no appointment. Perhaps I can wait for the doctor?"
This wasn't covered in the doctor's orders, but Shawanda couldn't come up with a way to gracefully get rid of her. "Umm, that would be all right. When the doctor is free I'll let him know, but he normally only meets people by appointment, and he normally goes out for lunch at noon."
"Thank you. I'll wait."
"Yes ma'am. Your name?"
The woman had smiled broadly at this. "Mrs. Cooper."
Shawanda eyed Mrs. Cooper briefly from her desk. She was an attractive enough woman, considerably older, at least in her thirties, with blonde shoulder length hair in a perm and startlingly blue eyes. Perhaps she had husband problems, or one of her children was in trouble, or both, even!
Shawanda's ears picked up the sound of a door knob turning, and quickly stood up. The door to Doctor Barnes' inner office opened and he followed a surly looking teenaged boy out into the lobby. The boy looked to be no different than when he had come in, so Shawanda wondered if this one was a lost cause or not. The teen shuffled off to the door as Mrs. Cooper stood up. Dr. Barnes looked over at her, but Shawanda intercepted Mrs. Cooper, smoothly slipping between them. "Doctor, Mrs. Cooper just came in without an appointment. I told her that you were about to go out, but she still wanted to talk to you."
The doctor smiled at her, and eyed the newcomer curiously. "That's alright, Shawanda. I can spare a few minutes. What's my schedule for this afternoon?"
"You have a two o'clock session and that's it."
"Well, feel free to take a long lunch hour then. I can keep an eye on the phones."
"Yes, doctor, thank you!" Shawanda went behind the desk and opened a drawer, removing her purse.
The doctor opened the door to his office. "Uh, Mrs ... uh, Cooper, is it? Won't you come in?" Mrs. Cooper slipped past him and Doctor Barnes waited until Shawanda had left before walking after her, closing the door and moving to a chair in front of the woman. He had both a desk in the office and several armchairs and even a couch. Unlike most cartoons of psychiatrist's and psychologist's offices, nobody ever actually lay on the couch telling them their life story. It was simply more convenient with family groups at times.
Mrs. Cooper was already sitting in an armchair, so the doctor positioned a matching armchair in front of her and sat down. She had set her purse down on the couch. "Mrs., uh, Cooper?"
"Emily Cooper, Doctor. Thank you for seeing me on such short notice."
"What seems to be the problem, Emily?"
Mrs. Cooper gave the therapist a nervous look and looked sheepishly away. "Well, it's just so hard to say..." She paused. "It's my husband."
"You have a problem with your husband?"
She blushed at this. "Well, I mean, no not really, it's just..."
"Well, let me ask you a few questions. Is your husband abusive to you?"
The woman looked horrified. "Oh no, it's nothing like that, nothing at all!"
"So, he doesn't hit you?"
"Or verbally abuse you?"
"Oh, God, no! He's just the sweetest man! He would never do that!"
"Do you have children Mrs. Cooper? Is there a problem with them?", he asked.
"Oh, no! Our children are just fine!"
"What about the children, does he abuse them? Verbally or physically?", he pressed.
"No, never! The children adore him. He's a wonderful father!"
"Okay, so that isn't the problem. Does he spend enough time at home? Is he away very much?"
"No, Doctor Barnes, Jack's a professional man. He's home every night by six, or even earlier sometimes, and he does very well for himself, so it's not money either."
The therapist scratched his head. "Then you will really have to explain what the problem is, Mrs. Cooper."
"Well, it's not exactly a problem. It's just..." She blushed again, and he gestured for her to continue. "Well, it's just that he makes me do things..."
Doctor Barnes raised an eyebrow at that. "Such as?"
"Well, this dress for instance."
"Yes? It's a very pretty dress, by the way, Mrs. Cooper." It was, too. The short-sleeved dress was a light and gauzy green chiffon print, a calf-length wrap that had what seemed to be hidden buttons holding it together at the waist. She was also wearing nylons and heels.
"Oh, thank you. It's just that, well, he makes me, well..."She reached up to her neckline and spread the wrap top apart. The vee at her neck deepened, exposing more and more of her neck and chest until the top was pulled far enough apart so that the vee was below the level of her breasts. "You see? He won't let me wear a bra!"
.... There is more of this story ...