Mimi Ma sits in her shade-drawn first-floor office, preparing for her second and final client of the day. The first lasted three hours. It was his contractual right to stay however long he needed. But the session polished her down to a blunt nib. The second one will suck the day’s remaining life from her. She’ll retreat to her apartment in the Castro tonight to watch nature documentaries and listen to trance music. Then sleep and rise to face two more clients tomorrow.
Unconventional therapists flood this city–counselors, analysts, spirit guides, self-actualizin assistants, personal consultants, and borderline charlatans, many as surprised as Mimi to find themselves in the trade. Bu her reputation has spread so well by word of mouth that she can afford the office’s absurd rent while seeing only two clients a day. The real question, session by session, is whether she can stay sane herself as her clients eat her soul.
Many of her prospective patrons suffer from nothing worse than too much money. She tells them so, at the screening interviews every other Friday. She won’t see anyone who isn’t in pain, and she can tell how much pain a person is in within twenty seconds of their sitting in the wing chair that facers hers in her bare session room. She talks to each applicant for a few minutes, not about their psyches, but about the weather, sports, or childhood pets. Then she’ll either schedule a session or send the seeker home, saying “You don’t need me. You just need to see that you’re already happy” For that advice, she charges nothing. But for a real session, there must be some sacrifice. Two such sacrifices a day suffice to keep her afloat.
Stephanie N, her afternoon guest, arrives in the front office. Mimi presses a button, telling Catherine that she’s ready. A soft knock on the door, and Mimi rises to greet an ample, wiry-haired redhead with tortoise-shell glasses. The hunter-green tunic and its half cape fail to hide her paunch. It doesn’t take a rabid empath to feel the visitor’s broken mainspring.
Mimi smiles and touches Stephanie’s shoulder.
– Relax. There’s nothing to worry about.
– Stephanie’s eyes widen.
– There isn’t?
– Hold still. Let me have a look while you’re standing.
You’ve gone to the bathroom? You’ve eaten? You left your cell phone, watch, and all other devices with Catherine? Not carrying anything? No makeup or jewelry?
Stephanie is clean on all counts.
– Good. Plese sit.
Stephanie takes the proferred chair, unsure how this can lead to what her brother-in-law called the most bruising, profound experience of his adult life.
– Wouldn’t it help to know a little about me?
Mimi cocks her head and smiles. There are so many names for the thing that everyone is scared to death of, and everyone wants to tell you theirs.
– Stephanie, by the time we’re done, we’re going to know more about each other than there are words for.
Stephanie dobs at her eyes, nods, laughs two syllables, then flicks two fingers. Ready.
Four minutes in, Mimi stops the session. She leans in and touches Stephanie’s knee.
– Listen. Just look at me. That’s all you need to do.
Stephanie palms an apology, and reels her hand back in to her lips.
– I know. I’m sorry.
– If you’re self-conscious, if you’re afraid, don’t worry. It doesn’t matter. Just keep your eyes on mine.
Stephanie bows her head. She sits up, and they try again. It happens often, this false start. No one suspects how hard it is to hold another’s gaze for more than three seconds. A quarter minute, and they are in agony. Introverts and extroverts, dominants and submissives alike. Scopophobia hits them all. Fear of seeing and being seen. A dog will bite if you stare at it too hard. People will shoot you. And though she has looked for hours into the eyes of hundreds of people, though she has perfected the art of endurance staring, Mimi feels a tinge of fear herself, even now, gazing into the skittering eyes of Stephanie who, blushing a little, powers through the shame and settles down.
The women lock in, awkward and naked. A tick at the corner of Stephaniei’s lips makes Mimi smile back.
– Sheesh, the client’s eyes say.
– Yes, the therapist agrees. Humiliating.
The awkwardness turns pleasant enough. Stephanie the likable. Stephanie the good-natured, the mostly self-assured.
– I’m a decent person, see?
– It doesn’t matter.
Stephanie’s lower lid tightens and her orbicularis oculi twitches.
– Do I make sense to you? Am I much like everyone else? Why do I feel like I’m falling through the cracks of social goodwill?
Mimi squints less than the width of two lashes. Microscopic reprimand.
– Just look. Just look.
Five minutes in, Stephanie’s breathing shifts and narrows.
– Okay. I see. I’m getting this.
– You haven’t even started.
Mimi watches the woman come into focus. A mother, and of more than one. Cannot stop taking care of the therapist. Wife of a man who, after a dozen years, has become civil and distant, a bear in his lair. Sex is perfunctory maintenance at best. But you’re mistaken, the speculating therapist tells herself. You know nothing. And the thought registers across the minute muscles of her face. Just look. Looking must correct and heal all thoughts.
At ten minutes, Stephanie fidgets. When does the magic start to happen? Mimi’s eyes bear down. Even in this tedium, Stephanie’s pulse rises. She sits forward. Her nostrils flare. Then everything relaxes, from scalp to ankles. Well, here goes. What you see is what you get.
– What I get is beond your control.
– The weird shit in this room had better not leave it.
– Safer than Vegas.
– I’m not sure what I’m doing here.
– Me neither.
– I’m not sure I’d like you if I met you at a party.
– I don’t always like myself. At parties, almost never.
– This can’t possibly be worth what I’m paying. Even if I stay all afternoon.
– What is it worth to be looked at, without judgment, for as long as you need?
– Who am I kidding? It’s my husband’s money.
– I’m living off my father’s inheritance. Which might have been stolen.
– I’ve let men define me.
– I’m really an engineer. I’m only pretending to be a therapist.
– Help me. I wake up at 3 in the morning with a black thing clawing my chest.
– My name isn’t really Judith Hansen. I changed it from Mimi Ma.
– On Sundays, when the sun goes down, I don’t want to live.
– Sunday evenings save me, just knowing that in a few hours I’ll be working again.
– Is it the towers? I think it might be the towers. I’ve been so brittle, like frozen glass.
– Towers are always falling.
A quarter hour passes. Unrelenting human scrutiny. The weirdest trip Stephanie has ever been on. Fifteen endless minutes of staring at a woman she doesn’t know from Eve triggers things, things she hasn’t thought about in decades. She looks at Mimi and sees a crow’s-footed, scar-faced Asian version of her highschool girlfriend, a girl she broke with at 19 over some imagined slight. There’s no one to apologize to now except this stranger who won’t stop staring at her.
Time passes. A lifetime. A few more seconds in a room with nothing to look at but a stranger’s damaged face. The trap closes around Stephanie. Her eyes cloud with resentment bordering on hate. A tremor of Mimi’s lips sends Stephanie back to that day, three years ago, when she at last faced down her mother and called her a bitch, and her mother’s mouth in that instant. Stephanie squeezes her eyes shut–rules of this game be damned–and when she opens again, she sees her mother eight more months down the line of panic on a respirator in the hospital, dying of COPD, fighting to keep all thought of that day’s accusation out of her face as her daughter leans in to kiss her stony forehead.
The watch that Stephanie left in the reception room ticks on, out of sight and hearing. Away from it, far from all claims on her, the visitor remembers herself, soft, sad, out of nowhere, at the age of six, wanting to be a nurse. Toy props–syringe, blood pressure cuff, white hat. Picture books and dolls. Three years of obsession, followed by thirty-five of amnesia, retrieved only by going down the rabbit hole of another woman’s eyes. Nothing else exists outside this pact. Pupils lock and can’t look away. The years parade through Stephanie’s mind–childhood, youth, adolescence, the immunity of young adulthood followed by endless scared maturity. She’s naked now, in front of someone she has agreed never to try to see again after today.
Through the two-way mirror, Mimi sees. Such pain youre in. Here, too. How can it be? In a patch of sun that falls between them, a green feeling opens to the light. Mimi lets it play across her face, there for the seeing. Therapy. You remind me of my sisters. She lets this woman in...
A great sororal surge comes over Stephanie. She reaches her hand to this slight, half-Asian shaman four feet from her. One quick tightening of Mimi’s corrugator muscles warns her off. There’s more. So much more.
At half an hour, Stephanie melts down. She’s hungry, stiff,itchy, and so sick of herself she wants to sleep forever. The truth seeps out of her, a bodily discharge. You shouldn’t trust me. I don’t deserve this. You see? I’m fucked up in ways even my children don’t suspect. I stole from my brother. I left the scene of an accident. I’ve had sex with men whose names I don’t even know. Several times. Recently.
Yes. Hush. I’m wanted in three states.
Their faces feed pitiless into one another. Muscles move, the world’s slowest flip-book. Terror, shame, desperation, hope: each lasts its own three-second lifetime. After an hour, the islands of emotion wash into an open sea. The two faces swell; their mouths and noses and brows expand to fill a Rushmore. Truth hovers between them, great and nebulous, a thing their bodies keep them from reaching.
Another hour. Deserts of infinite boredom punctuated by peaks of freakish intensity. More annihilated memories percolate up from below, so many moments, recovered and lost again in this loop of looking. Hydra-like, multiplying memories longer than the lives that made them. Stephanie sees. So clear now: Shes an animal, a mere avatar. The other woman, too–stuff-imprisoned spirit, deluded into thinking its autonomous. And yet conjoined, linked to each other, a pair of local gods who have lived and felt all things. One of them has a thought, which at once becomes the other’s. Enlightenment is a shared enterprise. It needs some other voice saying, You are not wrong…
– If only I could remember this in real time, under fire! I’d be cure.
– There are no cures.
– Is this it? Is there more? Maybe I should go.
In hour three, truths flow loose and terrible. Things come out of hiding that would lose them membership in any club but this one that they can’t quit.
– I’ve lied to my closest friends.
– Yes. I let my mother die unattended.
– I spied on my husband and read his private letters.
– Yes. I cleaned bits of my father’s brain off the backyard flagstones.
– My son won’t talk to me. He says I ruined his life.
– Yes。 I heped kill my friend.
– How can you bear to look at me?
– There are harder things to bear.
The sunlight changes Slits of light crawl up the walls. It occurs to Stephanie to wonder if it’s still today, or if that was some time ago. Her pupils have long since started to seesaw, closing and dilating by turns, dimming and glaring the room. She can’t even summon up the will to stand and leave. When it can’t go on, that’s when this will end. Then they’ll never see each other again, except for always.
Her eyes burn. She blinks, numb, dumb, ravenous, wrecked, and badly in need of emptying her bladder. Something keeps her from breathing–this frail, scarred woman who won’t look away. Pinned in that look, she becomes something else, huge and fixed, swaying in the wind and pelted by rain. The whole urgent calculus of need–what she called her life–shrinks down to a pore on the underside of a life, wa out on the tip of a wind-dipped branch, high up in the crown of a community too big for any glance to take in. And way down below, subterranean, in the humus, through the roots of humility, gifts fow.
Her cheeks tense up. She wants to shout, Who are you? Why won’t you stop? No one has ever looked at me like this, except to judge, rob, or rape me. In my whole life, my whole life, never… Her face reddens. With slow, heavy, disbelieving swings of her head, she starts to cry. The tears do whatever they want. Call it sobbing. The therapist is crying, too.
– Why? Why am I sick? What’s wrong with me?
– Loneliness. But not for people. You’re mourning a thing you never even knew.
– What thing?
– A great, spoked, wild, woven-together place beyond replacing–one you didn’t even know was yours to lose.
– Where dit it go?
– Into making us. But it still wants something.
Stephanie is up and out of the chair, clinging to the stranger. Taking her by the shoulders. Nodding, crying, nodding. And the stranger lets her. Of course, grief. Grief for a thing too big to see. Mimi pulls back to ask if Stephanie is all right. All right to leave. All right to drive. But Stephanie puts fingers on her mouth and hushes the therapist forever.
— from The Overstory by Richard Powers