Friend for Hire

Sharon’s licensed psychiatry practice was still toddling along the Friday that she booked her first full day. It was an exciting moment in the one-woman office- for Sharon was her own greeter, secretary, manager, and publicist. She’d managed to make it this far without loans or mortgages, paying rent on both the office and the apartment above out of her share of a great-aunt’s will until the patient’s fees were sufficient to cover it.

Her patients.

There had been a joke inside the family that Sharon would become a doctor on account of her patience. This had started when she was young and had been found sitting outside waiting for a chrysalis to finish its metamorphosis into a butterfly. She had been too young to understand the joke the first time and had sat there looking puzzled through the rest of Easter dinner. She only got it upon hearing the laughter after someone finally asked why she had an expression like a fox trying to eat a tick on its own eyebrow.

Curiously enough, the booked day was Monday. Evidently society’s cumulative grudge for the first day of the week led it to believing that it was a prime day for therapy. It was also possible, she considered, that someone had logically concluded that since life occurs on the weekends, that the first day afterwards would be the best time to discuss it. The day would be interesting, but it could not compete with her Friday 3 o’clock for anticipation.

Often it seemed to Sharon that all of her patients fit into a few categories. There were the nervous housewives, afraid their husbands were cheating on them, worried about their children, their looks, their weight. It wasn’t that they needed psychiatric counseling, but that they needed counseling, period. She remembered trying to make an appointment with one of them and learning that she needed to be fit in between a meeting with a dietician and a marriage counselor. Then there were the teenagers, some of whom were depressed, some of whom were out of control and FUBAR, one who was just as puzzled about why he was there as Sharon was, and none of who were willing to talk. She had three adult male patients, two of which were weepy effeminate wrecks that Sharon wished would see a dominatrix instead, and one so bursting with his virility she suspected he would find better therapy in a penitentiary. Finally there were two children she thought of as being eight whose only problems were being young and having parents who cared too much.

And then there was Alexis. When she had walked in to her first appointment she had sat right on the coffee table and launched into the lurid tale of how she had accidentally managed to be entangled with three different boyfriends, including a man engaged to another woman. She finished by asking for advice, and Sharon had launched right in by asking questions about how she felt about each character and came to the conclusion that she had better separate herself from all of them. Alexis asked for coffee and Sharon brought two cups from the back room without a thought and then left hers to cool on the table as they discussed how the extraction would be done. Only the knocking of the next patient reminded Sharon that they had gone nearly an entire hour overtime.

“Thank you. You’re so much more helpful than any of my other friends.” Said Alexis on the way out. “See you next time!”

Sharon had hoped for more patients like her, but even as her schedule filled, Alexis remained the only truly enjoyable appointment of the week. She’d been coming for a month by the time Sharon had begun to pay the bills entirely out of patient fees, with only a little of the inheritance remaining for ‘rainy days.’

The next time Alexis came in, Sharon had already poured the coffee and was waiting in anticipation. She was immediately struck by a change in mood and inquired. That was her job, after all, she reminded herself. Quickly she learned that Alexis had been just been laid off, another casualty of the economy’s recent implosion. The rest of the time until the next patient was taken up by the discussion of possibilities- welfare, other potential jobs, taking on boarders.  Alexis was fortunate in that she owned her own home. There was no chance of her losing that.

Near the end of the scheduled appointment, the unpleasant truth was revealed. “I don’t have the money to come see you anymore. I can’t afford it.”

“Don’t worry about it. Keep coming.” Sharon didn’t give it a second thought. She could afford the loss of a single afternoon slot. There were plenty of other patients now.

That didn’t remain the case for long. The middle-aged men left first. One got married, He-Man was arrested and her Friday four o’clock decided that she wasn’t giving him the attention he deserved and wasn’t worth the money. Then a few housewives left, becoming more frugal after having seen the economy’s pale belly. The eight year olds turned nine and were withdrawn by their parents, though whether they believed their children to be at all improved was unclear. The teenagers remained the most constant, with almost as many new ones arriving as had left.

At dinner with friends and mentors from school, Sharon joked that the bad economy improved the mental health of the population. No one laughed.

Money quickly became tighter. When the rent went up she first turned to the rainy day fund, sure that more patients would materialize soon. Instead, another housewife became a little more desperate, so Sharon let the apartment go and began sleeping on the waiting room couch and showering at the community pool.

Soon her financial troubles came up during Alexis’s Friday 3 o’clock appointment. Half way through Sharon realized that they were spending more time talking about the psychiatrist than the patient.

The same thing happened the next week after another teenager deemed ‘cured’ by their parents failed to be replaced. Then, at 4 o’clock, her one new patient since the market conflagration knocked on the door to say that she was sorry she hadn’t called, but that she really couldn’t afford to come any more. Sorry.

As soon as the door shut, Sharon ran to pull out her finance sheets, looked carefully, and broke down in tears. She could no longer afford even the office rent, she blubbered to the blurring numbers. She was going to be broke, homeless and broke, unless she moved out of state to stay with her parents. Jobless, she’d forgotten jobless. Hands grasped her shoulders. She’d forgotten that Alexis was still there.

“Now, now. You can stay with me. I owe you enough for a year’s rent in my spare bedroom, at least.”

Sharon looked up in dissipating awe. It wasn’t about the money, she realized.

It was the most natural thing in the world.

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