“So, how’s your scheduled?” Mrs. Jane asks, reclining behind her desk and looking every bit the shrink. She’s even wearing her concerned look: head tilted slightly to the right, trimmed eyebrows bent upward, lips pursed into a slight frown. It’s an expression patented in graduate school, one designed to draw out personal confessions as a toilet plunger draws out turds. “Do you like your classes?”
“They’re alright.” Between us a stick of sandalwood incense smolders on a tray featuring a small statue of the serene Buddha. And this Buddha isn’t the plump Chinese version, smiling and promising good fortune in return for a belly rub, but the Indian kind with hollow cheeks and protruding ribs. Underneath indecipherable hanzi, the tray is stamped in plain English “KEEP OUT OF REACH OF CHILDREN.” I breath thought my mouth, careful not to inhale the thick, scented air. A headache is already brewing. Having begun as a ping behind my eyeballs, it’s grown like a weed and is now a dull throb. In an hour it will find me in bed, blinds closed, an ice pack on my forehead. Artificial scents are my kryptonite.
“Even Ag Mechanics?” She twirls a pencil between her fingertips, playing air drums for The Who or Cream or some other hippy band. I love her subtle flicks of the wrist and quick, confident motions.
“Yeah, it sounds like a good time.” I lie, smiling, throwing a rehashed expression back to the master. Will she notice? School counselors, like anyone else, can be intuitive or dense. It’s always a coin toss, one dependent on the phase of the moon, hormones, and level of interest.
“June is in that class isn’t she?” Her eyebrows drop and lips level. Beside the incense tray are photos of students and friends. Hanging from her walls are state-approved motivational posters. In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity! says Albert Einstein. I know I should agree with him. He was a genius after all. “I know you two are becoming close.”
“She’s alright.” We’ve had this conversation before (thanks Mom!) and I wonder if it’ll end the same way, like two people driving different cars, one headed for Disneyland, the other for Six Flags. “She’s teaching me Spanish. Un árbol, una roca, una nube. That’s ‘a tree, a rock, a cloud.’”
Mrs. Jane smiles. Her leather chair creaks as she begins rocking back and forth. This is her thinking mode. I shift in my plastic bucket seat, waiting for whatever is next. I’m good like that, never eager I can idle with the best of them. Too bad Mom doesn’t realize it. She’d appreciate me more if she did. Patient people are easy to appreciate, if only for the fact that they don’t say much.
“So…” Mrs. Jane draws the word out. She taps her index fingers together in a way that seems straight out of a Bond movie. All she’s missing is an eye patch, lap kitten, and a supped up Russian satellite ready to destroy London. I give her time, pretending interest in a hula dancer figurine.
If you want to know, West Greenville hasn’t always had a real consular, not a qualified one with a fancy degree on the wall anyways. In the past, counseling was someone’s added chore, like making posters for the school’s annual canned food drive. It was only after Columbine that Home Office began an honest search for a dye in the wool kid shrink. Mrs. Jane, being the only applicant with anything that could be called an ‘impressive resume’ (hanging on the wall behind her desk is a small photo of her shaking hands with the mayor of Buffalo, New York and receiving the key to the city), was welcomed with opened arms. So in the fall of 04’ a janitor’s closet was emptied and a standard issue teacher’s desk hauled in. They even went so far as to paint it’s four windowless walls happy yellows and oranges.
“Where does June live?” Mrs. Jane moves a slow hand to the incense holder. She removes the spent stick and replaces it with another, this one green though still reeking of sandalwood. She lights it with the last match from a matchbook labeled El Cheapo’s Wine and Liquor. In spite of the putrid sandalwood cloud (on a scale of one to ten my headache is now a six-point-five) my nose spies the natural, primal aroma of sulfur. It’s intoxicating.
“Hunter Estates,” I say, leaving off the trailer park part.
“Is that within the school limits?”
“Barely,” I say, worrying that maybe she’ll try to banish my June Bug to Booker T. or Carver High School with the blacks and poor whites. Perhaps Mrs. Jane isn’t what I hoped she’d be.
“Tell me about her?” She asks. A bangle tiger tattoo, orange with black stripes, peeks out from under her shirt cuff. “How would you characterize June?”
“She’s smart,” I say, struggling a bit, a little defensive. It’s like being asked what is a dog? A dog’s, a dog. A dog that’s more bark than bit, but who’ll bite if need be. Like anyone else.
“What else?” She prods deeper, like a prospector who knows the easy pickings are gone and that its now all about elbow grease and sweat. During our first few sessions we played board games. I hardly said two words. Everything changed during session three. Seeing her put away Hungry Hungry Hippos and Connect Four was like the first time I rode the crimson wave, had a visit from Aunt Flo, checked into the Red Roof Inn. It was both terrifying an thrilling. She began talking to me straight. I felt like a woman. By the end of the afternoon I must’ve said two dozen words.
“That’s important to you?.” A slight, self-satisfied curl of the lip. Her heavy bead necklace rattles on the desktop as she leans forward. “Is you family honest? Or should I say open?”
“I don’t know. We don’t talk that much. You know that.”
“I know you don’t talk much.” It’s like playing catch with an All-Star, they’re not psychic but know what to expect and can anticipate.
“Well, they don’t,” I say, fighting down something, I’m not sure what.
“Sucks doesn’t it?” She relaxes into her big sister mode, using language that seems as natural to her as having bat wings or a mermaid tail. “I don’t mean to slam your family, but they do seem a little too quiet.”
I look at her.
It’s hard to think that the childless, divorced, forty-something Mrs. Jane Peterson was once top of her field. Beside the photo her and Mr. Mayor of Buffalo New York, are awards, the most recent from eleven years ago. They speak of a woman who loved and was loved: Prescott High Schools beloved Daughter, For Achievements in Community Building, etc. Does she regret coming to Greenville? Are my problems, our problems, beneath her? Maybe.
“And I know they don’t see their problems.” She pulls a pack Oreos from a drawer, meaning our twenty minutes are up. She offers me one. “Your Mom thinks our little sessions will get you out of your rabbit hole. But we both know that isn’t true. How’s the blog?”
“I haven’t started it yet,” I say, eyeing my Oreo, wondering about that coin toss.
“It could be a lot of fun. You should try it. And you should get June involved. I think you’re good for each other.”
“You’re one of the few.” I walk to the door, anticipating my mother on the other side, rereading a vintage copy of In Touch, anxious to leave.
“And try to talk to Oliver.” She calls after me. “Buenas tardes hasta la próxima semana!”
I look at her, and she gives me a quick, corny sitcom wink.
“Buenas tardes señora Jane,” I say, my smile, I’m sure, showing black Oreo teeth.