I got this job by pretending to be my long-dead, long-faced great-aunt. The credentials I listed are my own—I took the tests and got the degree. But my natural personality is more forlornly fault-finding than therapeutic, so during counseling job interviews I channel my Aunt Renata who called me “a beacon of God’s love” even after I stole her Lincoln Town Car and got pregnant in it.
When I sat down with the director of Sun Porch Retirement Village, I talked about goodness and redemption and I never once mentioned worthiness or bad apples. I put my legit GPA in bold on my resume, and then glanced down at it frequently during the interview to embolden myself and my ability to do an impression of a forgiving spirit who believes people are capable of change.
The facility director, Quinetta, asked me if I had experience working with the elderly.
“Oh, yes,” I said. “In high school I worked at a truck stop and there was a table of older men who never left. They sat in the corner near the bathroom and I always gave them real decaf when they asked for it. Some of the other gals secretly served them regular because they didn’t want to brew a whole new pot. But even then I knew that older people should be listened to, and that their specific needs should not be ignored.”
I didn’t tell her that I was, in truth, one of the gals giving them caffeinated coffee because brown is brown or that I whole-heartedly despised that table of guys who called me “Come ‘ere” and who never left tips since they never left, period.
I also told Quinetta about one of my supervised practicum session clients—a twitchy, tender woman going through the change of life. When she couldn’t sleep at night she went out into her van and pretended to honk the horn. She didn’t want her car’s midnight tooting to wake anyone, so she just brought her fist really close to the horn, over and over, until she felt two notches better. I told the client that was fine.
And now, thanks to this fine caliber of edited anecdotes, plus my good grades and my natural capabilities with demeanor-mimicry and tone-seance, I will start my job as Sun Porch’s group counselor tomorrow morning. I aim to help people connect with their inner truths and with each other. I aim to nod more than speak, to convey compassionate empathy with my eyeballs, and to always pull out of that parking lot by 4:45.
For my first day of work I wear a belted dress, white with a printed pattern of yellow flowers. The white is to symbolize surrendering to the process, the yellow is a nod to fear—whether the deep-seated or the yet-to-arise, and the belt is to draw eyes to my darling waist, which remains steadfastly defined even as the flesh above and below it expands and contracts like an inflatable kiddie pool in summer then winter then summer then winter.
Quinetta leads me into the dining hall and introduces me to the breakfast eaters. I see pink plastic plates in various states of undress and constellations of eyeglasses reflecting the overhead light. “Everyone, this is Candice Verlaine. As of today, she is our new counselor. She’s extremely qualified and experienced, and I’d like you all to give her a warm welcome.”
The residents hold their applause and greetings. They continue chewing and forking—most had stopped looking in our direction even before Quinetta said the word “today.” One man at a back table is holding up his cup of orange juice, but I don’t know whether he is toasting my arrival or asking for a refill.
Quinetta clears her throat and says, “I’m serious, folks. Candice deserves your respect and your genuine participation. We are giving this counseling program one last try but if you…she’s here to help… Let her help. Please.”
She then grabs me by the elbow and pulls me down a hall and away from the dining area before I can make a determination about the intentions of OJ man, on which, I feel certain, my fate hinges.
Quinetta directs us into a room that has a preschool feel, but with chairs made to accommodate bigger, higher butts. “This is the multi-purpose room. Anything can happen in here! This is where you’ll be spending a lot of your time.”
I stare at a paper mache foot that hangs from the ceiling. It has been painted green and the sole bears the words “walk on.” I look at Quinetta’s hair and ask, “What did you mean about this being the last chance for my program?” Her hair contains several Bobby pins and I feel entitled to one of them, maybe because of her information withholding, but I don’t touch them.
She gestures to the chairs at the nearest table, where someone has carved the word “rules” into the tabletop. As we sit, Quinetta says, “We’ve tried to implement the group counseling program twice before. First we had a nice woman, right out of school, whom residents wouldn’t speak to at all. She’d get the participants in a circle and ask them to bring their vulnerability to the circle with them and there they’d sit—round and mum. Just a lot of shifty eye contact and lip licking. She quit the second day in tears, saying she felt like the star of a reality TV show about institutions that was also a horror movie about humanity’s inability to connect.
“After she left, I took different residents aside and tried to understand why they refused to participate. They told me (each in their own way) that they didn’t appreciate a woman their grandkids’ age trying to tell them how to live, seeing as her experience with living was pretty paltry. I explained that she wasn’t telling them how to live, she was only asking them to talk about the life they’d lived so far, to get to the deep truth of it all. And Candice, every time I said the word ‘truth’ there would be a physical reaction from the person I was talking to—they’d bug their eyes or snort or fiddle around with a shirt button. It’s like the truth was on strike and the counselor was a scab, crossing the picket line.
“On the second go-around we went another direction. We hired an older man—closer to their age—who had more of an authoritarian vibe. We thought they’d consider him harder to defy, like maybe he’d remind them of their belt-wielding principal. And, sure enough, they talked to him plenty. On his first day they went on and on about their father’s hours at the chicken plant or how their grandma slapped them for putting a fork with the spoons. They told these stories in great detail and talked all about how it made them feel. When my daughter gave me a Dustbuster for my birthday twenty years ago I felt like she was saying it was time for me to start cleaning up my own messes. That, and because she stopped sweeping the slugs off my porch and bringing me bottles from the liquor store. That kind of thing. Or when I caught my husband of forty years standing in a public fountain and fondling a nude statue I knew it was time for us to rekindle our physical relationship. And how did I feel about that? Dry. Dry but… willing.
“But by day two the giggling started. The stories got even more far-fetched. One of them said he’d always had a sexual fantasy about being boiled into a harder version of himself, like an egg. No one could keep a straight face. It became clear that it was all a performance, that they’d banded together to give us the only truth they could part with—blatant lies.
“Honestly I think they did get some benefit from working together on their little show. I know better than to downplay the health effects of communal laughing. I was willing to let it continue as a tall-tale contest, since my ultimate goal was to boost morale, but the gentleman counselor thought it beneath him to nod along to manufactured emotions. What’s funny is that I think the young woman, the first counselor, would have gone along with this pretend-therapy arrangement. It’s hard to make situations align, isn’t it? But that’s my job. As director.”
Quinetta has been talking for a long time and I have fallen into a sinkhole of regret. I don’t want this job. I’m used to being without health insurance. I’m good at being without health insurance, even—when I sprained my wrist I fashioned a homemade cast out of packing tape and two menstrual pads, which are offered free-of-charge in the public restroom near the outdoor tennis courts. This job isn’t worth the headache. I look Quinetta in the eye and say, “I served them regular coffee. The table of older guys, I dosed them with caffeine.”
She smiles at me like I’m a child who made marker dots all over her skin in an effort to stay home from school. “Too late,” Quinetta says. “Your first group starts in half an hour.”
I’ve been in the bathroom for twenty minutes. Stalling in the stalls. The yellow flowers on my dress look more yellow than they did at home—it’s either the fluorescent lighting or the amplification of the fear they represent.
I try again with my self-centering pep talk. Okay so… I am about to lead a counseling session for a group of people who denigrate the truth. How fitting it is that I lied to get this job. How touching. How easy it is for situations to align.
I need to land on a tactic or a strategy before heading into the multi-purpose room for the session. Should I acknowledge the past antics right away? Should I give them a fresh start, a clean slate, a blank stare? Perhaps I should walk in with threats and belittlement. Maybe I should open with a song.
Someone outside the bathroom calls out, “Ma’am, are you still in there?”
I do not answer. I am a liar, not a bathroom hollerer. I leave the stall, wash my hands and exit the bathroom to find a man and his cleaning cart. The cart holds a mop and full rolls of individually wrapped tp. He eyes my waist and says, “Sorry, but… I saw you go in, and I’ve been waiting for you to come out for quite a long time.”
His face tells me that this is more patience than he offers most, and that I ought to be both grateful and sorry. Meanwhile, the wet blue loops of the mop come up to his shoulder, making him look like he has depressed-Raggedy-Andy for a conjoined twin. I say, “If you must know, I have a nasty UTI. My doctor said she hasn’t seen a case this bad since Elizabeth Taylor.”
He laughs and I wince at the friendliness of the sound. He was supposed to be stunned, not amused. “Wow,” he says, “which stall were you in, lady? Maybe I should scrub it extra.”
He is beaming now. I’ve inadvertently opened myself up to banter. My UTI line was intended to be a conversation-ender, not an open invitation to a chat-and-cackle. It’s my fault, I went too specifically absurd by referencing a dead celeb.
I point my thumb back at the door. “I was in the one closest to the hand dryer. I hope you have bleach.” I walk away quickly before he can volley back a response with the corresponding level of wit. I make sure my shoes clack the floor in self-assured tones and I try not to wonder if, perhaps, something about this building enfeebles my ability to lie in a way that gets me what I want.
The participating residents are already in a circle when I enter the room. They’ve pushed the tables back and brought the chairs forth. I’m waylaid from the start, as the only line I’d rehearsed back in the stall was, “Let’s form a circle.”
They’ve not left me an empty seat and there are too many kinds of shoes being offered toward the middle of the circle in twosies. I remember to smile. As I try to make my smile into a shape that is both trustworthy and stern, I orbit the group with my eyes. So this is the cast of our in-house production of “Whose Lie is It, Anyway?”
I do not judge their faces harshly. Now that I am with them, I get the rather lame sense that we are in this together. Their chins and cheeks appeal more to my sense of let’s-get-this-over-with than as a direct challenge of my authority. I don’t feel opposed to them at all, really. I feel drawn in.
As I take in each face, I am momentarily inhabited—I become each participant during the flicker of eye contact we share. Without moving my body or features (but within my self-perception) I hold my jaw and my wrists the way they do. I narrow or widen my eyes and raise or lower my chin as my hair grows, shrinks, curls and balds. It’s an inner imitation. A motionless morph. It’s an homage—not a lie—because the becoming isn’t even a choice.