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