Hitting the mother lode
I walk around for another hour, trying and failing to find the perfect place. But just as I’m about to call it a day, I look into a bar and make eye contact with a man inside. The glare is so strong I can barely see him, but he nods and waves me in to what I realize is a completely empty bar. Ah-ha.
The walls are very white. The bar is not wood. It does not smell at all like stale mop water. It seems -- well, like halfway between a bar and a therapist’s office. I sit down. And the bartender -- a little older than me -- bright-faced with short, dark hair -- asks me what I’d like. I order an IPA. He gets it for me quickly. I think to myself, He could be my therapist.
I start to talk. But before I can ask how his day was (in hopes that he will ask me about mine), an older gentlemen walks in, and the bartender says, “I’m actually off the clock.” I give him a look of profound disappointment not at all commensurate with the news he’s just given me. A look that may have revealed my inner thinking: But I’ve walked so far during football hours to find you. He continues, gesturing over at the older guy who is now taking off his jacket, “I was just waiting for this guy to show up. Mark is the man. He knows everything.”
A man who knows everything -- even better.
Soon, Mark stops over, says “How’s it going?” and immediately turns to the cash register. Then he goes to the back someplace for 10 minutes. Since I didn’t need to order, we didn’t need to talk. When he reappears, he tells the waitress he can’t find any limes. This is a first for me, being less important to my therapist than limes. Mark walks past me, and notices my glass is empty. I order a glass of Macallan, thinking if I’m going to suffer through this again, I might as well have something good to drink. He talks to me for a little about how he used to drink Scotch, that it used to be his “fave.” This is also a first for me, a therapist that says “fave.” He gives me a food menu, and walks away, and I realize I’ve been sitting at the bar for a half-hour. I begin to deliberately not use my phone -- in order to show that I am not waiting for anyone, that I am not contented. It works. Mark comes over. “So, how’s your day?”
I take a breath. I need to draw him in. “Not great,” I say. It’s an exaggeration. But to receive therapy from someone not expecting to offer it, you need to give cause immediately.
“Oh? That’s a shame,” Mark says. He narrows his eyes. “Why?”
I start with a broad stroke: “So, well, I have this job. I’m not happy there. I don’t know what to do. Do you think you can give me some advice?”
He brightens. “As a matter of fact, I can,” he says. “I’m a part-time career coach. I give free half-hour consultations.” He reaches in his pocket and gives me his card.
My stomach sinks. Shit. If there is one type of person I cannot possibly put any faith in, it’s a part-time career coach with a business card. I consider downing my Macallan and going home.
Yet, there is something that keeps me there. Mark, partly bald, with thin-rim glasses, doesn’t not look away. He believes. And while I become skeptical when he espouses the importance of LinkedIn, he comes across as honest, not a huckster. And so I go on and tell him about this job I have. I had long dreamed of having this job, but lately my excitement has curdled into resentment and a sort of low-grade despair. And then, for reasons I don’t quite understand, after a good windup, I dig in and ask him the central question that touches on every part of my life: work, women, family, friends. Something I’ve never asked anyone: “Have you ever felt like you were a low priority to almost everyone who is important to you?”
I can tell this surprises him. But I can see it’s struck something. He stays quiet for a while, doesn’t move, keeps his eyes locked on me.
“You know,” he says. “I stopped seeking approval a long time ago.”
Just like that. The statement hits me. It’s so clean and simple, and yet it reframes my concern in a way that suddenly reveals a new way forward. It isn’t draped in any unnecessary nuance. It just captures what I had been helplessly, stupidly grasping for: approval.
This proves a talent of Mark’s. We meander for a while as we talk -- about work, art, women -- but we find our way back to my job dissatisfaction again. I think of my father and my college friends, how impressed they are of what I do. I say to Mark, “I can’t figure out why I’m not proud of where I am.”
“That sounds like someone else’s beliefs,” he says, “from when you were younger.”
Goddamn. Again. He’s right, without saying it. I realize: I don’t want to still hold myself to the standards I had for me when I was in college.
By the time I finally look at my phone I realize we’ve talked for an hour. I’ve had another Macallan, I’ve asked Mark many questions, I’ve learned about his life -- how his interests and third side career, which he does on his own (something I’ve long considered) so neatly overlap with mine -- and he has for me recast two fundamental worries of mine into newly manageable ways.
And I believe him with as much weight as I did with my old therapist -- though not because of any diplomas on the walls, but because he has already lived a life I’d wondered if I could live, and I respect him, and I fear becoming him, and I have faith in him, all at once.
I feel warm, comfortable and happy. I find myself thanking him. When he says, “Talking to someone else about everything can be therapeutic,” I know it’s time to leave. I’ve gotten a full hour. That was my intent. And while I think we could’ve talked for many hours still, that would mean we were becoming friends. While he told me to keep in touch -- and I still have his card -- that’s not what I’m looking for. I still need a stranger.
On my way home, I regret two things. First is not going to the bathroom before I left. The second is that I did not pay him more. With a 10-dollar tip, my total for the hour came to $45. I realize I got off cheap. It was, after all, happy hour.