Bird’s Nest In Your Hair

Chapter Five

Dr. Cervantes began his morning by saying hello to Louise, secretary and receptionist for himself and the four other doctors in his group. For twenty-five years now she had been employed by Cervantes and his colleagues – remarkable, Cervantes thought, for someone who showed next to no interest in the specialty herself. Neither she nor anyone in her family saw him or any of the other doctors; she had never asked his advice about family crisis, she took a mild, unassuming interest in the patients and was never anything less than cheerful, even when dealing with the most neurotic and unpleasant of the whole woesome lot.

After pouring himself a cup of coffee he pinned a manila folder between his upper right arm and his chest so as to open up the door to his office with his free left hand, took the familiar two steps towards his desk, and put both the coffee and the folder on the blotter in front of him. He sat down heavily in his chair, not quite slumped, but in his musing position, and gazed through his window at the rain dribbling over gutters at the edge of the roof and onto the rhododendrons below.

He still wanted to heal, to help people fix their broken lives, but for the last six months he’d fallen prey to his own darker moods and had finally come to a conclusion he had long feared: psychiatry was entirely and utterly a complete charade. At least as he had always practiced it. And hadn’t it always been? From Freud on down? It was all an illusion (‘illusion’ was the word he kept repeating to himself), an illusion that anyone ever became well by talking to him. People simply crawled away from the wreckage of their lives on their own, and the old adage about time was correct – if there were any healing at all. Of course, concerning illusion there had been jokes about his name from the beginning, especially among his fellow students in medical school. “So you’re going tilting at windmills! Ha!”. Cervantes had smiled at their jokes, rather liking the irony of it all, and then pointed out that it was the fictional Quixote who had charged at windmills.

If there was anything he could do as a psychiatrist, it was prescribe medication. Cervantes, like the rest of his colleagues, had in the last few decades come to embrace an increasingly biochemical view of mental illness, and were doling out medication accordingly. If anything, he suspected he was rather more conservative than most in his profession when it came to estimating the success of the new drugs. It wasn’t that medication wasn’t effective – the newer serotonin inhibitors were on the whole very effective for depression – but he often wondered whether they weren’t missing something by resorting so quickly to medication. He wondered whether the change in treatment advocated by most in his profession didn’t portend something more ominous. Not so much for individuals he was treating (though this was also true), but for society as a whole, and for future generations in particular.

Still, it was hard to argue with success, and he was certain that his next appointment could benefit greatly from some medication for anxiety and mild depression. Julie, however, was one of the few patients who refused to take anything. She worked hard at talk therapy – she’d been at it for fifteen years, off and on, and could even be described as good at it. It pained Cervantes to think of it this way; such a description was closely connected to his suspicions about the whole process being a farce. But there she was, ready to resume the monologue about her parents, deeply invested in the very illusion with which Cervantes was so ill at ease. If only he could get her to talk about something else; he still felt that he knew everything about her except for what he considered most crucial. The young woman never talked about her love life. She didn’t seem to have many friends. She hadn’t mentioned more than one or two girlfriends from school, and since they’d gone on to college while Julie stayed at home she hadn’t mentioned them recently at all. She never talked about boys. He had recommended several women colleagues with whom he had hoped she might feel more comfortable. In fact, most of his clients were boys growing up without fathers active in their lives. Too many had no fathers at all. It was regrettable that one of the most significant men in their lives should be their psychiatrist. As for Julie, after several desultory visits to other counselors, she insisted that she was still most comfortable with Cervantes. Perhaps the others had more forcefully insisted on medication.

Julie’s mother had originally taken her to see Dr. Cervantes because she had believed her daughter to be needlessly suffering from abnormal shyness. She also had trouble sleeping, and had sometimes complained of nightmares. So in the same year that Julie began going to school she also began weekly visits with Cervantes, making the ten minute trip to his office every Tuesday morning in the back seat of her mother’s car, while most of the other children in the neighborhood boarded the mustard colored school bus, just as they did the other four days of the week. Or so it seemed to her. Julie is of a generation for which some form of counseling is a given for a good portion of the population. She didn’t realize this at the time, just as she didn’t understand that her mother brought her to the very best psychiatrist she could find, just as she sought out the best instructors to give her daughter ballet and piano lessons.

When they arrived at the office her mother would sometimes remain in the waiting room browsing through magazines, or at other times merely drop Julie off and drive to a nearby restaurant for a cup of coffee. In the waiting room there was a children’s corner fitted out with a colorful array of books and blocks. She quickly grew tired of these and usually filled the time by gazing out the window and humming a tune to herself, incomprehensible to others. At one or two minutes after the hour Dr. Cervantes would make his appearance by opening the door and leaning into the room with one hand kept on the doorknob. After giving a pleasant look to her mother as Julie passed through the open doorway, he would let the door close behind him and follow Julie back to another room (containing another children’s corner, littered with lettered blocks, crayons and paper and play dough, but without the battered books which cluttered the other). Most of the time Julie would just sit and draw pictures while Dr. Cervantes would ask questions from a chair drawn up close by. Occasionally he would ask what she had been feeling when she made a particular drawing, or ask where she had learned to hum such a strange tune. Julie usually answered, “I don’t know”, raising the pitch just slightly in the middle of ‘know’ to make it sound more pleasant. Sometimes she claimed to have just made it up, which invariably prompted a longer line of questions about feelings.

As she grew older, she got better at this type of discussion, and eventually was able to hold a fifty-minute monologue in front of Dr. Cervantes with remarkable ease. When she was in junior high school she stopped her weekly visits. When she was in high school her mother insisted that she get counseling for what she, her mother, believed to be oppositional defiance. Cervantes believed this to be nonsense, knowing full well that this had been the lead story in Psychology Today, and most certainly the inspiration behind her diagnosis. For her part, Julie didn’t consider herself shy or defiant, but she didn’t mind seeing Dr. Cervantes either. She thought that her parents were the people with problems, and she was happy to talk about that if it made her mom feel better for her to see a doctor. This had been her attitude right up until the present time.

It was remarkable how little had changed over the years. In all these years that she had been seeing Dr. Cervantes she had noticed that the carpet had been changed only twice (from beige to rust and back to beige) and the furniture once. The same paintings were hanging on the wall, including a small, black and white print of Monsignor Quixote by Picasso, above the table next to the chair in which she sat. It looked a little like a Rorschach inkblot. In the last year she had even seen the dollhouse resting on the floor beside his desk (left, for some reason, from a previous appointment), its sepia colored roof now yellowed, but with the same chip in the chimney she had first noticed as a little girl.

Their discussions had changed greatly from those that they had carried on when she was a child. Having learned to talk about herself, she needed very little prompting from the doctor. When she stalled at a particular point, he would simply refer to a point that she had made in close conjunction to the one at which she had stopped speaking. When she answered or stated anything with emphatic certainty, he responded quietly by saying, “Hmm”, or sometimes “Well now”.

This morning Julie filed into Dr. Cervantes office as usual. In her left hand she held a white paper cup, on which the Starbuck’s mermaid seemed to be captured in her grasp. After sitting down and taking a sip, she began talking as she always began, letting long pauses fill the room in between her almost oracular utterances about the most mundane things.

“It’s been a pretty good week.” Followed by a pause.

“Work was OK.” She looked down at her hands for a minute.

“Mom isn’t driving me any more crazy than usual.”

“Hmm.” said Dr. Cervantes.

“I’ve been sleeping OK.” She was rubbing the back of her left hand with the fingertips of her right; not quite wringing them, but it was a nervous habit he’d noticed some time ago.

“Well,” he offered.

“Probably because I’ve been working out a lot.”


She stared at a painting on the wall directly across from her, which (as she noticed for perhaps the thousandth time) really isn’t a painting at all, but strips of torn colored paper fitted together as four vertical stripes, about four feet in length. Rust, brown, orange, yellow, and yellow. She stars at one of the yellow strips for a few minutes. Dr. Cervantes shifted his position in his chair, then quietly coughed.

“My Volkswagen is about that color.”


She tried to think of something else to say while gazing at a plant in the corner.

“Not sure why I said that.”


She looked at the digital clock at the edge of Cervantes’ desk. Forty-six minutes to go. She let out a short sigh and went back to staring at the opposite wall for a long time.

In the corner to the left was a large plant. The plant, which something like a palm, had leaves that began on the stem and then reached out into something like a limb three or four inches above the earth filling the large pot – the pot itself on a terra cotta plate to hold the excess water. Flecks of dirt remained on the edge of the plate. ‘Like driftwood at high tide,’ she thought, as she had thought many times before, although she’d never mentioned it.

She turned her gaze to the wainscoting, longer at the larger sections, more briefly at the smaller sections.

She suddenly had a brief feeling of panic, which she then suppressed with a longer glance at the yellow stripe in the work of art across from her.

Since Cervantes always remained seated in his swivel chair, his desk was now behind him and outside of his gaze. It has always felt natural to stare into space just beyond this gaze, and so she often found herself looking at various items on his desk. At the calendar, for example, consisting of several wooden blocks resting in something like a large scrabble tray.

His shoes were Mephistoes, the same brand as her father’s casual shoes, but black instead of dark brown, and not new, judging from the creases just below the laces. But not especially old, either.

Grey wool pants, with cuffs. She looked at the desk again.

Then she looked at the door, which was heavy enough to keep out most sounds. One sound she could often hear was that of another door closing. Sometimes she heard other people talking. Were they saying anything like the things she was saying? Of course she wasn’t saying much of anything.

She looked at the brass-colored door knob, in which she can see a dark reflection that must be the back of his chair.

Then she looked above the door, to the left, a corner of the room, where for a moment it is as if she were dwelling there.

Then the calendar on his desk.

Then the pen and its stand, next to the calendar. The pen itself black, shiny, and undoubtedly hard plastic, though of course she has never held it. The stand was metal and colored gold, shiny in a different way, the sheath rising about a third of the way up the pen. What had he written about her, using it?

The clock, the same digital numbers glowing red, now showing 8:27.

The carpet, at a change in the direction of the nap due to the vacuum cleaner. She lingered over habitual thoughts of a nameless, faceless janitor.

She began thinking about numbers. “Four hundred”, she thought. “From a thousand leaves six hundred. This month only a hundred.” She continued doing arithmetic in her head until she turned to the heart of the matter: “What will I say in the end?”

She turned her gaze from the floor to the large picture window to her left, opening onto a small backyard that has always seemed to her remarkably peaceful.

She thought of the horseman behind her, and then pondered over her next comment.

On the other side of the glass door and just beyond the rockery was a small strip of lawn; beyond that small strip of lawn was a high fence, much of it covered with ivy. How long had it been since the ivy had been trimmed? How long would it be before it was trimmed again?

The minutes passed; sometimes she watched as many as five numbers change on the clock.

She turned her head just slightly to look at a wrought iron bench at the edge of the lawn. Did anyone ever sit on that bench? Under what circumstances? Perhaps Dr. Cervantes himself sat there on his lunch break.

She began to change the direction of her gaze more often now, taking just a moment to look over the blinds at the top of the window, measuring in her mind the angle at which so many different straight lines come together, and then to the picture on the wall, and then back to the blinds again. More thoughts of such things as the horseman on the wall, or the life of the janitor. Questions that would never be answered. Now forty-five minutes had gone by. It was time.

“Well,” said Cervantes, softly, “you haven’t said much today.”

“No,” she replied, just as softly. She pondered that comment again.

“I think this is my last session.”

Cervantes was surprised. Had she, too, realized that it was all a charade? “Well. . . I thought something was on your mind.”

“I appreciate everything you’ve done for me. You’ve been a big help…” Cervantes thought this polite, but nothing more. Especially since she was leaving.

“Did you want to try one of the other … counselors again?” This was part of the charade, he realized.

“I don’t think so.”

“Well then…”

“No, I think I’m going to go solo for awhile”

‘Solo,’ he thought; that seemed a strange way to put it. Instead of asking, he asked if the might consider less frequent visits.

“I don’t think so.”


“I’ll use the money I save to get my own place.”

“Hmm. . .”

“I’m going to keep taking classes, I think.”

“Well then…” He put stretched out his arms on the armrests and exhaled rather deeply. Finally.

“Thanks for all your help,” she said, standing.

“Well,” he said, managing a smile. He stood up in front of his chair. He put out his hand for her to shake, and she took it.

“Good luck,” she said. This, he thought, was a strange thing to say to one’s psychiatrist. Charade or no charade.

‘Well, well, well’.


  1. Henri Young says


  2. Anonymous says

    Read in a hurry, because pressed for time. But thought it was pretty good, although it felt like it started to go on a bit, perhaps because I was hurrying. A few words that sounded clumsy: ‘doling’ ‘mom’ (instead of ‘mother’). Didn’t like the paragraphy that began ‘This morning’ and ended ‘mundane things’. Didn’t much like the reference to mephistoes – think cultural references often a mistake. Why ‘habitual’ thoughts of a nameless janitor? And be careful not to repeat a word soon after you have just used it – I do it often, I think it happens naturally.

  3. Quin Finnegan says

    All worthy criticisms – especially the repetion of a word after it’s been used once. I hate that! I try to catch those, but I’ve definitely missed some.

    I’m just grateful that you’ve taken the time.

    To answer your questions: I’ve never referred to my own mother as “mother” – she’s always “mom” to me. Perhaps it’s a matter of American English.

    I wrote of “habitual” thoughts because – this might be too much information – my own experience with counseling is that it just becomes a mode of habitual thinking. Parents, early experiences, shame, emotional blind spots … after a while even these lodestars seem emptied of any real significance. After years of counseling, we’re still stuck with ourselves. The furniture in a counselor’s office begins to resemble props in a play – unreal, unless one uses one’s imagination to bring some kind of life to them. How was this chair manufactured? What size shoe does he wear? Who sweeps the rug? But even these thoughts become habitual; the mind tires of trying to invent – especially when there are real answers to these questions. You could ask your counselor what his shoe size is, but how could you put the question into any sort of acceptable context? In the end, the counselor’s office is a sort of prison cell, which can be very difficult to leave – and of course some people shouldn’t leave.

    That’s been my experience, anyway. I hope that others might feel the same way, but I might just be bonkers. I think there might be some relation to Will Barrett’s experience in The Last Gentleman, or Dr. Tom More in Thanatos Syndrome, but maybe not. But Will was pretty bonkers, as was Dr. More at times. Julie… you’ll just have to see how she ends up.

    Thanks again for reading! I really am grateful.

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