Dr. Wong had never expected to see Rick Sanchez again…at least, not within the context of a family counseling appointment. In truth, she would’ve been fine with that. He was not a man she particularly wanted to see.
But when the Smith family arrived on a rainy Friday afternoon, there he was, in human form, wearing a white lab coat and tugging absently on the collar. Looking at him, she felt a reflexive bristle, a subtle tension creeping through her muscles.
She pushed the feelings aside. She ought to be glad that he’d decided to take this step. Even if it would mean dealing with a few sarcastic remarks from him during the session. If her past experiences with men like him were anything to go by, he’d been coerced into coming here through some sort of ultimatum and would do everything in his power to deflect and derail the session with jokes at everyone else’s expense. But dealing with that was part of the job, too. Nothing she wasn’t used to.
They all took their seats. Rick sat on the couch between his daughter and the boy, Morty.
“Good afternoon,” Dr. Wong said.
They all murmured greetings. Rick said nothing. His expression remained blank, unreadable.
“Glad you decided to join us, Mr. Sanchez.”
“Oh. Uh. Thanks. J-just Rick.”
“All right. Rick.” She looked around. “How is everyone today? Would you like to kick things off with a round of ‘I’ statements?”
“Oh, I’ll go first,” Jerry said. He raised one hand, which was covered by a fuzzy red fox puppet with googly eyes and long eyelashes. He spoke in a high-pitched, feminine Southern drawl: “I’d like to introduce myself. I’m Fanny the Fox, and I’m just pleased as punch that you’ve become more tolerant of Jerry’s use of puppets to express his emotions. So happy to meet y’all!”
She stared blankly. “Yes. Well. We all have…unique forms of expression. I apologize for my earlier use of the word ‘crazy.’”
“Why does the puppet have a Southern accent?” Summer asked.
The fox replied, “Because I’m from Georgia, honey. Born and raised.”
“So it’s like…a whole character? With a backstory?” Morty asked.
“Well, I’m Jerry, but I’m just little ol’ me too. There are some things he simply can’t express on his own. I’m just here to lend a helping paw.”
“There are so many questions I could ask right now,” Beth said.
“Let’s move along,” Dr. Wong said. “We can...come back to this later. Summer?”
“Oh! I’m excited that I got invited to this party at Brad’s house over the weekend. It’s gonna be lit. Mom is giving me a look because she doesn’t want me to go, but I’m totally going.”
“I’m concerned that Summer is going to end up making decisions she regrets if she keeps going to these types of parties,” Beth said, arms over her chest. “I don’t like this ‘Brad’ guy.”
“Literally all you know about him is his name.”
“No one named ‘Brad’ has ever been trustworthy.”
“We’ll discuss that later,” Dr. Wong said. “Morty?”
“Hi. I, um. I’m just…I’m okay, I guess. Sorry, I know ‘okay’ isn’t a feeling. I—” he glanced at Rick, a hint of uncertainty in his expression. “I’m hangin’ in there. Y’know. I guess I was sorta hoping that Space Mom would be here with us too. I mean, she’s been living with us for a month now, so.”
They’d mentioned her last time. Apparently there was another Beth now. Somehow. Dr. Wong thought it best not to ask too many questions. Prying too deeply into the weirdness around this family’s situation, she sensed, would lead down a rabbit hole to places she wasn’t prepared to go and wasn’t paid enough to deal with, so she tried to focus on the core emotional issues. “Rick? Any—” she paused, clearing her throat. “Anything to share with your family about—about how you’re feeling? Being here, right now?”
He shifted his weight. Tugged at his collar again. And she was struck suddenly by how different his body language was from last time. He kept fidgeting, looking away and rubbing a hand over his wrist. “N…nervous,” he muttered. “I guess.”
That he would admit that outright was surprising, too. She tilted her head slightly, searching his expression for any hint of sarcasm, any indication that this was an act—a mask that he would pull off at some point to reveal a mocking smirk. She saw none.
She didn’t know what had happened, but something was different about him.
“It’s normal to be nervous about seeing a counselor for the first time,” she said. “But I’m just here to offer my input and guidance.”
Rick shifted his weight again. “It’s…n-not my first time, exactly.”
Beth glanced at him, a puzzled expression on her face.
“You’ve had counseling before?” Dr. Wong asked.
“Eh. Sorta. I had a few run-ins with the mental healthcare system, but that was back in the fifties—early sixties, maybe? Long time ago. Anyway. N-not trying to change the subject. K-k-keep going.”
Dr. Wong hesitated. Judging by the agitated way he was drumming his fingers on the couch, it wasn't a pleasant memory. “Would you like to talk about that experience?”
“Does it matter?” he asked, a hint of the old sharpness in his voice.
“I think it could be useful to understand. But it’s up to you.”
He rubbed his forehead. “I was, uh. Kind of a handful,” he said. “As a teenager. P-pulled some pretty ridiculous stunts. Couldn’t sit still in school, couldn’t seem to keep my smartass mouth shut. Because I was bored as fuck. Sorry, I’ll try not to say ‘fuck’ too much while I’m here, but—anyway, long story short, things took a bad turn with my family and m-my folks had me committed. I wasn’t too crazy about the situation—pun intended. I was in there for…probably a year? Saw a lot of doctors. Got a few rounds of the juice. Y’know.” He put his fingers to his temples. “Bzzzzt. But hey. That’s p-p-practically a rite of passage for eccentric geniuses. Takes more than a few hundred volts to tame this brain.” He gave a forced chuckle. “They, uh. Th-they didn’t always knock you out for it back then, just strapped you down, so that was…interesting. I got a reputation there as a biter so they put this fuckin’ Hannibal Lecter muzzle on me for a while. Y-you shoulda seen this thing, it was actually pretty badass. Not too comfy though. And there was this orderly who liked to—” he stopped. Everyone was staring at him. “What?”
“Dad,” Beth said quietly. “You never told me about any of this.”
“Never came up.” He stared at the wall.
Morty hesitated, then awkwardly put a hand on Rick’s arm.
“That’s…” Dr. Wong slowly set down the pencil she’d been unconsciously fiddling with. “I’m sorry you were subjected to that.”
He shrugged. “It was a long time ago.”
* * *
Rick remained fairly quiet throughout the rest of the session, commenting a few times in response to his family’s interactions and making a few jokes but divulging no more of his own feelings or experiences. Dr. Wong didn’t probe. If he had trauma associated with the therapeutic process—something which seemed likely, given what he’d told them—it was better to let him move at his own pace. The fact that he’d showed up at all was an important first step.
After the session ended and the rest of the family had left, she was absently straightening the books on her coffee table when Rick poked his head back into the room and said, “Hey.”
She looked up. “Yes?”
“S-sorry about being a shit last time. And, y’know. The whole pickle incident.”
“Apology accepted.” She hesitated. She could leave it at that. Let him walk away, feeling that she had—in some sense—won. She straightened and turned to face him. “I should apologize as well. I didn’t handle that situation in the ideal way.”
He stood in the doorway, hands in the pockets of his lab coat. “You handled it fine.”
“No, I—” she paused, wondering again if she should just let it be. Her next appointment was in a few minutes. But in truth, the memory of that encounter had been bothering her for a while.
She could play his remarks back in her head now, like a recording: I don’t think going to a rented office in a strip mall to listen to an agent of averageness explain which words mean which feelings has ever helped anyone do anything.
Those remarks had irritated her more than she’d care to admit. She’d let him get under her skin; she’d wanted to get under his skin. To put him in his place, to strip away his defenses, lay him bare and embarrass him, even if it meant he would never come back. She had allowed her personal feelings to get in the way of her professional judgment.
“I shouldn’t have lectured you,” she said. “It’s not a good way to win a new patient’s trust.”
He leaned against the doorframe. “It was true. Everything you said.”
“That’s not the point.”
Of course, she knew why she’d allowed him to provoke her, as well—it was a point of professional pride for her that she never lied to herself—but the reasons were…embarrassing.
She liked being a therapist. She did. It was rewarding and meaningful work. But it hadn’t been what she wanted, in the beginning.
As a little girl she’d dreamed of being a scientist. She’d wanted to invent things. New and exciting things. Of course, growing up had tempered those expectations, but even in college her goal had been to become a research psychologist and pioneer new ideas—to explore the uncharted frontiers of the human psyche. To change reality not in small, incremental ways but in big, noticeable ones. She’d wanted the world to look at her and think, Now there is an exceptional mind. More than that...she'd wanted her work to be stimulating. Fun. An adventure.
Research wasn’t an easy career to break into, though. At some point, she’d bowed to the pragmatism of needing a steady paycheck. And now here she was, in a rented office in a strip mall, talking to dysfunctional families and poop-eaters, her framed PhDs accumulating dust on the walls.
She straightened another book on her coffee table, lining it up with the box of Kleenex.
“Morty really looks up to you, you know,” Rick remarked into the silence.
She glanced at him.
“S-sometimes he talks to me in this—this voice. Imitating your tone. ‘And why do you feel that way, Rick?’” Rick smiled fondly, chuckled a little. “I’m not sure if he even realizes he’s doing it, but…yeah. This is something the kid’s needed for a while, I think. Someone to help him figure out just—how to be a person. How to exist. Guess they—we all needed it. I was never good at that stuff. I'm s...still kind of a kid myself. Or at least, I feel that way sometimes.”
She looked away. For a few seconds, she couldn’t respond. “Thank you.”
“Just the truth. Anyway, see you next week.” He disappeared out the door, then poked his head in again and said, “Oh, in case you’re wondering, I removed the voice-activated escape contingencies from your office.”
“Nice to know.”
He smiled again and walked out, leaving her there in her rented office with her books and chairs, listening to the faint patter of rain on the roof.