A friend had warned me about having sessions in a therapist's own home. "It can be too personal, unprofessional," she said, relating her own experience. "Every time I noticed a new vase or floor rug, I wondered if I'd paid for it."
But from appearances alone, my new therapist didn't seem to be in desperate need of my postdated checks. Displayed on the walls of her garden-level home office were her and her husband's multiple Ivy League degrees; original, signed lithographs; and family photos documenting graduations and European vacations: three generations portrayed in celebration and cable-knit sweaters. My therapist wore silk blouses, stylish gauchos and knee-high boots to our sessions; a sizable diamond ring weighed down her left hand.
I, meanwhile, arrived in baggy sweats and hastily chosen T-shirts, there to talk about a life that couldn't have seemed more of a contrast: my grudge-holding, working-class Mexican American family (who can't share a holiday meal, let alone an entire trip); the nine years it took me to graduate from college; the ring finger recently bared by divorce. During our first few sessions, as I struggled with particular pieces of dysfunction, I worried about whether this woman, my therapist, could possibly understand where I was coming from and whether she'd judge my entire ethnic group by the stories I was sharing with her.
Some of my family, particularly the tías and great-tías, wondered why I even bothered with therapy. You don't tell people your business, they claimed, and you certainly don't share your secrets with them. After all, isn't that what family is for?
But there was no way I was going to expose my issues to any of my chatty cousins or las señoras homebound who lived to update grapevine gossip. Besides, over eight months, I found my therapist to be attentive and thorough. She took reams of notes and always asked questions, a lot of questions.
"Why the sadness?"
"Why the anger?"
"What are you feeling now?"
Many times during our sessions, I could hear movement in her home, dishes being washed, the room above us being vacuumed. Sometimes I detected the faint sound of a Spanish-language radio station. "Don't mind the noise," she'd say. "It's only my housekeeper."
I never saw that housekeeper, but I assumed she was brown, like me. I wondered if, looking out an upstairs window, she ever noticed me arriving or leaving, and what she'd think about another brown woman, like her, paying for someone to listen to her problems. After all, isn't that what family is for?
Then one lazy afternoon, as I clicked the TV remote from one daytime talk show to another, the phone rang. I was surprised to see my therapist's name and number appear on the caller ID and immediately glanced over at the kitchen calendar. No, I hadn't forgotten a session. I answered.
It was my therapist, sounding frantic. Her housekeeper was in trouble.