She noticed his hands before anything else. They twitched and fidgeted as if they were late for something and the rest of his body would just have to catch up. Next were his eyes. They darted from one corner of the room to the other, watching the ceiling as if the answer to all his problems would be written there. Whenever his eyes would set on something, then she could really look at them. They were a beautiful pair of black irises. Never before had she seen eyes so dark. It was intriguing while at the same time frightening. Lastly, his name. Whenever the doctor came to take him back she lightly called, "Stephen?"
And then he was gone. Quickly. Promptly. Disappearing behind a door in hopes of a solution. Agnus could tell that he had been to this psychologist many times. The thought of that alone; that a man could repeatedly come for help and keep coming back, never getting any better, was enough to make her grip her purse tighter and sink her heels into the shag carpet so as not to sprint out the door. What am I even doing here? I'm not like that. Before she knew it her doubts had wrapped around her like a boa constrictor. She was in the elevator and sitting in her car within a moment's fury. Dammit Agnus! How are you ever going to get better if you keep denying it?
The next week, the man with the black eyes sat next to her in the waiting room. Agnus found herself even more unsettled than before. Now her eyes were the ones jumping from corner to corner and her foot tapped aggressively out of rhythm. Stephen noticed her the moment she came into the office. It wasn't a busy place, not even a large one. Two partner psychs who had set up shop maybe 30, 40 years ago in the same miniature office park in a nearly deserted part of town. There was hardly anything really frightening about it. The fear was more of a personal, internal decision to stare into the dark closet where a monster could be hiding. This sort of thing felt like someone forcefully turning on a flashlight to piece through your coats and hats to show you what the 'monster' really is.
Stephen watched the eyes of the woman as she pathetically and patiently pulled them down into her lap to stare at her hands. A million thoughts raced through her mind. She barely noticed the black eyed man next to her. Heroically, he attempted to start a comforting conversation.
"Hi," he said with a voice that felt almost flipped inside out. She was startled by his voice, it was soft and deep, almost musical.
"Oh, hello," she said rushingly.
"Do you always arrive early for these things? I know I do."
She hesitated to laugh but then did so nervously.
"Yeah, I suppose so. I'm sorry, I'm quite nervous."
And then, feeling as if a Kindergartner, she added,
"It's my first time."
Stephen smiled, wanting to reach a hand out to her. The woman was shaking like a leaf. He could only imagine the way he had looked the first time he was sent to therapy. He had blocked most of those years out of his memory.
"That's pretty brave of you," he managed to say.
She looked at him, her body stilling.
"I mean, to make that conscious effort. To look at your life and want things to improve. That's brave. Nothing is easy, especially not this. But it gets better."
A moment escaped them in a gentle quietness, the only sounds were of the receptionist typing and the fish tank water running.
"I'm Stephen," he finally said, introducing himself.
"Agnus," she shook his hand wearily, afraid that he'd notice how sweaty her palms were.
"I've always found that talking can help the time go when you're afraid of something. Talking can just help in general. Would you mind if I asked you what you do?"
"Oh," she thought about how strangely he pieced words together.
Was it sincere, or just downright weird? He seemed sweet. Considering how extremely petrified he appeared to be last week, it didn't appear that he had a bad bone in his body. She took the chance.
"I teach," she said through stifled breath and a rush heartbeat. "I teach 2nd grade."
The thought made her smile.
"I bet that's exciting," he said, cocking his full head of hair back and looking up towards the ceiling pleasantly.
"What are your students like?"
"They're great," Agnus half whispered. "I mean, there's always the class clown and the few bullies that can make instruction a bit difficult. But I wouldn't trade them for the world. They're all unique, with their own quirks and talents. I feel like they teach me half the time. They're inspiring, really. I can find inspiration in many of the little things my students do or say each day. I want to be a better teacher, a more fun teacher, someone who inspires them..."
She stopped abruptly, noticing that she had been rambling. Stephen sat in the same position, his head looking up to the sky, his eyes closed gently, listening intently and as peaceful as could be.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to talk your ear off."
Agnus looked back down at her purse.
"Oh no," his eyes flashed open. "Talk all you want, I enjoy listening to you."
He smiled again and Agnus recognized for the first time how different he seemed from the first day she encountered him. That smile. It was a complete game changer. His eyes almost appeared to lighten, as if in a sunrise how the real colors emerged. She felt good being able to detect this new and exquisite reality. They both felt good. Sitting together in a moment of conversation, they were amazed at how good that felt.
Agnus left the psychologist's office and barely remembered a thing she had said. All she could think about were those dark and wandering eyes. Saying his name over and over again in her mind, replaying his words, and feeling that sacred silence that they shared. She would go again, of course, but not because the doctor had suggested a few more sessions, but in hopes that she could speak with Stephen again.
She considered that perhaps she was just overly touched by his kindness. Most likely he was married. Or at least in a relationship. There was a good chance she wouldn't run into him again. She had to face that truth. Nevertheless, she arrived 10 minutes early again.
"I can't really explain it, but. I feel so entirely free whenever I speak with her. It's a sensation I have hardly, if never at all."
The doctor nodded her head and held back a shy smile.
Stephen never babbles. Most of the time she had to nudge a few words out of him until he would talk consistently about his feelings.
Suddenly he stopped talking and turned to look at the psychologist.
"What does this mean? Is this wrong? What should I do?"
"I mean, do you think I should stop talking to her before coming here? Is all my progress going to be lost if I continue pursuing her company? Am I forgetting to think about myself? Or herself? I don't want to, forget all the many reasons why I shouldn't have friends, my impulsivity, my laziness, my fears, my self-loathing..."
"Stephen," she said with a large grin.
"Oh, goodness I'm sorry. I just got going again, I didn't mean to-"
"Stephen" she repeated, reaching over to touch him gently. "I think you might be in love."
He stared at her, mouth wide open, his eyes unblinking.
"You can't be serious..." he looked at his hands, took in a rushed breath, and combed his hand through his hair, smiling. "What does that even mean? How do you know?"
He felt as if he had just had a child. A newborn hope sprang alive, as if he was holding it in his open palms.
"Well, Stephen. All I'm saying is that you seem to have a real emotional connection with this woman."
"Yeah," he said suddenly speechless. His body slumped back into the couch as if hit by a wave of sleepiness. "Can you tell me more? More about, being in love?"
Now the psychologist was speechless. She was a very factual woman, diving deeply into serious mental knots that needed untangling. Love was never something she willingly took the plunge with. After a divorce and a nasty custody battle, she considered often with a glass of red wine and a Norah Jones album if love even existed. But Stephen's eager and innocent face, wrapped in his history of failures and defeats, made her want more than anything to become a believer again.
"Well," she mumbled.
Why couldn't she think of a better word to say. She felt like her license could easily be stripped away with that one word. Well...
She tried to collect her thoughts and at least seem like she had an intelligent answer for him.
"Being in love isn't something you can really help. But it's something you'd risk your neck for to know if it's real."
Stephen wished he could record every word she said. He wanted to take notes. Her words seemed to rattle inside him but couldn't find a place to stick.
"To know it's real," he repeated. "I know how I feel. I mean, I just described it to you. It's more than real, it's integrated into every thought, every movement, every step I take. It's like my bones start aching for her, the sight of her lips, the sound of her voice. Absolutely everything inside of me screams for everything about her."
The shrink smiled. What young faith he had. It was noble.
"Well, that's one side of it. It's hard to know if the other person feels that way. And even if they feel just a little like that, it doesn't mean they feel exactly the same. Do two people ever feel exactly the same about something, nevertheless, about each other?"
"I never considered that," Stephen said shocked.
"Would you still be willing to jump for someone without absolute certainty that they'd jump for you?"
The question was the first remark to settle inside of him and find a place there.
He looked at his doctor of 12 years, stood up, and half-exclaimed,