The Engagement

T

His fingernails were dirty.

Jane couldn’t stop staring at the stubby fingers her client had draped over the side of his polished dress shoe. Everything about Randall Cochrane suggested a middle-aged man with just enough wealth to afford his bespoke suit and pressed shirts. He had short, salt and pepper hair cut close to his head; wireframe glasses sat atop a slightly crooked nose.

And yet, his fingers… his fingers.

“It’s just like today,” he said.

Jane looked up, forced a smile, said, “What’s like today, Randall?”

He swallowed hard, leaned back in the leather couch. “I was in the waiting room, and another patient came in—weird-looking guy. Older, maybe disabled, I don’t know. But he was kinda talking to himself, babbling about something. I’ve seen him here before. He’s loud and he sucks people into stupid conversations.”

Jane watched him look down at his hands. Surely he would notice.

“And all I could think was don’t let him talk to me. Don’t let him try to start a conversation with me because…”

“Because why?”

Randall sniffled, lifted his head. “Because I didn’t want to be seen talking to him. I mean, no one else was in the room, but what if someone came in?”

“You were worried about what someone might think, weren’t you?”

He nodded.

“And what is it about that outside judgment that makes you feel less than?”

“I don’t know. I guess maybe if someone saw me talking to him, they might think he’s my friend and that I associate with people like that. That I’m like that.”

“Instead of normal, right?” asked Jane. “You don’t want to be viewed as unacceptable like that man.”

“I know,” he said, crossing his legs in the other direction. “I know I shouldn’t care what other people think. I just… it’s not what they think. It’s what I thought.”

Jane watched dirty nails scrape across his chin.

“I’m such an asshole,” he continued. “I judged this guy because he’s a little different. I don’t know his life. I don’t know what he’s been through. He could live alone or have no family or dog or shit, maybe he just wants to talk to someone, anyone. And I sat there like an asshole praying he wouldn’t talk to me.”

“How did that make you feel?”

His eyes found hers, narrowed a bit.

“Ashamed. Because of my hang-ups, this guy didn’t feel comfortable striking up waiting room chit-chat with me. I bet he could feel me rejecting him, rejecting everything about him without even knowing him. I did that to him, you know? I might have made him feel less-than. That’s not how I’m supposed to be living my life. Why am I like that, huh? Why do I want the world to accept me and at the same time, I’m shutting out people who don’t deserve to get shit on. What am I doing wrong?”

Jane sat up on the edge of her chair, leaned forward. The couch wasn’t set far away; she could have reached out and touched his shoe had she wanted.

“It sounds like to me that you have a problem accepting yourself,” she said, speaking softly to draw his attention closer. “Feeling acceptable to ourselves is the first step to feeling accepted in the world.”

“Do you accept me?” he asked.

A shudder went through Jane’s right arm. She clasped her hands together and pinched them between her knees.

“Of course I do,” she said. “Without judgment. Without titles and money and accomplishments. We are all just people, and sometimes people feel badly about the things they do. But what you have to remember is there’s a difference between a habit and a feeling. It may have been habit to avoid the man in the waiting room, but your mind was aware you weren’t being authentic, and so you felt shame for what you were doing. If it weren’t just habit, if you truly hated that man, you wouldn’t have felt shame.”

Jane took a deep breath, tried to give herself a little time to think. Half of their hour was already gone, and she’d exhausted most of the bullet points she’d been prepped with. Her previous engagements with Randall had been transcribed and archived, and though she’d reviewed each of them, she was having trouble parroting the psychological buzzwords in new ways. All she could see in her mind’s eye were his fingernails and how they would look dragging across her skin.

“I’m just a bad person,” he muttered, deflating into the couch. He put his foot back on the floor, let his legs open a bit.

Jane visualized herself reaching out to put a hand on his knee, a hand that would slowly work its way up the side of his leg, threaten to move to his crotch before jumping to his neck. She would be out of her chair by then, likely straddling him on the couch, guiding his hand and his disgusting fingernails to the back of her thighs.

She shuddered, cleared her throat to mask it.

It had suddenly grown hot in the office. Jane had an impulse to take off the green turtleneck she was wearing and fling it at the coat rack by the door. It would have made Randall happy, no doubt, to see his counselor shed her clothes while chuckling nervously about the heat. Though, if he had any sense, his happiness would turn to fear quickly.

“Did you hear me?” he asked, one eyebrow raised. “I’m just a bad person.”

And there it was, again—the cue, the code phrase that would set the rest of the engagement in process, the five words Jane had been dreading for the past week.

She met his gaze. It was all gone, every last ounce of introspection and true feeling. Had he even meant what he’d said about the man in the waiting room? Was the man even real?

What does it matter now, she thought. He’s here, and he’s said the words.

“I…” she said. “I don’t think…”

“Is there a problem?” he asked.

She wanted to come right out and tell him that she couldn’t imagine his dirty fingernails teasing her nipples or that she didn’t want whatever muck he was carrying around entering her while he fumbled around looking for her G-spot. But that would have broken the illusion, and for that there would be dire consequences.

“No,” she replied, finding her voice weak and pitiful. “I was… I was just thinking about what you said. You don’t truly believe you’re a bad person, do you?”

He narrowed his eyes, seemed to shake off some question on the tip of his tongue. He took a deep breath, looked to the window.

“I think this might be our last session.”

“Oh?” she asked. “Why is that?”

“I think I’m falling in love with you,” he said, biting one of his fingernails.

Jane’s stomach gurgled.

“That’s quite flattering, Randall, but I think—”

“I know, I know.” He put up a hand. “You think I’m crazy. You think it’s just because you’re the only woman who listens to me and so I built up a relationship in my head thinking that you care about me. But that’s not the whole story.”

Jane recoiled as he came forward, sitting on the edge of the couch as she had. He made a reach for her hands, but she was too quick for him.

He sighed. “I think you’re beautiful. I like your smile and the way your eyes light up. I…” He sighed again, deeper, more labored. “I don’t understand what the problem is. Did I get the phrasing wrong? Was it I’m just not a good person or something?”

“No, it’s not that.” Jane felt the heat rise out of her turtleneck and envelop her neck and cheeks.”

“Then what?”

“Look, Randall. I think maybe I’m not the right person to help you. Perhaps you’d be happier with another Associate? I can recommend—”

“I don’t want another Associate,” he barked. “I want you. I picked you. I paid for you.”

Jane bristled at the mention of money. The avoidance of the payment subject was the only thing that made the engagement tolerable. If she had thought for one moment that she was only being paid for sex, that her entire existence had been minimized to the sex organ between her legs, she never would have gone through with it.

And prior to the start the Randal Cochrane engagements, she never had. But then her mother had fallen ill and the bills had started to pile up and before she knew it, she was looking to increase her salary. For Associates at the Silver level, there was only one way to go—up, to Gold, to more money, to giving every part of herself to the job.

Randall was to be her first, but now, on a boring Tuesday afternoon, in a hot office, under the gaze of a man with poor personal hygiene, Jane knew she couldn’t go through with it, no matter how many times he said the code phrase.

“I’m sorry,” she said, unable to stand without brushing against him. “I can’t.”

“You can’t?” he asked. “What the fuck do you mean you can’t?” He stood, leaned forward, and placed his hands on the arms of the chair on either side of her.

Jane shrunk away.

“I paid for this engagement. Sixty percent deposit. The check’s already cleared my bank. And now you’re saying you won’t go through with it?”

She shook her head.

He leaned into her, put his face just a few inches from hers. His breath smelled of coffee.

“I don’t think you understand, Jane.” He shook his head patronizingly. “I don’t think you realize what will happen if you refuse. I can make things very, very bad for you.”

The persona of Jane Davenport, timid and sensitive therapist, slipped away, leaving room for Jane Doe to come bubbling to the surface.

“Are you threatening my safety?” she asked, her mouth set tightly against a potential blow.

“What?”

She put her hands on her knees, tried to sit up straight.

“Are you threatening me with physical harm?”

The emphasis on the word harm rattled him. Randall let go of the chair and straightened up.

“No,” he said quickly, “no, of course not.”

Jane continued in an even tone. “And if I were to get up and leave the room, would you try to physically restrain me or otherwise prevent me from leaving?”

His eyes jumped to the door. Did he know who waited on the other side of it?

“I wasn’t threatening you,” he said, raising his hands. “I just meant… I’m gonna call customer service. I paid for an engagement and I didn’t get what I paid for. And… and… I’m not giving you good feedback. I’ll take my business to Companion Dynamics before I—”

Jane interrupted him by standing up in his space. He hurriedly stepped back, stopping only when his legs hit a low end-table.

“As I said, I’m sure one of our other Associates will be able to accommodate you. I’m sorry this didn’t work out, Mr. Cochrane.”

He looked as if he were fighting back anger. His wide eyes had tightened again.

“Not yet you aren’t.”

Jane let out a sigh, folded her hands. “If I could suggest, prior to your next engagement, that you work on refraining from threatening people. Just because you employ our services doesn’t give you the right to abuse us. We’re people too. We sit in waiting rooms hoping strange men won’t talk to us too.”

Randall huffed, shook his head. “Imagine that, getting advice from a fake therapist. I bet you’d never even heard of Carl Jung before you met me.”

That was true. Randall was Jane’s first engagement as a therapist, and the prep provided by Adelai Associates had been only marginally better than superficial. Jane had had to do some of her own research on her own time to adequately prepare.

“Then how about some advice from a real woman?” she asked.

He crossed his arms, looked down at her.

“What?”

Jane half-smiled. “Wash your goddamn fingernails.”


I hope you enjoyed this post. As a reminder, scratch fiction is presented as-is, often without editing or revisions or filter.

About the author

Daniel Verastiqui

Daniel Verastiqui is a serious author who writes serious novels in a serious manner. Serious topics include interpersonal relationships, exploitative technology, and questionable nudity.

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