“Kleenex” by Anne LaBorde


I’m at the office supply store picking up paper for writing. That’s it. I get nothing else. Later I hit the grocery store and load up half a dozen boxes of Kleenex into my cart. I get two kinds, the flat boxes for the bigger table to my left and the tall square boxes for the smaller table on my right. In the square-boxed Kleenex, I pick Cold Care, the kind that has aloe vera in the tissues. They are softer, not so chaffing, if you use a lot. I push the cart farther down the aisle and throw a couple of packages of Dixie cups on top of the Kleenex. As I unload the cart I flash back to my trip to Staples. They don’t have what I need to run my business. No high tech supplies for me, not even low tech supplies like paper clips and rubber bands. I need Kleenex and Dixie cups to run my business. Dixie cups for the water, tissues for the tears.

The location of the Kleenex box is one of the first things I look for in a therapist’s office if I’m the patient. I don’t know what other people’s strategies are, but I also look for the garbage can. You have to have some place to throw that big wad of tissue when you’re done with it. It’s all wet and goopy. I have two garbage cans in my office. Large and visible. I hate it when the therapist hides the garbage can in some obscure location like, under her desk and to the farthest reach away from where you walk out. Is she on this planet or what? Has she ever had to throw away 50 minutes worth of tears?

Some people announce that they are going to cry at the beginning of the session and take a few tissues right away. Others have burst into tears at the sight of me. I usually offer them a Kleenex while I hold their elbow and guide them into the office.

Some patients let the tears roll down the contours of their face, looking right at me the whole time, reaching for a Kleenex when the grief is over. Others wipe their tears with the backs of their hands using a tissue only when their noses are so full that they can’t make it without one. Some people take one and use that one tissue through the whole session. Such an economy of tears. Other people will hold onto the whole box, putting it next to them or on their lap.

I try to be discreet about offering Kleenex, pointing to the box with just one finger, the pointing hand close to my body. I watch for how far my patient has to reach to get a tissue. If it seems a strain to reach, I’ll move the box closer. If the cleaning people move the boxes at night, I move them back to their reachable locations. I have attractive covers for my Kleenex boxes.

An Italian hand painted grapes design on one and a wicker and leaves cover for the other. This way the boxes don’t scream, “You’ll need me,” when a person first walks in. All you can see of them is a curl of tissue white and waiting.

Men and Kleenex. Men have a manly way of reaching for a Kleenex. They grab one, like a rope, and pull. Mostly, men’s eyes just water and then they get a hold of themselves and it’s done. I never think of Kleenex as tissue when a man reaches for one. Out of respect for the gender, I think Kleenex.

I’ve gotten teary in a patient’s session before, but I don’t ever remember using a Kleenex. When a patient’s husband was killed by a drunk driver on the 101, that made me cry. I tried to catch the tears as they collected at the corners of my eyes and I dammed them up with my fingers. When I was going through my own divorce, I had a couple, who’d become very dear to me, come and tell me they were splitting up and would I help them to do it without hurting each other too much. I didn’t think they could tell, but sometimes the things they said to each other were so moving that I’d have to breathe deeply to keep from sobbing.

One night they were fretting over what to do with this big leather chair she’d bought for his study. He loved the chair, but hated that she’d spent so much money on it. They ended up deciding to ship the chair to her aging father in Minnesota who’d always admired it. It was going to cost them a pretty penny to do it, but they both wanted to.

The whole thing made me think of my own fight about a painting Id bought John for his 50th birthday. How proud I’d been to give it to him. How hard it was for him to receive it. At the time of this session, John and I were still fighting over most everything and it touched me that this couple could make such a loving gesture from a ruined piece of love. John  eventually gave me that painting as the last Valentine’s Day gift he would ever give me. It was as sweet as an entire universe of See’s chocolate truffles.

But I was caught in the middle of the nightmare my life had become at the time I was seeing this couple and as their session came to an end I choked down a cry. They both acted as if they didn’t notice it, but as the guy got up to leave, he pulled a Kleenex from the box and tucked it into my hand, closing my fingers over it. I cried all the way home clutching that Kleenex.

The oddest thing anyone ever said to me about Kleenex came from a 22 year old girl from Albuquerque, New Mexico. When I went to get her in the waiting room, she had “cowgirl” written all over her. It wasn’t her clothes that made me think that. She wore baggy jeans, a thick belt pulled tight at the waist, an orange fisherman’s sweater and clogs. It was the way she stood up. She was a about five foot two, but when she stood-up, it seemed as though she rose to 6 feet. When she walked, her legs were bowed like they’d grown that way from riding a horse too long and too early.

The first time I opened the door for her and stepped aside to let her pass, she motioned for me to enter first, like a man would. She sat down in the middle of the couch, as far away from the Kleenex boxes as she could get. Then she started to talk and did so for the better part of an hour. She wove a story like few I’ve heard. As the light faded outside my office, I felt transported to a circle of wagons around a campfire and I just knew the massacre was coming. She told the story straight and when she was done there was a faint line of perspiration above her upper lip.

As she wrote me a check, I tried to think of something to say. She glanced over at the Kleenex box as she ripped the check out of the book. She threw her head a little over in its direction. “What are they for?” she said. I wasn’t sure at first if she was serious, but the innocence on her face told me that she was.

“Sometimes people cry when they come here,” I said.

She nodded her head, a brief flash of fear skittering across her eyes. “Well I’ll never use them,” she said.

All through the dark night of her terrible story, she kept her gait and kept her word. I came to understand that she told me her story from a disembodied place. A place where tears couldn’t enter, a place she shook off before she walked out my door.

Hers was not a story of ordinary human ugliness, it crossed the line into evil and there is nothing I can say that won’t betray her story. I will take it to my grave.

She finally stopped coming.

“You don’t understand,” she said. “I’ve been this way too long.”

That girl had a river of tears in her, more than all the Kleenex boxes I could position close enough for her to reach. She was terrified that she’d pour right out of herself, washed away with the tears. Nothing left but the tissues.


~Anne LaBorde, Ph.D, Psy.D

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