Issue 2, Spring 2007


Tea Before Couple's Therapy
By Charlie Anders


is the least talkative hour. We both hoard things to say in front of Elaine. No point wasting an insight on the Caribou Coffee eavesdroppers. Gerry and I could be making strategy, figuring out what topics we want to cover today, maybe even whipping up a united front. We do none of those things, ensuring the most spontaneous therapy session possible.

Elaine is our fifth shared therapist in ten years. Already, Gerry has a crush on her, just like with the first four. She's already dropped hints that she thinks I'm suffocating Gerry with my trauma crap. Why do we always visit hot female therapists? Does every couples therapist in Durham and Chapel Hill have cat glasses and long legs?

I drink chamomile from a tapered ceramic cup, with a turtle painted on it. Gerry drinks Thunder Mountain out of his plastic travel mug. We sit on blocky wooden chairs, on either side of a table with a built-in chess board that I've never seen anyone use. I wish we could abandon this ritual, but Gerry thinks it grounds us to hang out before therapy. Plus he's paranoid about finding parking this close to Franklin and Columbia.

All around us, students flirt noisily from behind stacks of textbooks, or play board games. They wear sky-blue jammies and tarheel tees. They all have sandals, men and women, even though it's October. Hurricane season, but still warm enough for frisbee. I want to grow old in the company of optimistic kids in sandals.

Gerry makes the tea-slurping noise I hate, a jarring habit like no amount of therapy can fix, and stares at a red-haired peasant-skirted girl juggling a single rubber ball on the big wooden couch facing the door. She frowns, as if juggling a single ball is a life challenge. Gerry blows on his tea until steam flows over his eyes.

When I married Gerry, he was a chopstick, but years of barbecue and a desk job have filled him out. If anything, though, he's more charming than ever. He could probably get one-ball girl into bed without much trouble. Lucky for me he doesn't know his own wiles.

I can already see the therapy session laid out before me, like a script. We're about to pay $120 to have a conversation I've already had in my head.

First, Gerry will talk about the big fight two nights ago, when I tried to convince him to go to the Dangerous Improv Theatersports place. Improv used to be his life in college, but he thinks the Dangerous people are boring, that any group that needs to call itself Dangerous must be overcompensating, must in fact be trapped in an autoclave. And then we'll talk about the fact that it nauseates me to have Gerry touch me sexually, because I'm still remembering more things my uncle did to me when he used to pick me up from Girl Scouts. Each memory is another flare in the darkness that I can only hope is a tunnel and not an abyss. My own therapist, Julie, says healing requires sustained and exacting effort, like building a bridge across the Atlantic.

And then we'll talk about the fact I caught him masturbating while chatting with Brenda, aka Shadowblossom, who lives in Indiana. She's his Gorean slave, via the Internet. He instant-messages her at work and late at night, setting her tasks and going through elaborate rituals. It's all based on a series of fantasy novels set in the land of Gor, where men are masters and women are slaves.

Gerry doesn't want to enslave anybody in real life, and he thinks meeting Brenda in real life would just ruin everything. He has an elaborate explanation of how the Gor thing helps him cope with his father's slow cancer death. The more he explains, the less sense it makes to me. Brenda's not even allowed to use the word "I," instead calling herself "this slave" or just "this one." When Gerry says "Nadu," he can watch her assume the "pleasure slave" position via her webcam. It gives Gerry a feeling of security to have Brenda kiss his virtual ass, and Elaine thinks it's harmless.

At that point, we'll be about thirty-seven minutes into our fifty-minute hour. The last dozen minutes will consist of Elaine muttering some pablum about different people handling trauma in different ways. She'll cross her legs as she says this, folding her hands over her knee and leaning forward so the silver threads of her stretchy sweater catch the last daylight. Gerry will say his father's impending death is making him question everything about his life, and I'll say I want to help him through this difficult time. He'll say some things he needs to do on his own. (Or with Brenda, his "Kajira" or "slave-girl.")

With seven minutes left, I'll wonder (though not aloud) whether therapy is helping us. Whether therapy might not be part of the problem, because it forces us to gnaw on the bite-marks we've left on each other's skins. I've noticed that Gerry and I get along much better during the four days of the week that aren't therapy day, the day before or the day after. While I think this to myself, Elaine will suggest a trust exercise which Gerry and I will agree to, with no intention of following through on either of our parts.

Gerry's dad looks like a Holocaust survivor in the recent pictures I've seen. I have no idea what my uncle looks like now. Brenda looks like a Midwestern farmwife, full breasts and hips behind a denim dress. A Gor saying: "Any woman who relishes a compliment is in her heart a slave girl." Gerry has no clue what it really feels like to have no choices, to feel the world shrink to a sweaty tomb, body held rigid in a car seat suddenly reclined, car pulled over on the deserted dirt side road to the county landfill, staring squirrel on the nearest tree the only witness, the only sign of a world outside the trap of hands and breath and unyielding seatbelt, clothes falling away. I'm still there. I'm still there.

I finish my chamomile and immediately need to pee, even though I went before we left the house. I worry I'm getting a bladder infection despite my total chastity. That would be like me. Anyway, going to the bathroom gives me a break from watching Gerry blow steam.

It's all stage business: mugs, fidgeting, bathroom break. We need something to do with our hands and feet while the scene plays out. But there's no scene.

When I get back from the bathroom, there's still half an hour before our appointment. I wish I knew how to meditate, or do anything with my breathing except shuttle air in and out. I feel as though I've always shaped myself to someone else's desires, and now I've lost my elasticity.

Gerry laughs suddenly, at something he's thought of. I give him a look, and he shrugs and shakes his head. His face goes back to a broody slate.

Juggle girl is gone, and in her place a couple of guys go over football stats noisily. I adjust my long skirt over my calves.

I decide everything will be okay if Gerry and I decide on where to eat dinner after therapy. We'll have one agreement in our pocket going in, and it'll reinforce that we're eating together afterwards, no matter how screwy things get during.

The newest Independent Weekly has a review of a sushi restaurant owned by a major literary figure who is not Japanese, and I push this in front of Gerry without saying anything. Gerry reads it slowly, then pushes it away and shakes his head. He points to an ad for one of those all-you-can-eat Indian places, dozens of steamer trays full of congealing bhajis and curries. I wrinkle my nose.

Thinking about food before therapy makes me want to give up eating forever. This was a bad idea. I remember the two or three occasions on which I cried and ate at the same time, and how hard it is to put food in your mouth, even delicacies, when all your membranes burn. I'm sure my appetite is gone for the day.

And then Gerry randomly buys a cookie and holds it out to me. I break off a corner, not because I want it but because I feel I should. I swallow it without chewing, and then cough so hard all the kids stare. I spray crumbs on my Merino sweater. Gerry drives his palm heel into my back, then hands me some water and guides me back to my chair.

The wax-paper cup empty, Gerry takes it from me and gestures at his watch. I don't stand. What if we blew Elaine off? No more therapy, ever? What if we just went early to dinner, even to the greasy tandoori buffet place, and didn't talk about Gor or cancer or my uncle Dwight? What if we gave the unexamined love a chance for a change? Would our marriage die any faster that way?

Yeah, that's the problem. Giving up on therapy means giving up on our marriage, even if therapy is killing our marriage. It's like his dad's chemo, Gerry said after we fired our fourth therapist, you just hope it kills the tumor before it kills you. Even if I don't believe in the metaphor, that's how Gerry sees it.

I rise, roll and unroll my shoulders, then take Gerry's hand for the ten-yard walk to Elaine's office, on the second storey of a yellow house with a nice porch and a tidy black sign above the doorbell.