Esther Perel is the unlikely name of an esteemed couples therapist, who made her name with a book called “Mating in Captivity,” about the death of desire in marriages. (Why unlikely as that relates to her name? I read “Perel” as “peril” and Esther as a cognate of “etre” or “to be.” But maybe that’s just me.)
A quote I like, from The New Yorker: “Betrayal may spell the painful end of a chapter in a relationship, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the whole thing is done: Your first marriage is over. Would you like to create a second one together?”
And this one: “it’s never been easier to cheat and it’s never been harder to keep a secret.”
Was there ever a more unapologetic turn of phrase? Acknowledging that something untoward has happened while admitting no part in it? Makes me smile, really it does, when said casually. But it’s not something to say in therapy, no it’s not.
Imagine you are a writer (I have trouble with this part too) and there’s a terrible little story rolling around your head. It has to do with something you just learned, something that reverses what you thought was true, something frightening or threatening. The reason it rolls around in your head is that you can’t seem to integrate it with the other stories that make up the story of your life.
I am exploring whether telling the story is a means of dispensing with it. Or resolving it, giving it a beginning, middle and end. Isn’t this the purpose of myths and fables and fairy tales? They usually start with a distancing tactic, something like:
“Once upon a time…”
“In a country far, far away…”
“A thousand years ago or more, when the flowers could still converse with the animals….”
The first line of a fairy tale is written to reassure the reader that nothing that will follow is remotely possible. That the distant past and the far-away setting and the improbability of the magic and cruelty that happened “in that place and at that time,” was devised to give the reader comfort. This is just a story. Fear not.
So suppose we do this with our own terrible little stories. Put them between a couple of thick and dusty covers of a book. Close the book. Don’t read them again. Or do but with the final sentence foretold, a closure built into the experience in the form of “the end.”
The sofa was a blue velvet Castro Convertible. It had a camel-colored motif that was supposed to look Deco but actually resembled a paperclip. I was into Deco at the time.
My living room was as wide as the sofa. It just barely fit. Overnight guests slept on its thin and uncomfortable pullout mattress. One night a friend of a friend (of a friend, possibly, I’ve forgotten the connection) called me on the landline, which we called, simply “the phone,” stranded at an airport. Could she come to stay, just for a night? There was a static-y story about a delayed flight and then a missed flight and then the prospect of a night spent on the molded plastic chairs in the airport lounge.
I was just barely an adult, just barely affording my rent, but I felt all grownup instructing her to jump in a cab and buzz me when it pulled up to my building so I could run down to pay the fare. No problem, I said. Happy to do it for a friend of this friend (of another friend, quite possibly).
I’ll call her Kristi.
Because that’s her name (I told you this would be a vindictive story.)
An autumn night, still warm enough to run down in flip-flops, PJ bottoms and my boyfriend’s t-shirt and as I did I liked the picture of me in my head: so comfortable in this city that I could be on the sidewalk in my PJs; so self-sustaining that the giving over of a $20 bill was no big deal (it was a little deal, however, this was the 80s and I was making $14,000 a year).
Kristi wore a denim jacket and shouldered a tatty backpack. She looked collegiate while I, as I believe I mentioned, was a grownup.
My boyfriend joined us. In a suit, with a briefcase and a six-pack. So handsome, also a grownup.
We drank the beer. Kristi told tales of her semester in Spain. She was pretty in a not-sophisticated way with hair that curled around her face and full lips. She seemed unsure of herself (especially as compared to me). I thought she admired me or at the very least the things I had acquired: the job, the apartment, the handsome boyfriend with the briefcase. They stayed up talking after I went to bed, but not before I left a second $20 bill on the kitchen table with a little note. Safe travels, I wrote. Keep in touch! I wanted to make sure she had a way to pay the fare back to the airport.
Years later I learned that Kristi and my boyfriend had sex that night on the couch with the vaguely Deco motif. While I slept with just a couple of walls and not 10 feet between us. He, so reckless. She, so ungrateful.
Here is a picture of her I pulled from her Facebook page, for all to see. Not really outting her though, as she’s wearing a disguise, a witch/pirate/hot mess costume. Not because it’s Halloween but because she works in a bar, taking full advantage — by the looks of her — of the free-flowing beverages that must be one of the perks of this kind of career, if you can call it a career.
More intel purloined from her Facebook page:
A post directed to someone called Harvey: “Lubrication may have made the entry easier?”
Another, promoting a “hooter happy hour.”
Another from someone called Clay: “Kristi’s so nasty!”*
*Clay, we think alike! I’m going to friend request you.
My therapist wants me to write about sadness. Perhaps she thinks I’ve given enough time to the following emotions: rage, frustration, vindictiveness and jealousy. These are big noisy sensations. Bullies that suck all the air out of the room and all other thoughts from my mind. They drown out poor, pathetic sadness, cowering in the corner.
I find it’s not possible to summon sadness. Anger, yes. “My old friend anger,” I called him (I think of him as a him) shows up at the slightest provocation. As an example, a velvet-upholstered sofa once came up in conversation and I was a house on fire, burning with anger about the memory it brought: a girl who stayed in my apartment for a night; a friend of a friend who had some complicated story about a missed flight, who had no place to stay; who expressed gratitude for my taking her, a stranger, in; who borrowed money from me for the taxi from the airport; who had sex with my then-boyfriend while I slept in the other room; who betrayed me.
Vindictive plots, I could fill a library with them. (Come to think of it, I’m going to write a story about the couch and that girl. I’m going to publish it in in the Modern Love column in the New York Times. I’m going to take that bitch down.)
See how activating these emotions are?
And jealousy, oi.
But sadness is tremulous. Sadness feels as if she (she is a she) is unwanted because I ignore her when she shows her pinched and greying face.
So I have to wait until I feel the press of a jumbled crowd of emotions, find sadness in the crowd and sit with her. Just sadness and me, getting to know each other.