Patti See

Summer 2002

Poet Meets Counselor

I am to tell the kind-faced, middle-aged woman in the easy chair before me—a stranger—that I am planning to leave my husband of ten years. When she asks why I’m here I tell her I want to separate with grace and strength. I want to know if there’s any way to make a good divorce. She nods her kind face. Go on, go on.

I say, "I want to establish a relationship here in case my husband and son need some assistance during this lifestyle change." I am good at euphemisms. Assistance? As if this is comparable to a car breaking down on the highway or a homework hotline answer to a math problem. I cannot do this alone. Is that why I’m really here?

Women like me don’t go to counselors. We talk to our girlfriends in a crowded bar at happy hour, make plans on cocktail napkins about who we want to grow up to be, the lives we’ll have at forty or fifty. We dig in, buck up, cry over homemade soup slow to boil or whites hung out on a crisp spring day, believe everything will get better tomorrow or next year. We don’t make an appointment weeks in advance to tell our troubles to a stranger. Did I make the call because I know my life with my husband will not get better? Because I know when to seek out an expert?

Judy Marshall doesn’t look like an expert. She’s a forty-five year old woman with long auburn hair pulled back in a barrette, a navy blazer and sensible shoes. Her desk is pushed against one wall covered in Anne Geddes’ photos of babies in caterpillar outfits and cabbage hats. Along another wall a ratty plaid loveseat and recliner are squared off giving her office a part Brady Bunch den, part cubicle feel. On a bookshelf are tattered stuffed bunnies, Barbie dolls in short shirts, a tin dollhouse with plastic people and all the props of a home, and puzzles in torn boxes that a newcomer might guess are missing a piece or two. Judy is a marriage and family counselor who sees clients—children—in worse shape than I am. For a moment, eyeing the toys, I feel guilty. I am merely unhappy in a stagnant marriage. No fights, no abuse, no bruises. What makes me think I belong here?

Contemplating my appointment the night before, writing down notes I wanted to get to, was somewhere between preparing for a job interview or face to face confession. What will I wear? What will I say or gloss over or leave out altogether? How many Hail Mary’s this time? What will be my punishment?

I knew only this counselor’s name, so I imagined her as "Judge Judy," someone to tell me like it is, to straighten me out once and for all. Last night I fell asleep thinking, I’m the boss, Applesauce.

This morning, applying mascara, I realized that I have never spoken truth to a stranger without a bar between us.

I am relieved that this is merely a get-to-know-you session. Judy asks questions from an initial interview form.

After my age, current marital status, children, and religious affiliation, she asks, "Any legal history?"
"You mean have I been arrested?"

She nods.

"No." I know my juvenile record is sealed.

"Any hospitalizations?"
"No." I am so sure of myself.

Judy looks up. "You gave birth at home?"

"Oops. No. I was in the hospital for 24 hours. The only time." I feel my face flushing red. I’ve overlooked my son. Is that why I’m here?

"Have you received treatment for drug or alcohol abuse?"

"No." Can she hear "not yet" in my voice?

She asks me to describe my parents and in-laws. I am good at this. They are merely characters in my life. Props of a home.

After I finish, she says, "So you have a tough old broad married to a bigot jerk."

Did I say that? I smile, "Yeah, but their kids turned out okay." My response is a rip-off of an old Dunnville joke. My mom and dad are cousins, but I’m alright.

She says, "And an overbearing poor listener paired with a sweet but short-tempered ex-boozer."

I know I’d never say "boozer." It’s so trailer park, not the image I’d wish to convey to any stranger. I am, after all, third generation white trash and proud of it.

I want Judy to like me. I know how pathetic that is. I give her answers to the questionnaire, one she has used hundreds, maybe thousands of times before, and halfway through the first page I start to wonder how my answers compare to her other clients.

Concrete detail? Am I using all the senses? What did my father smell like? How does my husband taste? My son’s face when I meet him unexpectedly after school is a fist opening wide or half of Minnesota winking. Does Judy know that poets sometimes lay out our words to feel loved? Will I be graded?

I am nearly disappointed that Judy does not ask me to describe myself. Lying adulterous cunt or strong-willed, good-hearted pleaser? It’s her call. Somehow I think she can proffer redemption, be my judge. Character is fate, I learned from Sylvia Plath or Aristotle or my lover. I can’t help but wonder what Judy remembers from Freud and Jung. Character is a triad. Id, ego, super ego. Hero, heroine, villain. Husband, wife, lover.

I prepared a description of myself last night, as I considered Rorschach’s inkblots, my dreams the past week, and my relationship with my father—a TV sitcom or English minor approach to counseling. I was raised on sarcasm, I learned teasing as a communication style, and I taught myself to value irony as a survival mechanism. If I were a kitchen utensil I’d be a whisk (never say knife, a friend warned). A cartoon character? Belle from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast or Charlie Brown’s Peppermint Patty. A disease? Never mind.

The thought of being deconstructed by a stranger is an act of faith. Does Judy ask me to describe the people around me because we are a reflection of those we love, those we try not to hurt? Are my descriptions as important as the roles these people play in my life? I will never see Judy’s notes, will never know why she recorded about my father "sweet but short tempered" rather than "no spanking." I watch her hand move to the interview questionnaire on her lap, her pen offering notes that speak to her interpretation of me. Is she paraphrasing? It is beyond me to call out, "This is important, don’t miss this. Direct quote here please, you won’t be sorry." But how I want to. I am the expert, connoisseur of my life. Yet I cannot say aloud what’s most important without the shroud of paper between myself and a reader or even myself and me.

I am self-aware, but at a distance. I cannot talk about myself, though I am at the center of what I write. I live in the third person not in the first. Is that why I’m here?

I will not tell her that some evenings coming home after work I drive around my block, imagine inside my house the handsome young man and his boy live without a wife. She is long dead or moved away, and they no longer mourn her. Perhaps there never was a woman who was a part of their life, or she was strong enough to recognize when to stay and when to leave. I have trained myself to look at disaster from a distance. Is that why I’m here?

Her next question asks me to rate my life on a scale of one to ten. "One equals wish I was never born," Judy coaches. "Ten means you couldn’t be happier."

I don’t think. "Eight," I say. "My life is an adventure." Is that why I’m here? "Sometimes more of an adventure than I expected." She smiles. This may be a good time to tell her about my lover, but I have only thirty minutes remaining in my appointment. I need more time to explain him.

She asks me to describe my human development.

"My what?" I ask. I wasn’t prepared for this one.

"Highlights or low points of your childhood and adulthood, or simply events that stand out for you."

I pause. Fuck. I’m so nervous I have no way of knowing if I swore aloud.

My mind is blank, but I could lie. I wait some more.

"Well," I say. "This is a hard one."

I nearly go into what I call my crack-up litany, the string of accomplishments I repeat to myself when I think I’m really cracking up to remind myself that women like me do not have nervous breakdowns. How does it go again? Free-throw champion of the Dunn Valley, smartest in my class, Graduate Student of the Year, Phi Kappa Phi. It works the same as naming presidents or Kevin Bacon movies for those who suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder. I know enough not to give this explanation out loud to Judy.

"Oh, just anything," she says quickly, eager to know me or afraid of silence. "What did you do as a kid? What sorts of things did your family do together?"

"I was a bar rat," I say without thinking of her pen. "Weekends meant barhopping with my family. Eating Butterfingers and Slim Jim’s at Tootie’s Bar or Workman’s Tavern. Playing air hockey. It was actually a pretty normal childhood for where I lived. I played a lot of basketball alone in my driveway. I got all A’s in school. Read a lot. I lived in my head most of the time, which was really good training for a poet. Or a wife."

Judy raises an eyebrow.

I was going for funny but once I look for her reaction I realize how it might come out only sad to an outsider, a pathetic truth about my life even to me.

She sets down her pen more dramatically than I’d expect in a first meeting.

She says, "Tessa, why did you say earlier that a separation is the best option for everyone?"

Is that the word I used? Best? For a nine-year old boy who will no longer see his mother daily, is that best?

"I cannot live a double life anymore," I say. "The outside of Jack and me is wonderful. No one in our families or most of our friends would think anything is wrong. We are the poster children of young professionals. Good jobs, nice house, great kid." I waver, trying to find more descriptors.

"Successful, attractive," Judy chimes in. I guess she’s heard this story before.

"But inside we’re both unhappy in different ways, and I can’t do anything to make Jack any happier or any better off. Any more than he can make me happy."

Judy nods. Is this dialogue she is used to? My story is different, I know it is.

I say, "I want to be in love with the man I live with. That’s really not too much to ask of a life."

She nods some more. "The incongruent life you speak of is the core of mental illness. No one should live that way." She leans toward me.

"I’m lying to my son every day. Yes, this separation I believe is best for me and for Jack eventually, but my greatest fear is that I may damage Sam beyond repair." I look at the cocooned babies above her desk. My breasts tingle.

"It sounds like you and Jack will do an admirable job of this. Children are damaged by parents who fight and who use them as a weapon against each other. So far, you haven’t done that. Many children survive divorce just fine. I always believed that we should parent with our children’s future in mind. If your relationship with Jack is not one you want Sam to have when he grows up, then of course you should not model it now. Eventually Sam will realize the lie."

I nod, as if it’s my turn.

"There is no magic bullet," she says.

I raise an eyebrow to her, counselor style. "I hate that phrase too," she says. "How will you tell Sam?"

"I don’t know," I say. "I really, really don’t know."

Judy offers suggestions for telling my son I’m moving into my own apartment. She moves into role playing too quickly for me, says sweetly, "Mommy and Daddy can’t live together anymore but we both still love you. You came from my womb." She pats her belly. "And you will always be a part of me even if Daddy isn’t." Her hands settle on her lap.

It’s so after school special I want to weep. Something in Judy’s voice brings a painful reminder of my one trip to Planned Parenthood for my first pelvic exam, which might lead to birth control pills. The nurse practitioner said, "When you introduce the penis into the vagina, hold it firmly with one hand…"

At twenty, preparing my body for intercourse or thirty-one, preparing myself for divorce, I have the same response: "I don’t think I can do this." Instead I say to Judy, "I certainly have a lot to think about for next time."

Judy tells me to wait at her receptionist’s desk to confirm I’ve found a time to meet two weeks from now and to offer me some handouts, what she thinks might help.

Near the waiting room are two relaxation fountains, the kind I’ve seen in department store ads with water streaming over smooth pebbles. The sound reminds me more of a pair of Rottweilers lapping water out of a bucket than a bubbling brook. I want to apologize to the secretary that she has to listen to this all day because of people like me. This is why I am here. My life has been built on apologies, most of which I didn’t mean. A small epiphany for $200 and two hours of my time.

The lilting phone voice of Judy’s secretary soothes someone on the other end of chaos or crisis. A plaque above her computer says, "Secretaries are angels in disguise." She chose to hang that right there.

Leaning against her desk, I realize I am not in the midst of a crisis situation, and I am relieved. No crisis here, just one fucking day after another.

Judy hands me photocopies of faded photocopies, still warm from the Xerox, ink that does not bleed blue like dittos used to. I forgot to mention this was how I learned to say the rosary and to appreciate Emily Dickinson and Anne Sexton, on blue dittos hot from the machine and I inhaled the ink, I did. I did. Another important piece in my human development that I forgot to mention.

Judy’s neatly stapled pages offer suggestions on Quality of Life Therapy, her scrawled notes in the margin. Yes!! Remember this J . My eyes float over the words on a one-page poem from a dead Native American chief. I want to know if you can disappoint another to be true to yourself.

I want to say, "No footprints in the sand?" She may not see my sarcasm as humor, passed off as a faltering need to be liked or even simply remembered two weeks from now. Instead I say, "Thank you."

I look over the handouts. Prayers of this profession and a concept from my childhood I know by heart. Penance.

Judy says, "Read them before next time." A gift? An assignment? A salve? I have to tell my son I’m leaving him. Nothing can change that.


Patti See's work has appeared in Salon,Women's Studies Quarterly, Southeast Review, Wisconsin Academy Review, and other magazines and anthologies. She co-authored with Bruce Taylor Higher Learning: Reading and Writing About College (Prentice Hall, 2001). Patti teaches developmental education, English, and women's studies courses at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

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