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Marital Therapy

by Selena Jardine

I am sitting in a waiting room with my husband of sixteen years. We are the only couple in the room, which is a great relief: I want neither to speculate about other couples' problems nor to have them speculate about mine. Not to say that Alan and I have a problem, exactly. Not what you'd call a real problem. We get along just fine, thank you very much. But these days it's therapy this and therapy that for every little thing, and Alan said he wanted to go, so we're going.

This is our third session with this sex therapist. Sorry, “marital therapist,” I should say, but we all three of us know what the real problem is. It's sex, or rather, the lack of it. And if you want to go further, to be perfectly plain, the problem is me. I am the problem. That much becomes entirely clear after only two sessions with this man. He tries Alan first, in perfect confidence that my poor husband is an inconsiderate lover. No dice. Alan does everything right. He is a textbook A-plus lover. He is gentle and patient and unselfish to a fault. Nuzzling, compliments, foreplay, the works. Nothing gets left out. He's fine. He's more than fine. Really, he's a terrific lover. Couldn't ask for better. The therapist looks faintly disappointed, but takes it manfully.

The second session, he tries Plan B: insufficient communication. I think I am generally a good sport, but of all the dreadful things that I have done, this is the worst. Alan holds my hands in front of the therapist, looks into my eyes, and says to me-in front of a stranger!-“I love it when you nibble around my penis.” Even now, a week later, I flush from toe-tip to scalp just thinking of it. But even this sacrifice is no damn good. We don't reach a “breakthrough point,” as our therapist puts it, and once again he looks at us like a disappointed cocker spaniel.

So here we are again. And this week, we have had homework. Like children writing essays entitled What I Did On My Summer Vacation, we are to think of our early sexual experiences, good or bad, and bring them to this session. What I Did With My First Lover, the mental title should be, perhaps, or That Wicked Man on the Subway.

“You'll put everything on the table,” explained the therapist, gleaming pinkly, and I had a momentary vision of all of us writhing and moaning there with our long-ago paramours. I have no notion of what good this is meant to do us. Poor Alan. I don't know how he has the courage to keep rolling over and asking, night after night. If it were me, I'd have moved to another bed in the house long ago, or maybe into the warm, welcoming arms of a nice mistress. And poor me. It's not as if I don't try. But I can no longer find even the tiniest scrap of desire for him. No. This is therapy; we might as well be honest. I can no longer stand his touch on my skin, his breath in my ear, the noises he makes when he's about to come. I don't know why, or how it happened, or even when. The death of desire is more like dying in a nursing home than like getting run over by a truck.

But I still love him. It's the damnedest thing. So I have agreed to therapy, submitted to this gleaming stranger, done my homework. And I am thinking of it now. Strange to think about Johnny, while sitting beside Alan in this slightly stuffy waiting room with the artificial flowers and the horrible painting of the harlequin.


I am nineteen years old. I am the third most beautiful girl on the planet, after Mariel Hemingway and Julie Christie. Johnny didn't tell me that. I figured it out for myself one day. My hair falls to my waist, white-blonde, baby-fine, and absolutely straight. None of this is natural, except the length, which takes only persistence. My eyes are dark brown, which is a disappointment, but I make up for it with perfect breasts and slender thighs. I look with scorn on my mother, who seems to have engaged her slowly sagging body in a fight to the death. I am perfectly in harmony with mine.

There is a constant high electric hum in my head all this year. It might come from the music I listen to, past the recommended volume on my speakers, day and night, night and day. It might come from hunger, from the fact that I live on chewing gum and diet soda and the occasional late-night pizza binge. It might come from the uppers and the downers, the bennies and the pot, a little of this and a little of that, stashed away in plastic baggies or left out in blue ceramic bowls for our friends, depending on the cash flow. I would like very much to attribute it to the war, a high hum of Vietnam sadness, but the war is five years over.

Johnny thinks it's probably the sound of sex.

I'm a college girl. About two-thirds of the girls in my classes look like me, it seems: straight hair and large, stoned, belladonna-eyes and colorful patches on their jeans. Most of them don't know how to take care of their skin. Poor things. They look a little lost. My roommate was like that, before I moved out. She cried every night into her pillow, homesick as a goddamn puppy. She probably still does. But I'm not lost in that crowd any more. Johnny found me.

Johnny's not a student here. I don't know if he ever graduated from high school. With my parents, this kind of thing would matter, and indeed there is some part of me that is shocked and thrilled that I am with an actual dropout. He has abandoned school for the real world, he says, but he says it without rancor. I feel no need to follow his lead, to be more real than I am right now. My parents would be relieved to know it, but I never speak with them, about Johnny or anything else.

He has a job at a music store. That's where we meet. I go in for guitar strings one cold winter day, the best I can afford, because the cheap nylon ones keep breaking when I play them as loud as I want to. And there he is, tall and breezy with his long hair down. I stay in the store most of the afternoon, watching everything he does out of the corner of my eye and fidgeting with my hair. He keeps playing different records. I love them all. When I finally buy my guitar strings, he asks me if I want to have some dinner with him, and I say “Yes” so fast that I stumble over the single syllable. In all my life, I will never pass another music store without wondering whether Johnny is still standing there, cool and loose, behind the counter.

It isn't like I never had sex with anyone before. Once, when I was a senior in high school, there was this party, and I danced and danced with Stanley Bell, and then we went into his room and we did it. Afterward, we went back, sticky and a little woozy, to the party. It helped to keep the boys quiet, I agreed with my high-school friends, but it was less fun than the parties were.

But Johnny is different. I have dinner with him, and we talk all night. This isn't high-school talk, this is the real thing: politics, religion, racism, freedom, the press, the War. I am high as a kite on white wine and Johnny. His face is hazy through the cigarette smoke. It's hot in his apartment, with the steam radiators making startlingly loud knocking noises. When he takes off his T-shirt, it seems natural enough. When he takes off my loose top, the gesture seems equally natural, but incomplete. I reach behind me, elbows akimbo, and unhook my bra. He draws it down my arms, touching my skin with his palms, his fingertips, the backs of his hands. My skin is electric with his touch. My nipples are rising to meet his rolling, squeezing fingers.

Johnny is tugging now at my jeans. He isn't touching my body, not even through the fabric; he is only rocking the material back and forth, delicately, over the skin. There is a sound in the room, louder even than the music, and it is coming from the back of my throat. I am far higher, tighter, tenser, than when I touch myself, silently, in the dark room while my roommate sobs into her pillow. Candles flicker around us. He licks my nipple and takes another drag on his cigarette.

Johnny is in no hurry. He takes me apart, piece-by-piece, and builds a delicate house of cards. Should it fall-should I gasp, or open my eyes in recognition-he begins again. His body is long and lanky and muscular. It is a long, surprising, flung-open, exploratory night, during which he smokes cigarette after cigarette. At the end of it, near dawn, I find that he is holding my wrists, pinning them to the pillow above my head. His cock is sliding in and out of me, hard, fast, rough. It is so far from hurting me that I think I can never get enough. I strain my hips up toward him and tug uselessly at my wrists. More, I shout, or I think I shout, over the music. More, oh Christ, oh Johnny, don't stop.

He doesn't stop. And so I start, and am myself helpless to stop. I can taste his skin on my tongue, and the white wine, and the cigarettes. I can hear the music and my own cries, and his soft sounds in my ear. But all this is lost, utterly drowned, sea-deep, in the breaking waves of my orgasm. I come and come, long helpless rippling waves, my eyes shut and my face turned and buried in one immobilized arm. I have no time or breath even to worry that I will be unable to stop coming. I am only capable of pleasure, or I might be a little afraid.

And when I finally begin to spiral down, I hear a tiny, high electric hum in my head.

It does not go away for a year and three months, until Johnny leaves me one day, without warning, for an Italian girl called Teddy Cabrini. There are no faints or fits, no screaming matches. I understand by then that we are not what my parents would call “really suited” to each other. You can't work in a music store forever, and I was never waiting for a diamond ring from Johnny, not really. It wasn't about that with us. It was about the heat, the slow spin of the room, the hum in my head. He takes the amplifier with him, along with most of the drugs. I lie on our bed and listen to the perfect silence. I wonder what our neighbors will think now that he's gone.

I wonder what I think, myself.


We are called, at last, into the therapist's office. Another couple is leaving just as we go in. They don't meet our eyes, and I don't try to see their faces. Even if I know them, I don't want to know who they are.

It is Alan's turn first. I know his story. He is going to tell about his babysitter, the one who said she'd show him her fourteen-year-old breasts if he took down his Boy Scout's shorts. He was eleven, probably old enough not even to have a babysitter at the time, but his parents were nervous that he'd destroy something, and look what happened. It's not as if it was traumatic. But I suppose it would count as formative. He tells the story as he usually does, a slightly lascivious sideshow tale for the guys. The therapist nods and smiles, nonjudgmental. I wish he would just give up and judge, already.

My turn. I close my eyes a moment and think of Johnny. He had such a fine, long, lean body, over mine and under mine. And long, sensitive fingers to match, grasping my wrists until they bruised, gathering my long blonde hair, cupping my ass as he licked and licked and licked my pussy.

So I tell them about Stanley Bell and the high school party.

The therapist is pleased. We both have our experiences “out on the table.” We are now equally vulnerable, he says, and can expect great things. Alan looks absurdly eager. I am eager only to get out of there.

All afternoon, as I move about the house, doing my usual tasks and preparing dinner, I find myself watching Alan out of the corner of my eye. He is watching me out of the corner of his. I dread nightfall, the evening news, toothbrushing, bed.

In bed, with the lights off, Alan comes close to me. Instead of turning away as usual, I take a deep breath, as if undersea diving, and put my arms around him. As he touches me, hesitantly, for the first time in months, I find my mind drifting again to that first night with Johnny. Suddenly-and it is a surprise for both of us-I am responding to Alan.

“Touch me here,” I whisper, and he does. I am less in the present than in the past, tasting cheap white wine and hearing for the first time in twenty-five years that high electric hum that is for me the sound sex makes as it drives past.

When we are finished, Alan holds me sleepily and touches my hair.

“I'm so glad we went to this therapist,” he says. “I love you so much.” He falls asleep not long after that. I can feel his warm breath on my shoulder.

I lie staring in the dark. It is perfectly quiet. My lips form one word, over and over.

Johnny, I am saying. Johnny.


Edited by Nat


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