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THE COUPLE

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By Robin Tung

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The Montréal Review, February 2012

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"Seated Model with Zebra Skin" (2001, oil on linen laid down on panel, 30 x 44 inches) by Jeffrey Gold

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There was always a feeling of surprise, even after six months, at the diminutive size of the office. During the week, when she closed her eyes and thought about their sessions, the room transformed into something more cavernous, the walls slowly retreating from each other. The wife walked into the therapist's office with her husband close behind her. It smelled of sandalwood, and vacuum tracks in the carpet striped the floor haphazardly. The room was comfortably warm, which made the windows perspire. The therapist offered them paper cups of water before he sat down in a leather chair and gently reminded them where they left off the previous week.

If the wife had to trace the unhappy symptoms of her marriage back to one final and original source, it was sex-that her husband denied it to her, rejected her advances, then performed poorly, causing her such anxiety anticipating the next failure; she was chronically unsatisfied. The husband's unhappiness was not so easily explained, but it was clear that he wore it in his heavy shoulders and stiff back.

The husband's skin was getting oily and his shaven face was speckled with dark hairs. He was terribly handsome to her-masculine, unlike the therapist, and he was wildly passionate about his studies, and so easily engaged by others' interests. It was a real asset in life to be fascinated and delighted by others; she envied him. Yet there was an ugly impulse in her to hurt him. The therapy, which they'd started four months ago, already too late in their seven year-long marriage, was to "work on things"-quite nebulous and vague.

Ivy plants trailed down the bookshelf, and on the windowsill beside her was a fern folded over a terracotta pot, trembling beneath the steady current of hot air from the ceiling vent. The therapist balanced a legal notepad on his thigh. The wife looked at the therapist's shoes. They were so shiny they were either very expensive, Italian leather or very cheap synthetic material that rubbed the skin to blisters. She sometimes imagined the therapist's life -everything about him seemed deliberate, and sterile, even. She imagined that he ordered furniture from a catalogue along with his sweaters, bedding, towels, and stemware. She could conjure up a bookish, fluffy-haired wife for him, but not children. He lacked a certain warmth and casualness necessary for children-a loosening of the joints, of the heart, which children affected. He was narrow-faced and slim with acne scars that striated when he smiled. In a way, she hated the therapist, even though he often sided with her. She felt guilty about his overt support, but it helped to have someone agree with her. Though there were times, too, when the therapist pointed out her shortcomings, and when it happened, she shriveled into a pit of bitterness.

"Last week you mentioned a very difficult incident," the therapist offered, angling his bent knee slightly toward the wife. His brows furrowed, and his lower lids puffed. Without shifting his body, he tilted his head toward the husband. "How did that affect you?"

"Upset and-" The husband stalled.

He was always stalling, she thought. He was an emotional troglodyte; his inner life was paced with the northern glaciers.

The church had shied away from helping them with any counseling after she had become volatile, as they had put it-she smashed glassware on the floor, chucked his books out of the window, and had even cut herself with a triangle of glass, the last straw that had brought them to therapy.

The elders and deacons didn't have the training or resources to counsel them, and deep down, he believed that they all knew that the verses, sermons, and prayers weren't going to shake them out of whatever it was they were going through. All that could be done had been done. It was gross resignation. It was an affirmation of their doomed marriage. A nod of the head to divorce, a promise to turn away, and pretend the church didn't see.

The therapist turned to her, tapped his gold and silver pen on his knee. How did she feel about her week with her husband? Had they made in any progress in communication? Did she have an example?

"I tried to not push him over the edge."

What was that edge? It was an elusive thing, invisible. A windswept terrain that was his heart dropping into nothingness below. A smoldering black wasteland, a volcano she saw on a museum shop postcard titled "Averno." It was a cliff shoving off into hell. And one day she'd really do something to push him over and the marriage would be over and they would both slink away, thrashing in the darkness with their mortal wounds.

In the office, the three took turns talking in a stifled and punctuated manner. The therapist's nostrils were pinched and his glasses slid down. He wiped his forehead with his thumb. The heater droned. The husband shifted in his seat and then crossed his right leg over his left. The wife sensed that both of the men were eager to get up. Perhaps her husband thought the session would end early. She, too, was impatient to leave. But she secretly hated disappointing the therapist with their marriage, with their stolid sessions. It made her feel that she had failed. Of course, she wasn't allowed to use language like that in the session-failure, wrong, right-but it was impossible to avoid it.

"I highly suggest you separate for a short time," the therapist concluded. "As I explained last week, a separation would entail living apart for a month and attending individual therapy sessions." He turned to the wife and said, "You would see another therapist privately. This is quite serious, as you both know."

The wife glanced at her husband and then at her coat on the rack. One sleeve was twisted and half-obscured by her husband's coat, and the wooden knob protruded through the beige raincoat like a small tumor.

The therapist moved to his desk and pulled two thin paper packets from a drawer. He handed the husband a sheet of paper. Then he handed the wife a sheet. The wife turned to glance at her husband's sheet and saw that his was the same: communication exercises on mirroring, creating empathy, listening without judging.

The husband did not look up from his sheet. The therapist sat back down and rolled his gold pen back and forth between his fingers "I hope you will take a week to think about this," the therapist said.

The therapist laid the legal pad down on the desk and slid the pen into a blue mug. The husband got up and handed the coat to his wife; he did not help her into it. They said goodbye to the therapist and walked down the hallway past a few other office doors. The wife opened the door of the suite and walked past the mousy receptionist. There was a basket of hard peppermint candies wrapped in red cellophane on the desk. She took one and the cellophane crackled between her fingers as she unwrapped it, then unwrapped one for him.

"Are you hungry?" he asked, as if cautious that this question, too, might be too much. They walked across the parking lot, the wind reddening their ears and cheeks. She felt her left shoulders stiffen from the cold. The wintry mix of snow and crystals of ice coated their hair.

"Yes, very," she said, sucking on the mint. She wiped the snowflakes from her eyelashes and brows.

"Would you want to go to the Thai restaurant?" he asked. It would take a few minutes for the car to warm up, for the heat to melt the thin flakes of ice from the windshield. He rifled through the middle compartment for his leather gloves. He looked at her hands, which had turned white around the knuckles. She'd forgotten to bring hers and he laid the pair in her lap and watched her slide them on. They were cartoonishly large on her.

He popped the trunk open and stepped out of the car. The ice was frozen in torrents over the windshield as if someone had poured two cups of egg whites over it. He chipped and scraped, working in a rhythm. His breath clouded around him, and through one patch of cleared ice he saw his wife's knees. They were so small there, pressed together because she was cold.

They pulled out of the driveway and merged onto the main street, where the sun, a chalky smear in the granite sky, was setting behind trees and houses and casting a cold glare on the icy road.

"Here, take these," she said, slipping the gloves off and handing to them. His large hands were red and probably stinging.

"I'm all right," he said. He brought the visor down. The hot air blowing from the vents smelled plastic and burnt.

"What did you think about what he said?" the wife asked.

"I'm not sure it's a good idea," he said.

"I don't know what to do" the wife said. "I hate him," she blurted.

The husband exhaled a little a laugh, and smiled to himself. He took one hand and balled it into a fist, relaxed it, and then balled it again to increase circulation.

"Why are you laughing?" she asked, shaking her hair off her face.

"Nothing," he said.

She watched him closely, seriously. The husband maneuvered the car through neighborhood streets to avoid the heavy, slow traffic on the main road. Oaks and spindly birches lined the sidewalks; their dirt-colored leaves were mashed into the snow. Many of the craftsman homes had stylish wreaths of berry red and saffron hanging on their front doors.

The sky darkened with clouds and snow was coming down now in flat sheets. They were carving their way through the gray slush and the wife turned the knob on the heater to adjust the hot air roasting her ankles. She slipped off her shoes and pressed her toes against the lower vent.

"Do you think we're going to get better?" she asked.

"I think so, but it's going to take a long time," he said, squinting against the setting sun.

"Everything takes a long time," she hissed under her coat. "I don't know if I can go on," she said. She pressed her gloved hands together and couldn't feel anything through the leather. When she called their therapist to say that she and her husband wouldn't separate, wouldn't see him again, she would appear prideful-obstinate; they would be regressing. It would look like giving up.

"We have to do something, don't we?" she asked.

"I'm sure we do," he said.

The husband squinted and flipped the visor down as they drove onto the truss bridge.

"Can't you at least give me an idea? I never know what you mean. You barely said a thing in the office," she said.

"What do you want me to say?" he asked. Was he irritated? Was he placid? She never could tell until she'd pushed him to the very edge. He straightened his broad shoulders.

"What if I want to leave, then?" she asked.

"For the month?" he asked.

"For good," she said.

He didn't answer. He wouldn't, she knew. This was the kind of talk that he detested.

The tires slipped once and turned the steering wheel and eased his foot on the gas pedal. He had to be very delicate now. He was incredibly intuitive driving in weather; she had praised him for it many times. In Wisconsin once they'd seen farm trucks and compact cars turned over in ditches, abandoned in the snow. But it had never happened to them. He lifted the visor a bit. It was hard to see with the glare on the ice.

They careened left to avoid a patch that looked like black ice. The tires slid, and the car began to skid left. He spun the wheel right and a cry escaped her. He pulled the wheel hard again to compensate and the car accelerated with a horrific noise, moving on a cloud of exhaust. The husband pumped the brakes and yanked the emergency brake. They floated over ice and snow. The smoke fogged around them, and the car spun once, all of the white coalescing in the windows and then splitting apart. The car flew into the railing and their heads flung toward his door. Her whole head went dark.

The husband's hands were gripped tightly around the wheel so that his skin felt as if it were going to split. She was deep in her own seat, everything was dim; her blood tingled at the surface of her forehead, her arms.

When he regained feeling in his chest and legs, his heart stippled with fear and electricity shot into his feet. She sat wide-eyed beside him in shock, her fingers clasping the seat belt. Her breath was raspy and as even as a pump. He untangled himself and crawled over her. There was a long, dark bruise above her right temple.

The headlights shone into the pearl-colored river. Rivulets of water streamed down the windows. They were tilted toward the river and his door was smashed in. He called her name, and then again. He touched her arm. He had to coax her back into full consciousness, and they had to get out of the car.

She could barely feel him through his coat and her gloves. The air seemed to insulate them even more. She could scarcely hear his voice, so muffled by frozen air and the static in her ears. It was as if she'd merely woken from a sleep, and she felt something loosen in her. He crawled into the backseat and out of the car. It frightened her to see him appear at her door. How had he gotten from one place to another so quickly? And what was he doing-out in the sleet like that?

The freezing air rolled over her like water. He held her face and spoke gently to her, none of which she heard. She couldn't discern what he was saying, except that this gentleness soothed her, and she only vaguely felt his fingers on her body, which was made of velvet. He repeated something to her now with much concentration. Behind him, snow floated past the window in hard white grains, and she had only the slightest feeling, hearing a low buzz and not the loud rushing of water below nor her husband's voice, or the ambulance, or the man shouting across the road-it wasn't so much a particular feeling, but the knowledge of stillness seeing all of the stars blinking over the trees in that kingdom of white.

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Robin Tung earned her MFA from Johns Hopkins University and is a recipient of the Milton A. Saier Award and is also a recent Pushcart nominee. Her work appears in The Labletter, NANO Fiction, Sugar House Review, and Valparaiso Poetry Review.

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Illustration "Seated Model with Zebra Skin" by Jeffrey Gold.

Born in 1958 in Los Angeles, Jeffrey Gold studied at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, receiving his BFA degree in 1983.

A Forum Gallery artist since 1993, Gold continues to live and work in Los Angeles where he has also been exhibited by Koplin Gallery and Robert Berman Gallery.

Focusing on the nude, and in particular the female body, Gold employs dramatic chiaroscuro to generate introspective portraits of his subjects poised in powerfully balanced compositions. A quiet beauty permeates each of these portraits, capturing the imagination and gently disclosing a veiled aperture into the psyche of each sitter. Likewise, Gold's elaborate still lifes project a similar pristine elegance... | more |

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