Hilly and I had our third couples therapy session. I felt better about her than ever, but when we got to my past, we hit a few bumps in the road.
I went into my third session of couples therapy feeling swell. It really was working. I was opening up, sharing, communicating. Yes, youth was officially over, and soon I’d be like all those henpecked guys my age I see on the Upper West Side pushing a stroller and looking meek, ashamed, henpecked, half-dead, castrated. Wearing their favorite college fraternity T-shirt (“Co-Ed Naked Lacrosse,” “Liquor Up Front, Poker in the Rear”).
Finally, I’d be like them. A big boy!
Meanwhile, I was eager to volunteer more about my early sexual exploits and how that has impacted my relationship with Hilly. Since we’d last met with Dr. Harold Selman, she and I had made it onto the front page of this newspaper. I wasn’t too happy with the photograph. I looked ridiculous, like an extraterrestrial.
But Hilly looked good, and someone told me that was better than the opposite scenario.
She was still looking good in Dr. Selman’s office, which made me feel good. We sat on the couch, under a photograph of Dr. Freud’s office, and popped open our Diet Sunkists.
HILLY: Did you like the stories?
DR. SELMAN: I found them very entertaining, actually kind of compelling.
GEORGE: I keep hearing “compelling.” That means you want to keep reading?
DR. SELMAN: Yes. Yes. I enjoyed it, actually.
GEORGE: It’s kind of different, doing therapy in public, right? One reason I think it’s good is that I feel like I’m being watched, and all these things I’m saying about wanting to improve can’t be empty words or promises. I’ve got to work on this stuff. It’s adding some pressure.
HILLY: Pressure about stuff we want to fix, right?
GEORGE: For instance, we’re going to go out tonight, and I think this is a real test, because Hilly will want to go home at around midnight. I’d like to go home around 1 or so, and I know I’ll be proud of myself.
DR. SELMAN: So?
GEORGE: That’s about it. What kind of feedback did you get?
HILLY: Mostly people thought it was really funny, some of my friends and co-workers. I felt fine about everything; I didn’t feel like my privacy was being invaded or anything.
DR. SELMAN: Well, you know, my approach to this is that I’m doing it as if you were just another couple like this in therapy. I’m not addressing a newspaper column. So I’m trying to stay focused that way, and when I read the columns, what impressed me most, I guess, was how open the both of you really were. People go to see therapists and expect confidentiality, and they say whatever and it doesn’t ever have to leave the room. And here we have the expectation that everything is going to be made public, so you know, maybe you don’t want to say how much you drink and have it appear in the newspaper. But you guys were very open. I was impressed with how much information you put in. I said to you guys when you came in the first time, ‘You know, this could be a bit of a Pandora’s box.’ Because in real therapy, who knows what’s going to come up?
GEORGE: You’re right, you’re right. I was kind of freaked out about the picture that ran. It was the worst picture of me ever taken, and I thought my editor had purposely put it in there and deliberately didn’t show it to me beforehand. So I had a complete meltdown yesterday.
DR. SELMAN: What do you think that aspect was?
GEORGE: It was vanity, to begin with; then it was more conspiracy-minded. I didn’t want any pranks, any surprises with this. I wanted to know exactly what was going in there and Hilly to know, too. I didn’t see the photo and the subheads, the headlines.
HILLY: And you know, when they take a quote and blow it up on the page and make it larger-size. The one they used said something about infidelity, and then I had some kind of fleeting thought of coming across as some kind of a crazy, jealous, raging person.
DR. SELMAN: What shape and form did the meltdown take?
GEORGE: I sent about 10 e-mails to my editor and pretty much gave two weeks’ notice.
HILLY: I think they wanted us to look kind of funny. We both looked really nervous, and I was looking off in the distance and George had a really kind of scary expression on his face, and then the caption was “Before therapy.” And so I think they were trying to make sort of cartoon out of “before and after,” anticipating that after a few more sessions, maybe there will be some blissfully perfect photo.
GEORGE: Yeah, I looked demonic in the picture. But so far, so good. Right, Hilly?
DR. SELMAN: So I take it that they rejected your resignation?
GEORGE: Yeah. I think by the eighth or ninth e-mail, I’d softened it a little. They know me pretty well. And they changed the photo on the Web site. They understood my reaction, because just doing this kind of therapy, talking about funny “Gurley’s a character”–type stuff—but also kind of excruciating personal stuff ….
DR. SELMAN: Excruciating?
GEORGE: Some of it. Maybe that’s too strong. Well, I think, at age 7, bribing a girl $5 to say “I love you,” then throwing the coins on the ground—I mean, where does that come from? That’s not learned behavior. That makes me feel like there’s something. [Pause] I talked to my mother, and she reminded me that I was obsessed with Farrah Fawcett. I had Farrah Fawcett sheets, Farrah Fawcett T-shirts, posters. I was obsessed with Farrah Fawcett.
And when I moved to New York, I learned about sex from the show Midnight Blue with Al Goldstein. This was like sixth grade. And The Ugly George Show.
DR. SELMAN: I thought that your sex life began when you were 7.
GEORGE: But this added fuel to the fire. Also, I wanted to say I think Hilly was the girl next-door. She was really sweet. I know it doesn’t sound so innocent, but that time of my life was pretty idyllic.
DR. SELMAN: What do you think about what George is saying?
HILLY: Um, well, I mean right off the bat, we have this way that we speak to each other frequently that’s kind of infantile, and I know that a lot of my behavior is very infantile. I think I remind him of a 7- or 8-year-old girl because that’s about my emotional-maturity level.
GEORGE: We have play dates; we get really silly. We go into fantasyland. Other couples must do this, but we talk about the cats.
HILLY: And ponies. Talk in, like, little baby voices and call each other “scoopie pie.” It’s more comfortable; it maybe reminds him of when things seemed safer.
GEORGE: Couple other things—O.K., this might be more relevant. I went to an all-boys school … am I taking up too much time and being self-indulgent?
GEORGE: What do you think?
DR. SELMAN: Well, it’s like digging in a mine and no one’s going to hit gold.
GEORGE: So I should continue? All-boys school from fourth grade until eighth grade here in New York, then the boarding school I went to in Connecticut—it was kind of a twisted place then. Hazing. You couldn’t leave on the weekends. People called it a penitentiary. I smoked a lot of pot to escape.
DR. SELMAN: Why do you see this as relevant?
GEORGE: I’m getting there. The girls’ school was five miles up a mountain. I didn’t have normal contact with girls. They weren’t allowed in your room, and it was basically the longest dry spell I ever had. It wasn’t until senior year that I started to have—what’s called “dating.”
You weren’t even allowed to masturbate there. You couldn’t lock the door to your room, and if you got caught masturbating—what was called “snapping”—that was social suicide. You were ruined. Everyone would find out.
DR. SELMAN: Clearly, there was some sort of underlying homosexuality about the place.
GEORGE: Yeah, definitely, all the jocks—I used to get punched all the time by these huge hockey and football players who were walking around naked in the dorm. It was a weird place. By the time you were a senior, everything would get better. Somewhere along the way, my whole confidence, sense of self and well-being got tied up into scamming on girls.
DR. SELMAN: “Scamming”?
GEORGE: Scoring, fooling around. That was all my guy friends and I talked about.
HILLLY: When I met him for the second time, it came up in conversation. I asked him how many previous sexual partners he had, and it was a huge number. I had to sit down and calculate if it was even possible.
GEORGE: I just think it got hard-wired into me—maybe because of being in these boys’ schools, and that was all we thought about.
DR. SELMAN: So you’re saying you overcompensated with women to defend against the homosexuality of the school?
GEORGE: No! No. No, it was not a reaction against that. I don’t know—maybe.
HILLY: You go out and flirt with pretty girls and get busy with them. So that’s maybe something that’s still on your mind when you go out.
DR. SELMAN: Well, then why should she trust you now? As she said in an earlier session—that she had concerns about whether or not you meet other women.
HILLY: The other day, when I walked into your apartment, I found a long dark hair in his bathroom and brought it out to him and asked if he was having an affair. He got mad at me.
GEORGE: Right, ’cause that was the cleaning lady.
HILLY: I feel bad that I have to ask. I hate feeling that way, but sometimes I do. I don’t wonder as much now as earlier on in our relationship, but I sometimes still do get concerned.
GEORGE: I think I’m saying this because I want you to know something about my sexual and psychological history. I don’t know—to me, it doesn’t sound normal. It’s not like some guy who, at age 15, had a girlfriend for four years and then another one—you know, long, stable, happy relationships.
DR. SELMAN: I’m curious: What is your reaction to what George is saying?
HILLY: There’s fear.
GEORGE: You also said you had a pattern that, in the past, you have screwed up relationships, right?
HILLY: Yeah, I just basically didn’t have them. Like I said, the longest one I ever had was six weeks. I was scared of them. I would sabotage the relationships before they even had a chance of taking off.
GEORGE: Six weeks. I thought it was six months.
DR. SELMAN: So you have no response to what he said, no reaction.
HILLY: Well, there’s a little anger, too, because it just goes back to self-discipline. I mean, what’s the big deal? You give yourself a curfew and you don’t have physical interaction with other women. There’s an answer for just about everything in the world. Sometimes, infidelity like what happened with us—you cheated on me—I forgave you for that. Once.
GEORGE: Sorry about that.
HILLY: Thanks. Twice, I don’t know. I think it’s situation by situation, and I think, too, because we discussed the “marriage” word, it’s case by case. Everyone has to deal with it in their own way. So I can’t predict if something were to happen, how I would react. I hope that it wouldn’t. I would hope that I would be enough to keep you from being tempted. But I know that especially in the circles that we run around in, people cheat. It’s disgusting, but they do it. It’s an ugly fact of life.
GEORGE: Well, I know that right now, compared to before I knew you, that I don’t have that same drive. And that incident you’re talking about: I’m not making excuses, but that was very late at night, alcohol—
HILLY: But you have lots of late nights, alcohol-induced.
GEORGE: I’m not making excuses; I’m trying to improve myself. Put you at ease.
DR. SELMAN: Well, you think that by telling her all this stuff, you’re putting her at ease?
GEORGE: Am I making it worse?
HILLY: No, I think it’s great that we’re talking about it at all. If we were at dinner or at home or something, we wouldn’t be talking about it. Otherwise, it builds up internally over time and can drive somebody crazy. To me, honesty is more important. If you want to go hop in the sack with Suzie-Q, tell me about it. And we can discuss it and see if comes to some … before you do something. We can see if we can work something out. Maybe it’s because there is something I need to do to change something, to make things more exciting for you.
GEORGE: I don’t think you have to worry about that, really. Expunge those thoughts.
DR. SELMAN: So you’re willing to accept him with all this history?
HILLY: Yeah, absolutely, I already have. For example, taking birth control for me was a very big issue. I really didn’t want to take it. But I did and I do now.
GEORGE: I had a report card once—you know they have the grades and the comments? My Latin teacher’s comments were four words: “vile behavior at times.”
DR. SELMAN: You know, I was just thinking the same thing. Really, I was thinking, “What’s coming next? How much can you tell her to turn her off to you?”
GEORGE: Oh, I see what you mean. So I shouldn’t have said any of this stuff? Counterproductive?
DR. SELMAN: No, no. But it seems like you’re very ambivalent about your relationship to begin with. What better way to have to avoid getting married than go for couples therapy with your girlfriend and try to turn her off to the max?
GEORGE: I don’t think I’m doing that. I’m not doing this to turn her, turn you off. I think what you’re getting at is there’s something self-indulgent, narcissistic about me. I agree. It’s possible the way I’m acting right now is an act.
DR. SELMAN: An act?
GEORGE: Sometimes when you confess to being narcissistic or something, it’s empty and you’re letting yourself off the hook. “Oh, I’m narcissistic, that’s just the way I am—I’m an asshole.” So there it is, I’ve said it. I don’t know. Do you think she lets me off the hook too easily and has been too optimistic about me?
DR. SELMAN: Sounds like she’s willing to put up with just about anything.
HILLY: I’m just a firm believer that people make mistakes, and I think George deserves the benefit of the doubt. And he’s been so great to me—he really has.
DR. SELMAN: So how do feel about what Hilly’s saying to you?
GEORGE: I agree with it and I appreciate it. I have some demons, and she’s accepted that.
DR. SELMAN: What I’m getting at here is, for someone who really has not had many long-term relationships, here’s somebody who, despite everything, she’s still hanging in there, right? So what’s it gonna be? What’s it going to be to turn her off? What’s it gonna take?
GEORGE: Can I raise something? Tonight we’re going to go out, and if I go out and go home with Hilly at 1 a.m., that will be a sign that this is working.
DR. SELMAN: So you’re putting pressure on yourself to live up to a certain ideal that you want to live up to. So you’re saying, “Well, this is what you really want to do”—so if you don’t do it, then you’ll have failed the test.
GEORGE: I think it’s a test, and it’s gonna work out.
DR. SELMAN: Let me remind you, this is the third session. Why put these kinds of tests on yourself so early on?
GEORGE: Should we talk about our cats? Do we have a few minutes?
HILLY: That was actually one of the turning points in our relationship, I think, when my beloved cat Pierre passed away. Oh my gosh—I don’t know what I would have done without George. I was surprised and touched at how sweet he was. I came home to find my sweet, precious Pierre dead in the bathroom, and I went into sort of shock at first and didn’t know what to do, and then I was sobbing and George called, and at first I said, “No, don’t come down here—I can deal with this on my own.” But he forced himself over to my apartment and just sat there with me when the ambulance came to take Pierre away and cried with me. It was just so hard. I know it sounds silly, but it was really sweet.
GEORGE: What were you thinking just now when we were talking about our cats?
DR. SELMAN: What would make you think that I would want the cat in my office?
GEORGE: So we have to wait until our sixth session before we get your interpretations?
DR. SELMAN: Well, we’ve had three.
GEORGE: Some of the questions you were asking me seemed to suggest that I was the villain. Maybe I am.
DR. SELMAN: You said it yourself with the kid in the classroom doing behaviors that are not approved of. Saying “penis” or something in the classroom. So I have a feeling like you’re saying “penis” in the classroom now, and that’s why you think I’m the principal.
GEORGE: You think I’m telling stories to be disruptive?
DR. SELMAN: I think they’re very provocative. And exhibitionistic.
HILLY: To me, it seems very clear: all the acting out, all the defiance, all the cries and screaming for attention. Who wouldn’t as a kid—your parents got a divorce, you’re a little kid.
GEORGE: Can I ask you one last thing? Is there hope for redemption?
DR. SELMAN: This is not church.