God, I don’t know if I can go through with this, I thought to myself on the way to my first session of couples’ therapy.
I’m 37 years old, and unless I get confined to a wheelchair and need round-the-clock care (Nurse! Nurrrrse!), I see no reason to get married because, after all, marriage equals death. And as far as kids go, I don’t really want another one of me running around. Maybe when I’m 50.
Then again, I have been a better person the past three and half years since I’ve been with my girlfriend Hilly. More centered, stable, tame, kind and civilized.
No question I’m happier than I was during the relationship with the barmaid who had “TOMMY” tattooed above her butt. And before that, the crazy older Jewish bohemian sensualist who at one point was cuckolding me with her ex-boyfriend and another dude.
But then I think: In this relationship, my life force is crushed. What happened to my freedom? What happened to my balls? Where’d they go? My balls are in her purse. She has confiscated them.
Then again, maybe it’s time to settle down. What about Hilly? Well, I think it’s possible that I may perhaps, you know, “love” her. How couldn’t I? She’s 30, gorgeous and a saint. Funny, fun to be with, incredibly low-maintenance. She’s been so good to me, so incessantly sweet, put up with so much of my selfish, infantile behavior.
Clearly it’s time for us to hash things out before one more item of her clothing makes it into my closet, before one more grooming product magically appears in my bathroom.
I locked up my bike at 96th and Madison. Felt groggy and anxious. But upon seeing Hilly in Dr. Harold Selman’s waiting room, I felt instantly better. She looked great in her sundress and flip-flops I’d bought her. She’d just been to the dentist and showed off her perfect white choppers.
There was another patient there, so we just sat and listened to the white-noise machine.
Dr. Selman welcomed us into his office, and Hilly and I sat down on a couch. He leaned back in an easy chair, popped the top off a Diet Sunkist, and asked what had brought us to see him.
GEORGE: I think we probably had some disagreements. Nothing that specific. Not one incident. Just general patterns of behavior. Maybe me being irritable, that kind of thing.
DR. SELMAN: Have you ever had treatment in the past?
GEORGE: Yes, when I was a kid. I was sort of a troublemaker in school.
DR. SELMAN [ to HILLY]: Is this new to you?
HILLY: I’ve been in therapy before, too. This is the first time I’ve ever done it with someone else. I first went when I was 14. My brother was going because he was a troublemaker and he blamed a lot of problems on me. And so the psychiatrist wanted to see me there, too. It didn’t work very well. And then I went again when I was in college, because I didn’t like the school where I was going. And then when I moved to New York, 10 years ago, for a couple years I went to someone. I wasn’t happy with my job and all kinds of stuff.
DR. SELMAN: Are you each aware of each other’s past history of this stuff?
DR. SELMAN: Have either of you been prescribed medication?
HILLY: Prozac. But I want to wean myself down.
DR. SELMAN: You have any side effects?
HILLY: Um, maybe a little sexual side effect.
DR. SELMAN: Are you still depressed?
HILLY: No, because I take my Prozac!
DR. SELMAN: How’d you meet?
HILLY: In the Hog Pit. In a bar, but sort of through mutual friends.
GEORGE: And then in another bar maybe three, six months later.
HILLY: ’Cause he was really mean to me the first time we met. And so the sparks didn’t really fly. And then when we met next, it was a different situation and he was really nice! So we got along really well.
GEORGE: I don’t remember being mean. I think I was on a date that night.
HILLY: You were sitting at this table and dancing and I was wearing a T-shirt that said “Judas Priest” on it, and Jacqui tried to introduce us, and instead of saying, “Hi, nice to meet you,” you just looked at my shirt and were like, “What’s your favorite Judas Priest album?” and asking questions like that, if I knew certain songs—and I didn’t, because I just bought the shirt because I thought it looked cool. And you turned away, so I just thought, “Wow, too bad—kind of rude.” Because I’d read some of his stories, and they were pretty funny.
GEORGE: All right. But we got along better the next time, right?
DR. SELMAN: And what is your relationship now? Are you living together?
GEORGE: No. You stay over sometimes.
HILLY: I stay over usually a couple nights a week. But I have my own place downtown. I think we’re both used to living alone. Right? And we all know it’s a difficult thing in Manhattan to find a place that’s big enough for two people to co-habitate that have certain habits. Right?
DR. SELMAN: Certain habits?
HILLY: For example, we can’t sleep in the same room with each other. Because we’re incompatible sleepers. I’m a really hot person and he’s a really cold person. Temperature is a big issue.
GEORGE: Even when we’re not sleeping, just sitting on the couch.
HILLY: It’s actually an issue all the time, and it irritates him a lot. We’ll be sitting there watching a movie, and he’ll turn the air conditioner off. But I get really hot. And if I turn it on, he thinks that I’m conspiring against him, to try to get him sick.
GEORGE: I might say that sort of as a joke. I’m just saying if it goes down to 68 degrees, I’m going to get sick—I don’t think you’re doing it on purpose.
HILLY: But the thing that’s weird is, he’ll be sitting there in boxers and no socks or T-shirt or anything, and I’m there with practically nothing on, and I’m the one who’s hot and he’s cold, and I’ll say, “Well why don’t you put on a sweater?”
GEORGE: Even that doesn’t work—it’s just that cold air.
DR. SELMAN: So when you sleep over at his apartment, you sleep in separate locations? Is that an issue? I guess so.
GEORGE: Not really.
HILLY: I don’t really think so. I think it works out pretty well.
GEORGE: Didn’t you read something about that, that it’s normal?
HILLY: There was an article in GQ. If you look at what doctors have found in recent years about how important healthy sleep patterns are to a person, it only makes sense, if you’re not compatible sleepers, to not sleep in the same bed.
DR. SELMAN: And how long have you been involved with each other?
GEORGE: The second time we met, at this bar Siberia, we went around the corner to this bar Bellevue, and I think it was there she just started kissing me. Kind of late at night, and I think I suggested we start going out right then and there.
HILLY: Yeah, and I said no, because I was sort of dating someone else, and I thought we should be friends. And a couple of days later, I suggested we meet as friends. Then I kissed him again.
DR. SELMAN: What about the issues that brought you here?
HILLY: At the risk of sounding trite or clichéd, I think it’s communication. I know that’s an issue with most couples, but there are certain things that are hard for us to express to each other. For example, George frequently asks me what I’m thinking about, because—I don’t know if “upset” is right—you just wonder, if I’m quiet for a period of time, what’s going on. Makes him nervous if I go for a while without saying anything, and I can never really answer the question.
DR. SELMAN: Whose idea was it to go to couple’s therapy?
HILLY: A couple months ago, George was talking about maybe seeing someone yourself, and I said I thought it might be a good idea, because you get sad a lot. I said if you want, I’ll go with you.
GEORGE: It was a mutual thing.
DR. SELMAN: You think he gets sad a lot?
HILLY: Sad and anxious and irritable and angry. I mean, not all at once.
GEORGE: Most of the time, I have a great time with Hilly, think of her as my best friend, and we have our own little special language. But part of me is … troubled. Just about … all kinds of things. General feeling of malaise and uncertainty. Not knowing how to have a stable emotional tie here. I don’t know if I’ve ever had that. I wonder if I can establish that with anyone.
DR. SELMAN: So why don’t you just go for individual therapy?
GEORGE: Maybe I can do that, too.
DR. SELMAN: Going for therapy like this can open up a Pandora’s box.
GEORGE: The other day, Hilly came over to my apartment, my little “sanctuary,” and started ironing and—do you want to tell that story?
HILLY: You can. Well, I just started ironing and I blew a fuse and—it’s actually one of my goals: “I’d like to minimize the number of George’s grumpy outbursts”—so anyway I blew the fuse, the air conditioner turned off, and he got really mad. He sat on the couch and he couldn’t even look me in the eye.
GEORGE: I knew as soon as I went into the bathroom, you’d start doing something, snooping around.
HILLY: His face kind of turned red and he got really upset. And I said, “Well, George, haven’t you ever blown a fuse before?” And he said, “No! Not in my entire life!” And I said, “Well, George, don’t worry—it’s really easy to fix it. All you have to do is find a panel and switch the fuse thingy.” So we just sat there and then I thought, “Well, it’s probably in the basement.” So I went down there and found the fuse box. Then I switched it off and switched it on and then I went back upstairs and I said, “Is it back on?” And you said, “No, no—now you turned my computer off, too!” So I went back down and tried it again, went back up and it still wasn’t working. And I said, “Well, maybe you should call your super.” So he called his super—still couldn’t look at me—then he threw the phone down and said, “On vacation for a month!” And I said, “Maybe I should go and talk to the neighbor—”
GEORGE: No, you didn’t say that—you just went and did it.
HILLY: I did—you just didn’t hear me. So I walked outside down the hall and I knocked on the neighbor’s door, and as soon as I did, I heard George back in his apartment screaming, “Get back in here RIGHT NOW!” And as soon as he said that, the door opened and this guy—this bodybuilder bald man—was staring at me thinking I was a battered victim or something. And I was just laughing. He told me there was another fuse box in the kitchen, so everything was fine after that.
GEORGE: She fixed it. I know the retelling of it sounds gruesome, but soon after we were laughing about it. We went on to have a nice dinner, right?
HILLY: Mmm-hmmm. Yeah, but that kind of stuff happens frequently. These short bursts of anger and frustration. Like the other morning … now, granted, this was very early, like 5:30 a.m., but he was going to drive me to the train station in East Hampton, so I went in to wake him up, and his brother’s cat ran into the room—it’s a one-year-old cat, so it’s filled with energy—and he ran right past me. And I was trying to be very quiet so I didn’t wake everyone else up. And the first thing he said was, “Get that cat outta here! Did YOU let that cat in!?” And I was like, “No, I didn’t,” but I got the cat out. And he was so mad, and it’s almost like, it’s, it’s, yeah, it’s … scary. Frequently I feel I have to walk on eggshells, because I don’t always know what I’m going to do or say that’s going to make him blow up. I have a pretty good idea.
DR. SELMAN: Hmmmm.
HILLY: But then, right after that, he asked me to sit down on the bed to sort of help him wake up for a minute, and we have this thing I do where I scratch his head because it makes him feel better. We call it “scratchy.” And so he just said “scratchy.” And so I just started scratching his head, but then I was getting worried and filled with anxiety, worried about the train leaving. I was thinking, “He’s still sitting here—what if he doesn’t get out of bed in time?” So he could tell that I had tension. So he said, “If you’re not gonna do scratchy right, don’t even bother!” So I had to get up, and I just walked out of the room. Ten minutes later, we were in the car laughing about it. So it’s those little things. We don’t even live together. I mean, it’s more often not like that. Otherwise, I don’t think we would still ….
GEORGE: And what’s this book that you’re reading?
HILLY: It’s called The Irritable Male Syndrome that some friend gave me, and it’s about how a lot of men at points in their lives can experience these different levels of testosterone that can cause them to sometimes to be quite irritable at the drop of the hat.
DR. SELMAN: How often do you think it is like that?
GEORGE [ to DR. SELMAN]: Can I go get one of those Diet Sunkists?
DR. SELMAN: Sure.
[GEORGE rises, walks to a small kitchen next to the waiting room, gets a Diet Sunkist, returns.]
HILLY: How often? I don’t know. Like I said, it’s more often not like that. But at any given period of time that we’re together—it usually doesn’t happen when we’re out with other people or in public—although sometimes, like at Blockbuster last weekend ….
GEORGE: O.K., you’ve been talking a whole lot. You’re on a roll. I just wanted to make one thing clear. I’m sort of laughing and cringing through this—I don’t feel good about those outbursts. That would be my goal here, to not do that. But I’m really used to being alone, and I have this idea that for what I do for a living, I need to have this alone time.
DR. SELMAN: What does that have to do with this issue of irritability?
GEORGE: That doesn’t happen when I’m by myself in my apartment.
DR. SELMAN: Well, there’s nobody to yell at.
DR. SELMAN: It’s yourself and the cat.
GEORGE: I know, but I’ve lived that way before quite successfully.
HILLY: Every once in a while you yell at Bobbie.
GEORGE: What does that have to do with anything?
DR. SELMAN: Who’s Bobbie?
HILLY: His cat. [to be continued]