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Helen tried not to look at her watch, because looking at your watch never changed anything, but it was already a quarter to seven and her husband’s headlights had yet to appear at the top of the hill. Evening had darkened to the point where she had to press her forehead to the kitchen window and frame her eyes with her hands just to see outside. Meadow Close was a dead end street, and so even if she couldn’t make out the car itself, the moment she saw headlights of any kind cresting the hill there was a one in six chance they were Ben’s. More like one in three, actually, because by turning her face a bit in the bowl of her hands she could see the Hugheses’ car parked in their driveway, and the Griffins’, and that obscene yellow Hummer that belonged to Dr. Parnell—
“Mom!” Sara yelled from the living room. “Can I have some more seltzer?”
Twelve was old enough to get your own fanny out of the chair and pour your own third glass of seltzer. But it was Tuesday, and on Tuesday evening guilt always ruled, which was why Sara was eating dinner in front of the TV in the first place, and so Helen said only, pointedly, “Please?”
“Please,” Sara answered.
She couldn’t help stealing a look at the kitchen clock as she closed the refrigerator door. Six-fifty. Mr. Passive Aggressive strikes again, she thought. She wasn’t always confident she understood that expression correctly—passive aggressive—but she referred to it instinctively whenever Ben failed to do something he had promised her he would do. Sara was sitting on the couch with her plate on her lap and her feet on the coffee table, watching some horrific show about rich girls; she still wore her shin guards but at least she’d remembered to take her cleats off. Helen placed the seltzer bottle on the table at a safe distance from her daughter’s right foot.
“Thank you?” she said.
“Thank you,” Sara repeated.
Then they both turned to watch a beam of light finish raking the kitchen, and a few seconds later Helen heard the lazy thump of a car door. Instead of relaxing, she grew more agitated. She hated to be late for things, and he knew that about her, or should have. Ben walked through the front door, wearing his slate-gray suit with an open collar and no tie. When he was preoccupied, which was his word for depressed, he had a habit of pulling off his tie in the car and then forgetting it there; last Sunday Helen, passing his Audi in the garage, had glanced through the window and seen three or four neckties slithering around on the passenger seat. It had sent a little shudder through her, though she didn’t know why. His eyes moved indifferently from Sara to her dinner plate to the TV as he trudged past them toward the hallway, but his expression didn’t change; he was sunk too deep in whatever he was sunk in even to make the effort to convey his disapproval. Helen followed him into their bedroom. He finished emptying his pockets onto the dresser and then turned toward her without a trace of engagement, as if she were trying to talk to a photo of him.
“We’re late,” she said.
He shrugged, but did not so much as consult the watch right there on his wrist. “So let’s go,” he said.
“You’re not going to change?”
She rolled her eyes. “It’s Date Night?” she said.
He scowled and started taking off his pants. Really, it was like having two adolescents in the house sometimes. So that he wouldn’t lose focus—he was perfectly capable, these days, of sitting on the bed in his shorts with his lips moving silently for half an hour or more—she stood there and watched him pull on a clean sweater and a pair of pressed jeans. His hair still looked like he’d been driving with the top down, but whatever. That kind of detail Sara was very unlikely to notice. When he was done they marched back out through the living room and Helen grabbed her bag and kissed Sara on the top of her head.
“You can call either cell,” she said. “We’ll be back by eight thirty. You know the drill.”
On the television a girl and her father appeared to be auditioning a group of male strippers. “Happy Date Night,” Sara said in a deep voice meant to sound hickish or retarded, and with one finger she mimed inducing herself to vomit.
They took Ben’s car because it was still in the driveway. Helen tossed his necktie onto the back seat. He drove too fast, but only because he always drove too fast, and they were ten minutes late for Dr. Becket. Not that Becket seemed to care. Why would she? She got paid for the hour either way. So if she doesn’t mind, Helen thought as they took their seats at the threadbare arms of the couch, and Ben doesn’t mind, then why am I the only one who minds? What is the matter with me?
“So how was your week?” Becket said. She wore her hair in a tight gray braid whose teardrop-shaped bottom was nearly white. The office was in the rear section of an old carriage house that had long ago been converted for commercial use by a real estate broker, who operated out of the half of the house that faced the road and rented out the back. Fourteen years ago, when they were trying to make themselves look stabler and more prosperous for the insanely superficial Chinese adoption agencies, Helen and Ben had bought the Meadow Close house from that very broker. Now it was night and the only light on in the house was Dr. Becket’s. Where was her husband? What did her kids do when she worked nights? Helen didn’t always feel that certain about her, but unless you wanted to drive all the way to White Plains and back, Dr. Becket was the only game in town.
“Maybe a little better,” Helen answered, when it became apparent Ben wasn’t going to say anything. It was a lie, but in the atmosphere of this sorry room the truth was generally something you had to work up to. “We tried some of the things you suggested last time. We tried to at least sit down for meals together, even though that’s difficult with Ben working past seven most nights.”
“I know a number of couples,” Becket said, “find that it works well to set aside one night a week for spending that kind of time together, make it part of the schedule rather than subject to the schedule, if you see what I mean. Like a Date Night.” They both snorted, and it gave Helen a little nostalgic pang, honestly, just for the two of them to laugh at the same thing, at the same time. Becket raised her eyebrows, with her typical maddening dispassion.
“We can’t really use that one,” Helen explained. “We’ve been telling Sara that we’re on Date Night every week when we come here.”
“Maybe we can tell her that Thursday is our night to date other people,” Ben said.
“That’s not really that funny,” Helen said, but it was too late, Becket was leaning forward, sinking her teeth into it like she did into any stupid, spontaneous thing either of them might ever blurt out. “I’m curious why you say that, Ben,” she purred. “Is that something you’d like to do? See other people?”
Helen closed her eyes. Dr. Becket was just confirming every stereotype Ben held of her, every complaint he went through on the drive home every week about how she was a huckster, a charlatan, who didn’t do anything except repeat whatever you said to her and then ask you what it meant. Why are we even doing this? he would ask. What is the point? Because you had to do something: she had no better answer than that, which was why she usually delivered it silently. You had to try something, even something as wasteful and frustrating and demeaning as this weekly hour in the back of the carriage house, because to do nothing was to find it acceptable that you were in a marriage where you hardly spoke to or touched each other, where your husband was so depressed he was like the walking dead and yet the solipsism of his depression only made you feel cheated and angry, and your daughter was old enough now that none of this was lost on her whether she knew it yet or not.
But now thirty seconds had gone by and Helen hadn’t heard him say anything or even make some kind of immature, derisive sighing sound, as he usually did; and when she opened her eyes again and looked at him, what she saw, to her astonishment, was her husband wiping his eyes with the back of his hand like a child.
“Yes,” he said. “Yes. I mean Jesus. I would love to see other people.”
Which could only be followed by a momentous silence; but since silence was anathema to Dr. Becket, on the grounds that silence might belong to anyone but vapid professional jargon was something that could bear her own distinctive stamp, she said to him, “Stay with that.”
“Not anybody in particular,” he went on. “In fact, a stranger would be best. I would like to wake up tomorrow next to someone who has no idea who I am. I would like to look out the window and not recognize anything. I would like to look in the fucking mirror,” he said with a truly inappropriate laugh, “and see other people. I mean, I cannot be the only person who feels that way. Are you seriously telling me that you don’t feel that way too?”
It wasn’t clear which of them he was speaking to; he was staring at the carpet, tears hanging from his nose, and stressing certain words with a kind of karate-chop motion of his hands.
“Helen, what are you feeling right now?” Dr. Becket said.
Ben was right, she thought; it was all an act, the gray-haired old fake maintained an air of smug control even though she had no better idea what the hell was happening in front of her than either of her patients did. “A lot of things,” Helen said, trying to laugh. “I guess mostly that that is the longest I have heard him talk at one stretch in like a month.”
“Because it’s all so unsurprising,” Ben said, very much as if he hadn’t heard anyone else’s voice. “I’m scared of it. I’m scared of every single element of my day. Every meal I eat, every client I see, every time I get into or out of the car. It all frightens the shit out of me. Have you ever been so bored by yourself that you are literally terrified? That is what it’s like for me every day. That is what it’s like for me sitting here, right now, right this second. It’s like a fucking death sentence, coming back to that house every night. I mean, no offense.”
“No offense?” Helen said.
“It’s not that Helen herself is especially boring, I don’t mean that, or that some other woman might be more or less boring. It’s the situation. It’s the setup. It’s not you per se.”
“Oh, thank you so much,” Helen said, her heart pounding.
“Every day is a day wasted, and you know you only get so many of them and no more, and if anybody uses the phrase ‘midlife crisis’ right now I swear to God I am coming back here with a gun and shooting this place up like Columbine. It is an existential crisis. Every day is unique and zero-sum and when it is over you will never get it back, and in spite of that, in spite of that, when every day begins I know for a fact that I have lived it before, I have lived the day to come already. And yet I’m scared of dying. What kind of fucking sense does that make? I don’t think I am too good for it all, by the way. In fact I am probably not good enough for it, if you want to think of it like that. I am bored to near panic by my home and my work and my wife and my daughter. Think that makes me feel superior? But once you see how rote and lifeless it all is, you can’t just unsee it, that’s the thing. I even got Parnell across the street to write me a prescription for Lexapro, did you know that?” He finally looked up at Helen, whose hand was over her mouth, as if miming for him what she wanted him to do, to stop talking, to turn back. “Of course you didn’t know that, how would you know that. Anyway, I took it for two months, and you know what? It didn’t make the slightest fucking difference in how I feel about anything. And I’m glad.”
Helen stole a glance at Becket, who was sitting forward with her fingers steepled under her weak chin. She could not have looked more pleased with herself.
“Something’s got to give,” Ben said. He sounded tired all of a sudden, as if the act of denouncing his wife and child and the whole life they had led together had taken a lot out of him. Poor baby, Helen thought hatefully. “Something’s got to happen. It is hard to get outside yourself. It’s hard to get outside the boundaries of who you are. Why is that so hard? But the pressure just builds up until there’s some kind of combustion, I guess, and if it doesn’t kill you then maybe it throws you clear of everything, of who you are. Well, either way. I suppose that’s how it works.”
He sat back into the couch, the same couch where his wife sat, and within half a minute he had disappeared again, his face had resolved into the same zombie cast Helen had been looking at for a year now, two years maybe, without ever really guessing what was going on behind it.
“I know it may seem painful,” Becket said, “but I think we have really, really given ourselves something to build on here tonight.” less