Acting Outby Jonathan Baumbach
-an excerpt from You: or the Invention of Memory, out this month from Rager Media
Now that Jay had agreed to the joint session with her therapist, she couldn’t remember why she had favored the idea in the first place. It was one of those things you did, which is what she told Lorrie over the phone, so that afterward you could say you had done everything (or something) to save your dying marriage. She wondered if she had ever loved Jay—that is, she could no longer remember having loved him—but there was something between them, some intricate bond, that seemed resistant to violations no matter how unforgivable.
All she wanted, after all, was to get free of him and then afterward they could salvage or not whatever dregs of their relationship remained.
Jay, on the other hand, said he was willing to change if necessary to save their marriage.
“No one changes after 45,” she said.
“Who said?” he said.
“I can’t remember anyone who has,” she said, dipping her toe briefly into the well of memory. “Can you?”
“Maybe what we’re talking about is not the incapacity to change,” he said, “but a failure of memory.”
She hated it, totally despised it, when he pretended to be smart. At the same time or perhaps a moment afterward, she had a quiver of recollection—a subliminal flash—of having felt something other than indifference for him.
For their first session, they sat in parallel chairs about twenty feet apart facing the therapist who was in an impressive high-backed armchair in a slightly elevated part of the room.
“Is there some agreement as to who goes first?” Leo asked, looking at neither of them in such a way as to give each the impression of being the one he was urging.
Jay was the first to speak. “I don’t mind if she starts,” he said.
“I’d prefer going second,” she said. “He’s the one who believes in talk.”
“In that case,” Leo said, “that’s the way we’ll do it. So Jay, what’s your view of why your marriage isn’t working?”
“Why does she get to go second?” Jay said. “Is it because she’s a woman?”
“I thought you were both in agreement as to the order here.”
Leo said. “When you offered her the opportunity to go first, I assumed you took it to be the favored position. If it wasn’t, why did you make it sound as if you were doing her a favor?”
“Because that’s the way he is,” she said.
Leo gestured for her to stop whatever else she was planning to add. “Let’s hear what Jay has to say, shall we?”
Jay stood up, collected his coat but then seemed to change his mind from whatever to whatever. “You’re both right,” he said. “I’m a terrible person and I’m choked with regret.”
“That’s a bit easy,” Leo said. “Don’t you think?”
“I’m sorry about that too,” he said. “I tend to let myself off too easily and I’m sorry. Okay?”
“He isn’t really sorry,” Lois said.
“You’re probably right about that,” he said, “but look I’m really sorry that I’m not really sorry. What about you, LL? Is there anything you’re sorry about?”
“That’s not a real question,” she said, “and you know it. Do you want me to say that I’m sorry I married you? All right, I’ll say that I’m sorry I married you.”
Leo looked around as if there were another person in the room with them, possibly dangerous, he hadn’t seen before. “Let’s stop here,” Leo said, “and we’ll continue next Wednesday at the same time.”
Jay, who had been standing, his coat folded over his arm, sat down. “We haven’t even decided who goes first,” he said.
While Jay wrote the therapist a check for the truncated session, Lois mumbled, “Thank you, Leo,” and made her way out the door.
There was an antique shop a few doors down and she occupied herself studying the unusual face of an oversized wall clock in the window, figuring Jay would be out in a few minutes and they would travel back on the subway together. She didn’t see him come out, though sensed his approaching presence, feeling a sugar rush of affection for him, arming herself with a slightly ironic remark.
For his part, Jay noticed his disaffected wife waiting for him and decided to cross the street to avoid her, pretending to the unseen observer that he was in a huge hurry to get somewhere.
When on turning her head, she noticed him rushing from her, she wanted to call out that she was not as frightful as he imagined.
“If anything’s going to get accomplished, we’re going to need to give these meetings some structure,” Leo said. “Lois, I’m going to ask you to speak for no more than 5 minutes. At which point, Jay can either respond to what you’ve said or use the allotted 5 minutes to present his own grievances. On the second go around, I’d like you each to address what the other has said. Are there any questions before we begin?…If not, let’s get to it. Lois.”
“It’s easier if I get up,” she said, though she remained seated. “I don’t think I’ll need five minutes to say what I have to say. Actually, I don’t know why I am here. For awhile now, I kind of thought, that despite our persistent problems, that it was worth making whatever effort was necessary to continue, to get along. I no longer feel that way. That’s all. Well, one other thing, whatever feelings I once had for Jay are gone. It’s like one morning, they put on their coat and scarf and went out the door. I feel my own growth as a person has been inhibited by this marriage. That’s all. I don’t want it any more. I don’t want to be in this marriage. That’s all I have.”
Leo seemed to be waiting for Jay to continue, but after a few minutes he pointed his finger at Jay, who seemed to be looking the other way. “Jay?”
Jay stood up. He had something written on a card that he held up in front of him. “I was going to say that I would do whatever I could to keep us together, but that seems foolish now, doesn’t it?” He sat down, resisted putting his head in his hands.
Leo looked over at Lois, who made a point of avoiding eye contact, and waited for someone, perhaps even himself, to break the silence. “It might be useful,” he said to her, “if you were more specific about what you want and feel you’re not getting from your marriage.”
“What I want, okay, is that for Jay to accept the fact that the marriage is over,” she said.
“Why should Jay’s acceptance or not make a difference?” Leo asked her.
“It just does,” she said.
“She wants to hurt me,” Jay said, “but in a way that protects her from feeling bad about herself. She hates the sight…”
Leo was quick to intervene. “Let her speak for herself please,” he said. “The two of you seem to know more about the other’s feelings than your own. …I understand that your feelings about Jay are intuitive, Lois, but it would be useful here if you gave some examples of what seems to be the problem.”
“He doesn’t want to hear them,” she said.
‘Then tell them to me,” Leo said. “I want to hear them.”
She had a hundred grievances against Jay, she had a litany of grievances—they often came to mind unbidden like the hypnogenic lyric of some ancient detergent commercial—but at the moment she couldn’t come up with one that didn’t seem hopelessly trivial. “He’s only interested in me as an extension of himself,” she said.
“That’s not specific enough,” Leo said.
“He doesn’t clean up after himself,” she said. “He leaves crumbs all over the apartment, which I end up having to deal with.”
“What do you say to that?” Leo asked, turning his attention to Jay.
“I’m not sure what you’re referring to,” Jay said.
The role she was performing laughed. “You see what I mean,” she said.
Leo reiterated in paraphrase Lois’ complaint about his messiness.
“She’s probably right about that in general,” Jay said, “but I’ve been better about it recently. I think even Lois would acknowledge that I’ve been trying.”
“Too little, too late,” she said.
“Let’s put this into perspective,” Leo said. “If, say, overnight, Jay no longer left messes that he didn’t clear up, became a sudden exemplar of neatness and consideration, would that alter your feelings toward him.”
Lois wanted to say that it might, but since she didn’t believe it, felt the dishonesty of any such assertion, she said nothing or rather mumbled something that was susceptible to a near infinite variety of interpretations.
“What Leo’s saying,” Jay said, “is that the example you gave represents a petty annoyance and is hardly a significant factor in your disaffection toward me.”
“I don’t think that’s what he’s saying,” she said. “Is that what you’re saying, Leo?”
“Is there anything Jay can do or not do that would make you reconsider your decision to separate?” Leo asked.
“What about her?” Jay interrupted, suddenly outraged. “Why is this whole discussion about my changing?”
“There’s nothing he can do,” she said, “nothing that would make the slightest bit of difference.”
“I hear you,” Leo said. “Jay, what changes would you like to see Lois make?”
Jay started then stopped himself. “Well, for openers,” he said, “she can stop fucking Roger or whoever it is she’s been seeing on the sly.”
Leo seemed unfazed by the revelation. “And if she stopped,” he said, “would that make a difference?”
“I’m sorry I said that,” Jay said.
“What are you sorry about?” Leo asked. “It was something you felt, wasn’t it? You meant it, didn’t you?”
He looked over at Lois, who seemed to have shut down. “I didn’t want to embarrass you,” he said.
“I thought you thought I was shameless,” she said and seemed, until she took a deep breath, on the verge of giving into feelings she was hours away from acknowledging.
They arrived at the therapist’s office together and Jay suggested that she go in by herself and that he would loiter in the lobby of the building, kill a few minutes, before making his appearance.
“You’re joking, right?”
“Well, I don’t see any reason to throw Leo off his game.”
“As Leo would tell you, and as I’m sure you know, that’s exactly what you do want. Denial is a form of admission. What’s Leo’s game in your opinion?”
“I’m here to find out,” he said.
She laughed. “Shouldn’t we tell him things are better?”
“What do you think?”
They entered Leo’s office at the same time, though not quite together, made their appearance in single file, Lois the first to enter.
As they sat down in their respective seats, Leo looked over his glasses from one to the other, then jotted something down in the small notebook he always seemed to have on the table in front of him. “People, I‘d like to try something a little different today,” he said. “I’d like to have you switch roles—Lois you take on the role of Jay and Jay you present yourself as Lois—for the next 20 minutes.
Lois looked skeptical while Jay seemed vaguely amused.
“So Jay, putting yourself in Lois’s shoes, I’d like you to present your grievances toward your husband..”
“She wears a 7B,” Jay said. “There’s no way I could get my feet in them without cutting off my toes.”
Leo ignored him. “And Lois,” he said, “I’d like you to begin to imagine yourself as Jay. I’ll give you both a few minutes to focus and then Lois—that is, Jay as Lois will start. Otherwise it will be the same format as last week. Once we start, I’d like you both to stay in character. Any questions?”
“I don’t know, Leo,” Lois said. “I’m not comfortable with this.”
“Let’s give it a try, okay, and see how it goes,” Leo said.
“I’d prefer standing,” Jay said slyly, getting up then sitting down. “One of the things about Jay that makes my hair curl is that he is incapable of empathy. That’s all I have to say at the moment.”
“Jay,” Leo said, pointing to Lois.
“Lois tends to be a perfectionist,” she said, “and so tends to be what I call hypercritical. The way I see it, there’s nothing I can do to please her no matter how many times I apologize for being oblivious. She has an idea how people should be and if you don’t live up to that idea, you’re in trouble. You never know exactly where you stand with her.”
“Could you give us an example of what you mean?”
“An example? Well, one night after a hard closing, she comes home from work and finds me sprawled out on the couch, watching TV, a basketball game most likely, and she says something like, ‘You’re supposed to be working on your book not watching TV, aren’t you?’ And then it comes out that I’d neglected to do the little bit of shopping she had asked me to do and I get some more grief from her. I don’t answer and then I offer an unfelt apology, but when she keeps at it I put my coat on and go out for a walk. Some hours later when I come back, I find her talking on the phone to someone I think I have reason to assume is her lover.”
“How does that make you feel?” Leo asks.
“How does that make me feel? I let her know how angry I am by knocking over a few chairs and then I order her to get off the phone. It’s not the best way to handle it but I have to do something and I haven’t the faintest idea what else to do. I’m bigger than she is and I don’t see why I shouldn’t get my way.”
Jay waited a few minutes before speaking. “Look, I’m not going to let myself be bullied by him in my own house. I have a right to talk to whoever I please. His behaving like a jerk only makes me more determined. His bad behavior, which I may have provoked—you get to know the right buttons—is embarrassing to me. He knows I hate scenes. And so I get off the phone, which makes me hate him even more but not before telling my friend that I’ll call him back.”
“Do you ever after the dust has cleared talk about what went on?” Leo asked Lois.
“Not usually. Mostly we avoid each other. One of us goes in the bedroom and the other stays in the living room.”
“What happens the next morning?” Leo asked Jay.
“I don’t as a rule talk much in the morning and when we do talk, we tend to be excruciatingly polite as if one wrong word might cause irreparable damage.”
“Do you have breakfast together?” Leo asked Lois.
“I…excuse me…Lois doesn’t eat breakfast. She has coffee and sometimes a toasted bialy but it’s not a sit-down breakfast. On the other hand, I have designer cold cereal in the morning and tend to read the sports page while making music chewing my granola.”
“If you don’t discuss your fights, how do you ever reconcile your differences?” Leo asked Jay.
“Time heals,” Jay said, “and sometimes it doesn’t.”
Lois cut in just as Jay was completing his sentence. “My policy is to ignore problems and hope they go away,” she said.
“When I feel wronged, I can be absolutely unforgiving,” Jay said, “and it’s possible that Jay has been burned too much to be willing to risk making a gesture he knows will be scorned.”
Lois pursed her lips. “I guess when the going’s tough, I don’t have much backbone, do I?”
Jay picked up a flyer that had been lying on the table and folded it into a paper airplane.
Leo’s bearded face showed a minor crack of concern and he suggested after Jay had launched the paper airplane in Lois’s direction and Lois had stared daggers at Jay in return that it might be a good idea to stop the role playing at this point and return to their former selves.
“I’ll give you a few minutes to get back into your own heads.”
“This was useful,” Lois said. “When he was going on about me being hypercritical and unforgiving, I got the impression he was really talking about himself. I learned something from that.”
“Hey, weren’t we both talking about ourselves?” Jay said.
“You’re so clever,” she said. “Why hadn’t I ever noticed that before?”
“You’re the princess of snide,” he said. “Look, I’m sorry I threw the plane in your direction. It wasn’t really meant to hit you, it was to make you aware there was someone else in the room.”
“You never say anything that means anything,” she said. “Why is that? You are the prince of self-justifying incoherence.”
Jay got out of his chair with apparent difficulty as if fighting some kind of invisible resistance, and retrieved his coat.
“Why don’t you just leave,” Lois said.
Leo turned his head just enough to glance at the clock on the wall. “We still have some time left, people,” he said.
Brooklyn native Jonathan Baumbach is the author of 3 collections of short stories and 11 novels including Reruns, B, Seperate Hours, Babble, Chez Charlotte & Emily and On the Way to My Father's Funeral. His stories have been anthologized in O.Henry Prize Stories, Great Pool Stories, Best American Stories, Full Court, All Our Secrets are the Same, Best of TriQuarterly among other.