Free the Puddles

 By Pierre O’Rourke


JUST LIKE COITUS INTERRUPTUS when a child walks into the bedroom before a couple can reach climax, counseling sessions can end before a happy ending.

Brian picked at the faded label on the cover, black ink turned gray. Dr. Elwood Richard Feldman, Ph.D., LPC. Allison nervously began to straighten the worn dog-eared magazines.

“That’s about it. That’s our time for this session,” said the counselor as he glanced at his gold wristwatch. “You two did a lot of good work. You both opened a lot of territory. Don’t be afraid to go out on a limb. That’s where the fruit is.”

As the couple rose to leave, Dr. Feldman placed his hands upon their shoulders to guide them. “Why don’t you go out this way? It’s a private room with a separate exit.”

“The magazines any newer than in your waiting room?” cracked Brian.

The therapist focused on Allison. “Sometimes after a session, couples still have some talking to do and this area is more private.”

Brian held the door open for his ex-wife-to-be.

Dr. Feldman’s laugh was as fake as the plastic plants amid the landscaped wallpaper in the windowless room with overstuffed furniture. “Take your time; don’t rush.”

“Can we send out for meals?” continued Brian in a fruitless effort to ease the tension, avoiding contact with Allison’s reddened eyes.

The counselor forced another laugh. “Same time, next week. Remember, it’s like floating in water. You have to relax.” He hugged Allison.

Brian sat quickly before an embrace was offered to him.

As the door closed, she was seated and he was standing again. “Relax to stay afloat. Struggle and you’ll sink. It’s easy for him to say with his $150-per-hour hugs and Dr. Phil one-liners.”

He shoved his hands into his rear pockets. Glaring at the ornate mirror on the wall, he was suspicious of all.

“Struggle or relax. Hell, we’re going down either way! Folks on the Titanic had better chances with half of their lifeboats missing.”

Allison took a tissue from the end table, dabbing at her eyes as she tried to smile.

He saw her reflection in the mirror and his heart went out to her. “Your mother was right. You don’t have the greatest taste in men.”

“She never said that. She just wonders why you don’t act like a normal husband.”

“Again with the normal?”

She had hit a raw spot most certainly. “You know she loves you.”

“Yeah, read her book, Men Are from Mars, Their Heads up Uranus.”

He had the knack for making folks laugh in the darkest scenarios, a defensive skill developed as a child trying to cheer up his mother. Her chuckle calmed him enough to sit down. “You know it doesn’t help matters when you side with that Dr. Phil-wannabe, anymore than when you and your mother preach to me about what’s normal. I never claimed to be normal; never looked for it.”

“We just meant, what’s working for everyone else,” she offered timidly.

He leaned forward, elbows on his knees, voice low, continuing before she could speak a word, another habit of defense. “So who’re all these normal people you all keep talking about? Your brother and sisters? Their mates? Your folks?

His satire loomed. “Your folks don’t even touch anymore, let alone share a bed. Lillian always citing the way they faked it through hard times.” He looked at the fluorescent lighting. “And why? Just so we can end up as friends?”

Silence prevailed, so he plowed on, bitter satire rolling off his tongue. “Or, how about your sister? She’s one of the most loving folks around. Your brother-in-law is, too. Yet she’s wound up tighter than a clock, and he can’t let go of his grudge for that company that screwed him. They know they’ll never get the money. They should cut their losses and move on.” He leaned back as if deflated by the energy.

“At least they still make love.” Her lip trembled.

“When their schedules permit. They’re so worried about making plans for next month that they’re missing all the moments of today.”

“Maybe…” she reached for the knee of his faded blue jeans, “maybe if you just back off on your workload. Turn some over to Jason or skip a few bids.”

“It’s more than bids and bending nails.”

He placed his hand on top of her fingers, looking her straight on. “When was the last time your dad came over for a full evening without arriving late, in a separate car, and not wearing that blamed phone plus a paging gizmo?”

“Brian,” she claimed almost in a plea, “I don’t need all that to be happy.”

“Sure you don’t.” His mind nursed a wound he kept fresh. “I suppose you’re ready to dump your new Pathfinder, garage-sale all your antiques, and find a nice little three-bedroom apartment. It would be like the dam that broke when we were dating and I refused to go on your family’s yearly vacation due to my work.”

He felt guilty for spewing his thoughts. She never really demanded much in material things. Never asked directly anyhow. He couldn’t get her to understand the way it hurt when she told him what others were doing and where they were going. Comparing him to others felt like she was throwing it in his face. The same tactic Lillian used.

Allison felt her own guilt. She was often accused of demanding that things go her way and for having tunnel vision, but she worked hard not to believe it. When her material desires were ones Brian often fulfilled, her joyous display of thanks was one of her most powerful tools to get more of what she wanted. She’d show happiness in hopes of being treated that way again. A habit she developed, rather than learning to ask for what she wanted directly.

While her tactics often proved successful, it actually took her a great deal more energy to get the other person to figure out her desires. And even more energy to hide her disappointment when it didn’t work.

Her disappointment often broke out in the guise of moods she didn’t understand. Biting winds of disappointment exposing hurts and feelings she had buried. Her mother shamed her for airing dirty laundry with a stranger such as a counselor. Thank goodness she had something else to blame it on, once a month.

Brian softly resumed. “I’m not saying that you and Lillian don’t deserve all you want. I know what she went through to support Hughie in their early years while he busted his butt. But face it Allison, you’ve always had them as backup, as a safety net. You deserve having what you want, and what’s more, you’re used to getting it.”

Inside she agreed but felt shameful when she heard the words out loud.

“No offense, but if it all collapsed, I don’t see you staying with me. You’re hanging in right now ‘cause of the way you think it should be.”

He seemed so blind to her. Her reply was framed in a glare. “I love you.”

His head hung down. “That oughta be good for a few house payments.”

The solution seemed so obvious to her. Maybe if she said it enough times, repeated it enough, loud enough, he’d get it. “You’re not committed to this marriage!”

“So why am I here?” He turned in a small circle facing the mirror. “Committed. Like in jails and nut houses.” Air rushed from his nose loudly. “Maybe that’s it. I should be committed for not knowing what committed is.”

“Committed,” she repeated helplessly.

He threw his arms to his side, turning to her. “You don’t get it. I used to think I was committed, yet you, your mother, your sister, all say I’m not. You tell me what everyone thinks but give me no direction.”

“It’s making it work,” she interrupted.

“But how?” He dropped to one knee, almost in a whisper. “I don’t see the action, don’t see the colors; I don’t get the picture. Maybe I don’t know what commitment is supposed to look like. I can’t imitate something if I don’t know what it is.”

Her anger was on the rise. “I think you’re stuck hiding behind being confused.”

Delicately pronounced words oozed through his clenched teeth. “I am confused, I admit it, and I’m stuck on the fact that I don’t understand.”

“The counselor says you hide behind being stuck and confused. That you get stuck on needing to know the reason why and needing proof.”

The vein protruded in the left of his neck the moment her words left her lips, and he glared as he straightened up.

“Sorry, I did it again,” she said. “I didn’t mean to mimic Dr. Feldman.”

“You just don’t get it. I feel like I’m failing on all fronts. Skip fatherhood and being a husband. Just being a good provider for the three of us.” He toed at the nap in the carpet. “Then making sure there’s enough work to keep the crews going. Each of ‘em represents a family I’m responsible for.”

“I care for them, too.”

“But I have to do more than care. I’m responsible for finding the work and if the payroll’s tight, then I’m the first to go without. Just try going without. I did. I grew up that way. In good times, there was enough, just barely enough. Bad times were devastating. So I’ve been there. I wouldn’t notice tough times like you would.”

His thoughts came too quickly. In the mirror he saw himself pace like the animals behind the thick glass at the Brookfield Zoo. Walls too close, pacing the cage. “You’ve no idea what it feels like to be worried you might be putting someone else at risk, making someone go without.” His jaw went slack.

She began to stand to soothe him. “Brian, we’ll always have enough.”

He countered her abruptly. “I don’t want to be teaching our son that there’s only enough, just barely enough to get by.”

Allison saw his dilemma, for once seeing the weight on him. But instead of just showing she understood, she felt stumped and remained silent.

“Worse still, I’m scared Benny’s gonna see me become like my dad, so buried in his work to be The Great Provider.”

She snapped, “Or like Benjamin. He quit and ran away. That was a fine example.”

Read Chapter 2 of Free the Puddles