|Publisher:||Permanent Press, The|
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How to Cope with Suburban Stress
By DAVID GALEF
The Permanent PressCopyright © 2006 David Galef
All right reserved.
Chapter One"So, are you going to leave for good? Or for evil?" I wasn't addressing a confidant or the violin-chinned leprechaun on Alex's box of Lucky Charms, but myself. I sometimes speak that way when I'm trying to calm down. "You've lost your keys again-wonder what that means," I'll pronounce, or in a fake British accent when I really need to distance me from myself, "That makes three G & T's. Haven't you had enough, old boy?" It's the voice of my superego, whom I see as a fussy type named Martin. I took a scalding sip of tea and sloshed down the mug, leaving a blurred ring on the table. I was too rattled to consider the matter from a calm psychiatric perspective, though I happen to be a psychiatrist.
I was hunched over the table in our breakfast nook in our eat-in kitchen in our large, mortgaged house, steeped in the false calm of a weekend. My seven-year-old son Alex was at soccer practice, my wife Jane was engaged in a hot tennis match at the club, and I was surveying the ruins of breakfast. If we are what we eat, Alex should have been in his sugar-sweet phase, Jane was black coffee, and I was milk-tea with a scone from Price's Bake Shop-known as the Pricey Bakery.
I bit my lip and got up to look out the bay window that probably reveals us as much as it lets us observethe neighbors. Clapped on our neo-Tudor Victorian Colonial hodgepodge years after the original construction, the window looks like a see-through tummy, as Alex once described it. There I stood in the belly of the beast, watching the DiSalvas play bocci on their manicured lawn. To the left of the DiSalvas lived the Wallers, their Taurus minivan parked perfectly parallel to the Lexus Infiniti, though no one ever seemed to be home. I wouldn't even have known their name if some of their mail hadn't been misdirected to us, and I crossed the street to put it in the box labeled in cursive "No. 116." The castle on the right with the topiary hedge was occupied by the Steinbaums, who had once invited us over for a cocktail party and then dropped us. Social sets in a suburb like Fairchester are like Venn diagrams: overlapping circles of employment, children's schools, church, and country clubs, with some odd intersections. We'd moved here from Brooklyn in 1997 and two years later were still getting settled. These days, Jane had a bunch of new sports friends, bronze-armed goddesses who did their shopping in tennis whites. Unless I wanted to be a ball boy, I was left out.
I ventured outside to get my bearings. The Indian summer of September, the last bit of warmth before leaf-change, had coaxed the pink asters out again. I waved to Gianni, the blocky patriarch of the DiSalva family, dressed incongruously in purple-striped shorts and a yellow polo shirt, and he conferred a genial nod. His teenage daughter, Carla, grinned as she took aim at the last ball thrown by her brother Michael, who was wearing his father's outfit upside-down: a purple-striped shirt and yellow shorts. Completing the tableau vivant was Louise the mother, coming out with a tray of glasses and lemonade.
So what made them tick happily along? "Happy families are all alike," wrote Tolstoy. "Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." But what the hell did Leo know about happy families? Happy families are happy because of wealth, warmth, welfare ... the same list that can provoke unhappiness: a husband and wife whose money divides them, or a child who fantasizes about life outside the warm cocoon. So much for aphorisms, which at best are often half-true. Besides, who said the DiSalvas were happy? Maybe Gianni was having an affair that Louise bore for the sake of the family. Both kids were in their teens, so I imagined a blossoming coke habit for Michael and bulimia for Carla, though she hardly looked undernourished. Still, appearances do count for something. Some families can't even put up a front.
I wondered how the three of us came across to others. Jane and I managed socially, but as my father used to say, we were on the skids. We quarreled loudly in front of Alex, which, as any child expert will tell you, you're not supposed to do. At those moments, I swear, we could have knifed each other if we weren't so damned civilized-and twisted the blades in the wounds. Then Alex would act out, crying "Mommy, I want my milk glass three-quarters full!" and accidentally on purpose knocking over the glass if the milk wasn't at the right level. If you confronted him about it, he'd go in the other direction: withdrawal. He either needed constant attention, or he wasn't there at all. He was in the TV room, absorbing scenes of animated violence and whining "Quit it ..." if you interrupted his viewing. He'd become, in non-clinical terms, a real pain in the butt. Jane and I disagreed on how to cope with him. One day, Jane would play good cop and let him watch yet another episode of Space Raiders; the next day, she'd go on an anti-TV crusade as I protested, "Oh, c'mon, he's already done his homework."
"You helped him with it, didn't you?"
"You're supposed to for this assignment. It says, 'Ask a parent for assistance.'" I found the sheet and showed it to her.
She scrutinized the paper. "But that's your handwriting on the report. That's not assistance, that's doing it."
"No, he just told me what to write ...."
She marched off to the TV room. "I'm going to have him redo it. This can't be what the teacher wanted." I tripped her and sat on her till she begged for mercy. In my mind.
From the TV room a moment later came a familiar cry: "Quit it! I can't see!"
We could argue about anything. Anyhow. Anytime. A recent nightmare of mine started out blissfully on a desert island-until one of the palm trees started quarreling with me about the shape of its coconuts. I was reaching for an axe when I woke up.
Nights after Alex went to sleep, Jane would retreat behind a magazine in front of the TV, and I'd read a book in the living room or, lately, surf the Web. I found odd sites devoted to the world's biggest bugs, a candy warehouse in Topeka, and a forsythia plant named Dolores with a Web cam trained on her to record growth. Once after almost swatting Alex when he peanut-butter-and-jellied the kitchen wall with a sandwich, I checked the Web for advice on spanking, only to find something called an age-regression archive, with stories about grown men turned back into infants. Being back in diapers and unaccountable for your actions has a certain appeal. I wanted out, but not that way.
Anyway, none of this helped with real-time coping. The simplest coordination, from arranging dinner to agreeing on Alex's bedtime, led to drawn-out quarrels, the kind with no discernible end, the type that erupt over seemingly innocuous questions. We could never play bocci together like the DiSalvas, though we might derive some pleasure from knocking each other's balls off the field. As a take-charge executive, Jane had her own set of cojones.
"It's all about power," claimed Jerry Mirnoff, a psychiatric colleague and friend who was writing a book on the subject of suburban stress, updating Freud's focus on sex. "It's who gets to call the shots." Not that Jerry's marriage was idyllic: lately his wife Cathy seemed awfully vulnerable, as if anywhere you touched you'd leave a bruise. Maybe the whole dynamic of marriage was problematic: yoking yourself to someone else "till death do you part" seems medieval. We'd tried counseling twice, the first time with a balding man who kept matching his fingertips together and talking about creative compromise, the second time with a woman in a tailored suit who kept urging us to "prioritize our needs." I shouldn't badmouth a vital sector of my profession, but neither told us a damned thing we didn't already know. I had only recently begun entertaining a new idea: maybe I shouldn't put up with this situation at all. Get out before the suburbs swallowed me up forever.
I went back into the kitchen to clean up everyone's mess, then withdrew to my office. My consulting room is another addition to the house, accessible through the garage. But the interior is what counts, as I tell my patients, and the Eames chair, the lake-blue couch, and the lined-up issues of American Journal of Psychiatry are all conducive to therapy. A recent portrait of Jane and Alex on my desk, her in tennis garb and him holding her racket, looked accusingly at me, so I turned away. Gazing ceilingward, I reviewed the latest quarrel I'd had with Jane-over mayonnaise, but it had grown ugly quicker than you can say "marital crisis."
"I wanted the no-fat soy." She'd held the offending jar at arm's length as if it might contaminate her.
"But it doesn't taste good." When we're trying to justify ourselves, we often use our son as a pawn: "Besides, Alex likes Hellman's."
"Damn it, how about what I like?" And with a movement like an overhead serve, she slammed the jar down on the counter, but too hard because it smashed into white glop and glass shards. An hour later, after much tense discussion, I was the one who cleaned it up. I thought of mayonnaising her racket handle or substituting it for sunblock, but decided against it. Still, the images lingered-Jane losing her grip, Jane slathering herself with Hellman's-and when your main source of pleasure is humiliating fantasies about your spouse, it's time to reassess.
Pussy-whipped, sniped a heavy male mutter I listen to from time to time, a voice from my id that I call Snoggs.
That can't be it, I thought back. I'm a man of peace, a psychiatrist: I analyze things. Besides, we haven't had sex for two months.
You simply don't try hard enough, snipped superego Martin. Unfair as usual, and always demanding more than I could give.
But what exactly was the problem? It wasn't the mayonnaise or the childcare squabble from yesterday or the last, halfhearted sex we'd had in August. Jane had always been a type A personality, the kind who starts to tap her fingers on the counter if the take-out coffee is thirty seconds late. My last name is Eisler, but Jane kept her maiden name, and that's Edge. Suits her perfectly. I'm not exactly laid back, but I'm a psych type, more interested in process than result. If the coffee was late in coming, I'd wonder why the counterman took so much longer to perform the same task he does every morning- had something happened on his way to work that day? Was there a different inflection in the way he said, "What'll it be?"
For Jane, this kind of interest translated into attention paid to her moods, her daily travails. As for me, I don't like emotional clinging-I get enough of that in my patients. I admire a certain independence in a woman, and Jane could fix a flat tire in the time it took me to call AAA.
Once upon a time, what we felt for each other was love, which Freud defines as obsession and transferential neurosis. I let my gaze wander up to the highest bookshelf, where an earlier portrait of Jane smiled down upon my thinning brown hair. When we got married, we'd do little kindnesses for each other, from giving backrubs to cooking favorite dinners. We were both busy professionals, Jane as a rising corporate executive at Americorps, me cutting down on clinical work to expand my private practice. We'd had our rough spots, but we had a common goal: ourselves.
I remember Jane's moving up through the ranks, carrying back office anecdotes, like the personnel chief caught half-naked in the elevator with a subordinate and trying to pretend it was a necktie swap. I'd tell her about my more peculiar cases. And we relied on each other not just for an audience but also for sex-the sweaty, gymnastic kind since Jane liked strenuous positions. We both used our mouths a lot, and sometimes we played little S & M games.
But we'd been going steadily downhill since the time Alex was born. Here's a simplistic tracery: B. A. (Before Alex), we had reciprocal love and time for spontaneity. A. A., Jane was so worried about getting back her looks, as well as doing everything right for her offspring and working at the office, that I got left out of the equation. And lack of time and sleep ate up all our good will, to the point where I began criticizing everything Jane did.
"Will you please turn off the lights when you leave the living room?"
"But I'm coming right back in."
"That's what you said an hour ago. And while you're at it, wash your own damned coffee cup next time."
Or when we were driving anywhere: "Slow down, will you? I think we passed the sign for Route 90."
"I'm not going fast. Anyway, just check the map."
"Look, I don't know where we are now. Let's ask at that gas station up ahead."
"No, I'm not stopping here."
But who said what? Astute listeners will realize that I usually took the domestic, traditionally female stance-for instance, I always asked for directions on a trip, whereas Jane had been raised to see that as a weakness.
Moving to the suburbs hadn't helped matters. We'd both been raised there and saw it as a region to escape from, but when your child reaches school age, good public education and the safety of a small town sound seductive. Of course, the suburbs have their own pressures, with endless community activities, yet nowhere to really cut loose. Suburban angst?-that's what Jerry Mirnoff called it, and maybe he was right. To add to this mix, last year Jane jumped ship to a multinational biotech company called Haldome, which paid a lot more but was also a giant pressure cooker. That might have been one reason that Jane didn't want a second child, which caused a slow leak in my heart. Alex was a bright, lonely kid who could use a younger brother or sister.
"It's not so much good days and bad days," said an uncle of mine, now deceased, describing married life in large swings of his callused hands. "There are good years and bad years." But the thought of years like this was more than I could bear. Yes, yes, yes, the counselors we'd seen had plied us with the common sense we'd ignored, so we stopped the bickering. Until the next time.
You mean she turned into a bitch, muttered Snoggs. I'd ignored him so far, but now I wondered. At times just the sight of her retreating back after an argument was enough to keep me on edge for a day. Why did I put up with this?
Coward, sneered Snoggs. Maybe, but I'm no fool. It wouldn't be a clean break, it would hurt like hell, and the consequences would haunt me forever.
I am nothing if not methodical. I sometimes think I could have been an accountant if numbers interested me as much as defense mechanisms. From a drawer in my desk, I retrieved a list I'd made up the week before, a double column of pluses and minuses in our relationship, a cliché, but I sometimes advise patients to do this, since merely writing the list helps to clarify matters.
Under PLUSES was a short inventory, starting off with "stable home environment" and other non-romantic phrases. MINUSES was a far longer list, trailing from "atmosphere of distrust" to "constant irritation" and heavily annotated with recent examples, including the mayonnaise incident. But all I could do was stare at the paper as if written somewhere on it was the answer to my question: "Should you leave?"
I thought of how things used to be when I was single. Slurping take-out Chinese on the sofa, reading till late at night or going out to the movies. We still did some of that, time permitting, but it was different now. When I was alone and master of my own domain, I was never bored. Lonely occasionally, sexually frustrated, sure, but mostly working, socializing, itching and scratching, or just reading a book. I couldn't recall the last time I'd had uninterrupted reading time alone. I missed that.
What do you really miss? inquired Martin.
I miss me, sobbed Snoggs. I miss the way I used to be. That's what a client of mine, a middle-aged woman in a constrictive marriage, had said the other day. But when I asked her what she used to be like, she reeled off a description that seemed to fit her present self exactly.
Excerpted from How to Cope with Suburban Stress by DAVID GALEF Copyright © 2006 by David Galef. Excerpted by permission.
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