Excerpt from The Never Never Sisters by L. Alison Heller (NAL trade paperback, 6/14)
The first thing I do is offer them candy. I keep a jar of it, well-stocked, right there on the coffee table.
In my experience, people are one hundred percent less likely to tell a lie with a Hershey’s Kiss tucked into the side of their mouth. So while they’re unwrapping their chocolate or caramel or whatever, I lob the easy questions at them: How long have they been together? Do they have any kids?
And then, once they’ve relaxed a little, settled into the beige couch across from my blue chair, I probe: What do they want out of our meeting? If I sense from one of them a certain reticence, as I did that Tuesday morning, I repeat the question.
I’ve found it helpful, when pressing for the truth, to lean forward and hold eye contact. So I employed this method as I posed the question once more to both Scott Jacoby and his wife, Helene.
“What. Do. You. Want?”
Helene—a tiny feminine woman with the brash voice of a New York City traffic cop—stared back at me with an electric gaze. “To save our marriage.”
I’m not sure how I developed this particular niche, but usually the couples who I meet with in counseling sessions aren’t in need of mere tune-ups. No one asks me for tips on how to stoke an already ignited passion or to help mediate a dispute so that both parties feel sufficiently heard. My clients come to me in full-on crisis mode, swinging from the broken rope bridge of their marriage—the point at which they’ll either let go into free fall or scramble to safety.
Scott was still silent, his arms crossed over his navy suit jacket. I hadn’t yet determined whether he was annoyed at having to leave work in the middle of the day or if his body language was a symptom of greater marital fatigue.
He stared across the room in the direction of the photo I’d hung on the wall. It was a picture from my wedding two years before, not that my clients could tell this, because it was of our midsections and taken from the back: my white silk veil, the dark block of my husband Dave’s tux, our interlocking forearms. I hoped it was generic enough that people would see in it their own happier times, but Scott’s unfocused eyes indicated that he wasn’t envisioning anything so hopeful.
“What do you really want, Scott?”
Waiting for his response, Helene leaned so far forward in her chair that she appeared to be praying. I’ve seen a lot of heartache in my office, but it took my breath away—those troubled eyes in the middle of that frozen, perfectly made-up face.
“Scott?” My voice was as gentle as it could be.
Finally, Scott sighed, then rubbed his cheek with his right hand. “I don’t know what I want.”
“Okay.” I took care to sound appropriately neutral. “Take some time. Try to think about it.” I pushed the candy jar toward him. It should be said that I buy only the good stuff: Hershey’s Kisses, Werther’s, Reese’s Minis—none of those nubby little mints or hard candies with wrappers in the image of strawberries to help you associate the flavor.
Although I know better than to take it personally whether my clients’ marriages work or not . . . I can’t help myself. I take it all very personally.
Dave had pointed out the irony of this when I came home one day and declared I was a failure. (I was right on that count; the Guinetts did not make it.) “You ask them what they want, right?”
“Yes.” He’d left out the second part, the “why,” so I reminded him. “It’s like an oral contract. They commit to wanting the marriage to work in that initial moment and it’s helpful later, when things get tough.”
“But if you keep having to remind them what they want, how do you know it’s still truly what they want?”
“You wouldn’t understand,” I had said. “It’s a very intimate environment in my office.” I didn’t have a good response right then, but two days later, when I heard his key in the lock, I met him at the door with a spatula. “Listen,” I said.
He’d stepped back, out of the range of the spatula, which had dripped marinara sauce in a large splotch in the entry hall. “Listening.”
“If people come to me, they want to protect their marriages. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to help them—okay?”
He’d leaned down and kissed my head. “Okay.”
As I explained to Helene and Scott how we could proceed, that was the undercurrent I tried to convey: that I respected their step toward protecting the sacred and that I would help them as best I could.
I will always remember that—the three of us sitting in the office, clustered around the candy jar, as we pledged to resuscitate their marriage, me just the tiniest bit smug, totally oblivious to the fact that at that exact moment, my own marriage had begun to fall apart.