All Day and a Night

By: Alafair Burke


For John DeWitt Gregory

What would people think if they could overhear their own conversations?

“I don’t know how many times I have to explain this. I go to work all day. I’m there . . . all . . . day. If I want to come home, have a beer, watch the tube, and go to sleep, it’s because I’m exhausted. It’s not . . . about . . . you.”

“You love to throw that in my face, don’t you?”

As Helen shifted in her sleek white leather swivel chair to stay alert, she could see herself posting a surreptitiously recorded excerpt of this couple’s therapy session on the Internet. She imagined both husband and wife listening to it online. She pictured them saying to each other, “At least we’re not like that.”

“Seriously, Susan. On what planet did I just throw something in your face?”

“That you work. As if I don’t. You were the one who got out pen, paper, and calculator and figured out that my salary barely covered daycare, not to mention the housekeeper on top of it. So I gave up one job and got two in return, but—no—you’re the one who works all day.”

Helen took a deep, slow breath. It was one of her regular tricks during sessions. Most people didn’t notice. If they did, they’d interpret it as a sign that they should do the same. But what a deep breath gave Helen was a surge of oxygen to keep herself from nodding off. Now where were these two in the volley of husband-wife-husband-wife?

“Fine. You want me to stay home? I will.” Ah, it was the husband’s turn again. “Because I would kill to have more time with Aidan. Except I’d get out of bed before ten o’clock. We’d occasionally turn off the television and get some fresh air. Maybe I’d actually take up cooking instead of watching celebrity chefs three hours a day.”

“Oh, like you don’t leave the office to work out in the middle of the day. Or drink at lunch. Or come home stinking of booze when you supposedly had a meeting. But that’s right: you’re the one who would kill to have more time with Aidan.”

Helen scrolled through her client notes on the iPad resting on her lap. Aidan: was that a son or a daughter? She couldn’t remember. Call her old-school, but crap if she didn’t miss the days of handwritten notes on lined paper. But the iPad, she’d learned, made her type of patients feel less studied. Less examined. Less broken. An iPad made them feel like they were with their caterer or interior decorator, not a psychotherapist.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” Back to the husband again. “I’ve told you—I’m expected to do client development. And, yeah, I exercise. Last time I checked, we belonged to a gym three blocks from the apartment that offers daycare if you’re in such dire need of a break from our child. Maybe then you wouldn’t feel so bad about your body that you won’t let me f—”

“Don’t you dare, Jack. Don’t you fucking dare.”

“So it’s okay for us to hurl the word at each other when we’re fighting, but God forbid I use it to point out we don’t have a sex life anymore.”

And there it was: sex. There it always was.

Helen knew that sex was only . . . sex. She knew that great sex wasn’t enough to form the foundation of a lifelong partnership. She knew that bad sex could mean anything: a lack of emotional intimacy, an absolute lack of physical attraction, or a “mismatch in activity preferences” as she’d learned to call it, as when one person wanted sweet talk in front of the fire while the other wanted (or needed) the kinds of dirty, dirty things that were legal only because no one had imagined them in time to try to prohibit them.

But no sex? No sex at all between two people trying to run a shared household, and raise a child together, and put up with the rest of the world day in and day out without seeking intimacy from another person? Sex couldn’t make or break a marriage, but Helen had learned one thing about sex in fifteen years of marriage counseling: it was a hell of lot easier to put up with another person’s shit when you were having it on a regular basis.

“On that subject,” she interrupted, “when I saw you last week, I suggested that the two of you try to set aside time to work on that aspect of your relationship.” She had the script down pat: reserve time for each other, separate from stress, be your own best people for one another and see what happens. But she, Susan, and Jack all knew what she meant: get down to marital business. “Were you able to do that?”

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