I am going to run stories and other pieces of writing that I’ve published, or not, over the years, and change them on a monthly basis — or when I get around to doing it..
It is copyrighted by the author, and all use of this material, in the entire universe and beyond and for all venues, contexts and times, now and forever — as the Walt Disney Company writer contract boiler plate stipulates — is proscribed without the expressed, (well)written consent of the author. Any unauthorized usage of this material will be punished in this and the next world. (You can see why I dropped out of law school).
THE $2000 BUTT-DIAL
When I told my therapist that I’d butt-dialed my ex-wife, he asked me what her number was still doing on my phone. It was a good question. We had been divorced for six years, had no children, lived three-thousand miles apart and didn’t like each other. Before that, the last contact we’d had was when she sent me, through my lawyer, a severely overdue termite treatment bill that she claimed (falsely) I was responsible for. I, of course, didn’t pay it, but I did get an invoice from my lawyer for fifteen minutes of his time. He doesn’t bill in less than quarter-hour increments.
The divorce had been nasty – an unnecessarily protracted battle over unimpressive assets. The lawyers made out better than we did. We’d said goodbye across a conference table, where we’d signed innumerable papers and avoided eye contact. Our attorneys shook hands; we didn’t. They did not validate my parking.
He sat there, Dr. Sidney Grass, huddled into his gray cardigan, his Fendi reading glasses low on his nose, his bushy eyebrows raised imperceptibly, waiting for a response. I had none. Other than the general entropy of life. Human frailty, however, doesn’t cut it with Sidney Grass. We have to take responsibility for our actions. Even our inactions, apparently.
I reported the phone conversation to him, as best I could, from memory.
“Hello?” Even after six years, the sound of her voice had an effect on me. It was as if I had put my finger into an electric socket. It took me a moment to realize what I had done. And when I did, I began by apologizing.
“Robert?” Everybody else in my life called me Bob.
This had elicited no answer. At that point I should have merely hung up, but instead I apologized again and began to explain that the call had been accidental. Her response was not unlike my therapist’s.
“Really?” Skepticism leaked from her voice, as it bounced back from the satellite somewhere between here and Connecticut, where, as far as I knew, she was living with a guy named Doug, who was a personal trainer and who, I suspect, had been an accessory to our divorce. The evidence was circumstantial but convincing. She had begun juicing herself immoderately. During the last months of our marriage I felt as if I was living with a grapefruit.
“I sat down on my phone.”
“You’ve never done that?”
“I don’t keep my phone in my back pocket.”
Typical of her to find fault in something as innocuous as that.
”So…how are you?” I asked.
At this point Sidney stopped me. “So you engaged with her?”
“What do you mean, engaged?”
“You asked her how she was. That’s an engaging question.”
“I didn’t know what else to say?”
“You could have said ‘goodbye.’”
He was right. I could have ended the call right then and there. But I didn’t, and that decision was going to be expensive because Sidney insisted that we talk, at length, about why I’d engaged her in conversation. According to him, there are no arbitrary decisions. If we did something, we did it for a reason, and it was his – our – job to find out what that reason was. So we talked on.
“Did she respond?”
“What do you mean, ‘sort of’?”
“She said, ‘all right.’ I mean, that’s hardly a response.”
“That’s what we refer to as a nonresponse response. The party is neither engaging nor disengaging. The ball is merely being returned to your court.”
The metaphor seemed particularly apt. Early in our relationship, we had played doubles tennis with another couple. It brought out the fault lines in our marriage. We did not do well as a team because of the passive/aggressive hostility that simmered within both of us. If I double-faulted, for example, she merely moved to the other side of the court without commentary. But within that silence was condemnation. I would take it with me to the next serve, which I invariably slammed into the net.
As far as she was concerned, the ball was always in my court. I could merely ask her how she was feeling, and her response, fine, would be heavy with subtext. Why are you asking me how I’m feeling? Do you give a shit?
This butt-dial conversation was no exception. All right was a slam back over the net. And, I admit, she was probably right. I really didn’t give a shit how she was. But, as I had done in the past, I continued to engage.
“So…what are you up to?”
“Up to?” The ball whizzed by me like a stray bullet.
“Yeah. You still in Connecticut?”
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
Why would she be? Who knew? Maybe she had grown tired of her personal trainer and moved on to someone buffer. Maybe she had moved to Poughkeepsie with a hedge fund operator. Maybe she had returned to L.A. and was living ten minutes from me. She was perfectly capable of doing any of these things.
“I don’t know,” I said, lamely, “people move.”
At this point, Sidney pointed out, we were no longer in the nonresponse response mode. At this point, the nonresponse response was a response.
“So she was telling me to fuck off?”
He cracked his knuckles and left my question with his own nonresponse response. Sidney is a virtuoso equivocator. You could be standing in the pouring rain, and if you asked him if it were raining, he would shrug. Or worse. He would say something like, raining is not an absolute condition; it’s a relative condition. Compared to dryness, it’s wet, but compared to a typhoon, it’s dry.
Okay. Fine. I admit that I’d stepped over the line of meaningless patter when I’d asked my ex-wife if there was anybody in her life, but I don’t think I deserved a nasty response.
“That’s a personal question, Robert,” she’d replied with an edge so sharp you could cut your tongue on it.
“Of course. But we were married for six years.”
“Five years, ten months.”
“But who’s counting?”
Nothing. Not even an insincere chuckle. I am known to have a dry sense of humor, but it was wasted on her. In the five years and ten months we were together I don’t remember her laughing much. Except maybe as an act of derision.
Sidney leaned back in his chair and ran a thin finger through his sparse salt-and-pepper beard, which was usually a signal that we were about to get into something heavier.
“So let’s talk about this phone call,” he said.
“Don’t you want to hear the rest of it?”
“What was said is not as important as the act itself of calling her. The question we need to look at, Bob, is why this woman’s number was still on your phone?”
He tossed the question back into my lap with the self-satisfied look of someone who makes the perfect lob shot while you’re still standing on the baseline with your racket up your ass. Whether I liked it or not, we were going there.
“Tell you the truth, I don’t really know.”
The look he gave me was classic Sidney. It said more than it didn’t say, and I recognized it as a silent non question question.
“Okay, so maybe I forgot to delete her number because, I don’t know, maybe I still have feelings about her.”
His nod was almost subliminal, more like a facial tic. It was as if he were on some sort of autopilot, returning balls with mechanical efficiency.
“Look,” I plunged on, “if I have any feelings about her now, they’re feelings of anger. I mean, as soon as I heard her voice, I felt my scrotum shrivel.”
This time the nod was infinitesimally more liminal. We were edging toward the terrain that he enjoyed tramping through. This was prime Sidney Grass territory.
“You think this is, like, sexual?”
“We are not in a binary universe, Bob. Sex is merely one vector of our behavior.”
“You kind of lost me.”
“How was your sex life with this woman?’
Typical of his M.O., he lobbed a series of volleys off the target before swooping in for the smash. The fact was our sex life had pretty much evaporated by year three, moving from irregular, semi-obligatory, almost constitutional sex — engaged in with about the same enthusiasm as an appointment with a StairMaster – to a tacit agreement not even to bother going through the motions. Of course, our abstinence may have been due to her workout sessions with Doug. I’ll never know.
I related this to him as objectively as possible. Which, he would be the first to point out, wasn’t very objective.
“Hmm,” he responded.
Over the years that I had been seeing Sidney Grass I had learned to distinguish between the various hmms that emerged from his mouth. This particular hmm was loaded.
“It was six years ago. My memory’s a little foggy.”
“Memory is not always a foggy lens. At times it can be crystal clear. I have a patient who can remember every moment of a tonsillectomy he underwent at age three.”
“I honestly can’t remember.”
“Or you don’t want to remember.”
I wasn’t going to win this one. There was no winning with him, in any event. There were only various degrees of defeat.
“Okay. She…made funny noises when we had sex.”
“Did you find them distracting?”
Actually, I had found them endearing. Sex was the one area in her life where she relinquished control. I wondered what type of noises she made with the trainer. Or if she made any noises at all. When I shared this with Sidney I got a really resonant hmm.
“So what did she say when you asked her if there was anybody in her life?” Sidney Grass shifted gears with the ease of a Formula 1 driver.
“That it was a personal question.”
“So she didn’t answer.”
“Not in so many words.”
“I could tell from the tone of her voice that she wasn’t with anybody.”
“Yeah. There was a certain…vulnerability underneath the hostility.”
“Which you find…attractive?”
I nodded. I did. Suddenly, I’d had a vision of her in our kitchen wearing her white terry cloth bathrobe and fluffy slippers, a tall glass of grapefruit juice in her hand, looking out the window at the flowerbeds she obsessively tended.
After we’d gotten over the six years versus five years and ten months repartee, I’d told her that I’d hoped she was with someone.
“Why?” she’d answered.
“I want you to be happy.”
Did I? Believe me, there were times, especially during our divorce ordeal, that I’d hoped she would be drawn and quartered, but hearing her voice on the phone evoked, instead, the terry cloth bathrobe, the fluffy slippers and the flower beds.
A limp tear emerged. Sidney picked up on it before it even dripped onto my cheek. “It’s okay, Bob. Let it out.”
Did I ever. I lapsed into paroxysms of sobs that seemed to come from everywhere in my body. Even my toes were crying.
Sidney sat there with the self-satisfied look of a prospector who had finally struck oil. For the first time since I had been in that office, I reached for the box of tissues on the table beside the couch.
It took a full five minutes, of my valuable time, to settle down. And when I finally did, I caught his eyes shifting to the clock that faced him on the coffee table that had never held a cup of coffee or anything else beside an over-watered ficus plant and a back issue of Psychology Today.
I knew what this meant. It was time to pick up the pieces and put them back in the box. He was not going to send me out of his office without a little starch to keep me from folding.
“Well,” he pronounced, “I think we did some good work today. “We’ve entered some interesting territory, which I think we need to explore. Okay?”
“It’s difficult terrain. We’re going to have to work hard. You up to it?”
At the moment, I wasn’t up to anything but a stiff drink.
“It’s going to take a while.”
It did. Eight more sessions – two grand out the door. All because I had butt-dialed my ex-wife.
We finally got to the point of my realizing that I had ambivalent feelings toward her. During that last session, I ceremoniously deleted her number from my phone, and we moved on to discuss my lack of ambition and failure to follow up on projects.
Somehow, it felt like progress to me.