In human intercourse the tragedy begins, not when there is misunderstanding about words, but when silence is not understood.
~Henry David Thoreau
The psychologist’s soft, almost monotonous, yet comforting voice had done the intended job of calming the nervousness both Eric and Charlee felt.
It was awkward sitting on some couch in some office across from a perfect stranger, knowing you would have to pour out the most inner depths of your soul in front of them or else you would have wasted quite the steep hourly rate. While it was Eric’s parents paying for it, he would feel guilty wasting it, and knew Charlee felt no different.
“All right, who will go first? How about you Charlotte? Do you go by Charlotte or is there a less formal nickname you’d prefer me to use?” Dr. Linda Holton, PhD, asked with an encouraging smile.
Charlee cleared her throat and said
“It’s Charlee. I prefer Charlee. Spelled with two “e”, not like the boy’s version.”
“Oh, that’s pretty.”
“Thanks. I was never allowed to have nicknames growing up, but at some point Eric just started calling me Charlee and I liked it so very much. I even named my Gallery after that.”
“I see. What a lovely story. So, what is going on between the two of you?” Dr. Holton’s voice was like butter.
“It all started with our sweet baby girl Caitlin, the younger of our two children, getting very sick out of the blue, we almost lost her and afterwards instead of being beside ourselves for joy that she lives, we … well, we realized there was no more we and neither of us can say how that happened or why, let alone how to fix it. We tried and tried, and failed worse each time.”
“Ah. Scary or even traumatic events often take a toll on relationships. Sometimes they fuse the partners closer together, sometimes the opposite. It’s obvious you both still care greatly about each other, so let’s see if I can assist you with building the bridge to cross the divide between you. Eric, what is your point of view?”
“Well, like Charlee said. The scare with Cait broke something. We were always so close, stable, steady and of a sudden I feel like a stranger to my own wife of over 10 years. I still love her, so very much … even if she may have fallen out of love with me.”
“I haven’t. I still love you too, Eric. More than anything.”
“Then why? Why do you not want me close to you? To kiss you, hold you, touch you? Why?”
“Because … I …. I am a failure. Like everything my father warned me about is coming true. Eric, I haven’t sold a single item at the Gallery in 2 months. I failed as an artist, as a shop owner, as a mother and as a wife … and a lover.”
“How in the world are you a failure as a parent? Our kids are pretty damn perfect, happy as clams and adore their mother. Your artwork is amazing, the place we live in used to be a small fishing town and while that’s changed, it’s still inhabited with mostly simple people who just don’t truly appreciate it and no true art lovers would ever stumble into our little hamlet without some serious advertising. As far as wife goes, you are the best and only wife I could or want to ever imagine having. Just don’t understand why you suddenly don’t want me anymore …”
“I do, but I am embarrassed because I am fat, just like my father said when I ran into him at the store the other day. I don’t even have good looks anymore, squandered away the only thing I had left. He always warned me, kept telling me to work harder on losing that baby weight, instead I kept on gaining and now I am … disgusting and good for nothing anymore. He always told me that husbands don’t want ugly wives, makes them stray or leave.”
“What the flying fuck bullshit is that!? That goddamned father of yours stirring crap up again!” Eric was shocked, angry and his voice reflected it.
“Eric, please, we do not raise our voices or use foul language here.”
“Seriously?! Are you hearing any of that? There is a beautiful woman sitting in your office and you let her say such nonsense?! Her father, I swear, one day I will toss him off a cliff! Saying that as a man, a husband, not the cop! And I am not a violent person, but he brings out the worst in me! You would not believe the harm that man has caused her. Us. And for the record, you are perfect to me as you are, Charlee – the end.”
“Thank you, Eric, that was a very powerful statement. How do you feel about that, Charlee?”
“Like even more of a failure.” Charlotte’s words were quiet, the tone resigned.
“Are you not hearing me? Still? Dr. Holton, this is the problem we have: she cannot hear me anymore. Here goes again: You are not a failure! The only thing you are doing wrong is that I do not want to be treated like a brother when I am your husband. Long before we were parents we were a couple. That’s what bonded us in the first place. You know I have issues with my appearance and with rejection, more than most men. And nothing hurts more than it coming from you. I am not talking about sex, but we need to be able to be a couple, I need to be able to kiss you, hold you, touch you without written prior approval or apologies after at least. It’s what bonds us, gives me strength to go on.” Eric sounded as frustrated as he looked.
“Would you speak to the issues with your appearance and rejection you mentioned, Eric?” Dr. Holton’s tone was gentle and encouraging.
“What’s there to say? One good look at me holds all the answers.” Eric frowned.
“Please, tell me anyway, in your own words.” Dr. Holton requested.
“Fine. I am obviously disfigured. My face is only the beginning, it’s worse all over my body. Car crash when I was 15 left me scarred and charred. No woman wants to see that. Evidently even my own wife got tired of it.”
“That’s just not true, Eric!” sounded Charlee’s instant protest.
“What’s not true? You won’t even allow simple hugs, if I dare to just kiss you, you frown as if I were a man-sized cockroach … I mean, I have a mirror, I get it! But then at least be honest about it all.”
“I do want you. You are the only man I ever wanted. The only one I could ever stand near me, the only one I ever wanted to touch me. I just … can’t. Can’t stand being handled right now. I just can’t!”
“Since when!? You never minded before. Our kids and friends used to moan and groan about us kissing so much and may I also remind you of pretty smutty moments we had in unusual places? And not all of them were my idea, some were very much initiated by YOU after that night at Everett Heights. You used to enjoy being ‘handled’ by me, in every meaning of that term, very much so actually, you wanted it, demanded it. Now I feel like I have to apologize if I accidentally bump into you in the kitchen. So if you didn’t tire of me, what else changed? Is it another man?”
“Eric, please try to not be accusatory. It won’t do any good.” Dr. Holton reminded him.
“I think none of this will do any good. This was a dumb idea. Can’t believe I thought this could work.”
Eric jumped up and stormed out, the therapist after him, catching him in the waiting room by the stairs.
“Eric, wait, please. We are already making progress, whether you see it right now or not. Please don’t go, give me a little while to speak to Charlee alone, would you? I think there is a lot more buried than meets the eye, probably dark things that have started to surface, like zombies in a bad horror movie, awakened by the trauma you both faced.”
“Fine, then go dig up the zombies and I’ll hang. For Charlee. And because I am some gullible idiot and this was my mom’s idea. She and my dad are paying so I’ll sit off my time. For them. If not, they may give me a spanking and I wouldn’t be able to sit for days. This side of the Camerons cannot throw money around lightly.”
“Thank you. Having a sense of humor is a very good tool in situations like this. Have a seat, my assistant would be happy to get you a beverage while you wait, and I will get you when we are ready for you.” Dr. Holton smiled up at Eric, which calmed his emotions.
Eric plopped down onto the soft couch and simmered in his feelings, none of them good, partially he was imagining terrible forms of imaginary torture he was putting Charlee’s father through in his mind. Again and again, it was him and his meddling ruining everything. What kind of father would dare to call their only daughter ‘fat’ after she just faced almost losing a child? What a monster. The other part of his ponderings were just confusion. None of it made any sense, still. Just like before. This therapy stuff was probably a waste of time, like he had feared initially. Waste of time and money they didn’t have.
He could not say how much time had passed when Dr. Holton poked her head out the door and called him back in.
Right upon entering the room he saw Charlee had been crying, a pile of used tissues on the table before her, quick side glance at Dr. Holton was answered by a nod and a hand gesture to the chair across from Charlee, Eric tried to go sit next to Charlee again, but Dr. Holton held on to his arm, shaking her head, pointing to the chair instead.
“Eric, Charlee needs space to say what she has to say to you. Please sit over there for now and give her a moment. She has something very important to tell you, but this is incredibly hard for her. I ask you not to interrupt her. Can you do that for her?”
He nodded and obliged, shooting confused glances between Charlee, who kept staring at the floor fighting away tears that wanted to well up again, and the therapist, who soon began to coax Charlotte to tell what seemed like a terrible truth. An uncomfortable feeling crept into Eric’s heart. It looked a lot like the ugly truth causing all their troubles could have been cheating.
She wouldn’t have, would she? Would explain a lot though. Could he forgive that?
Charlee swallowed hard, then started speaking.
“I … when I was about 12 or 13 my father was acquainted with a senator. You know him, always aspiring higher, trying to better himself. They would play golf, the senator would come to dinners, we would go to stay at their mansion for a weekend and all that. I didn’t want to, but had no choice. That man crept me out, he always looked at me weird, then one day he singled me out, locked us in a room, told me I was pretty and he … touched me like no adult should ever touch a child. I told my parents immediately after and my father got so very angry. He went straight back to that man, I thought he’d kill him, that’s how upset he was. But after he came back, he pulled my mother into a room and shut the door. Nothing else happened after that, no police ever came, nobody ever asked me anything about it, nothing, except we didn’t go there anymore and he didn’t come to our house ever again. But then suddenly my father became the presiding judge and my mother got a senate position out of the blue – and I was sent away to boarding school abroad, probably so they wouldn’t have to look at me and be reminded that they had traded wealth and fame for my innocence and my father’s silence about the matter.
They rose up the career ladder while I was miserable, alone and broken, no concept then how it would continue to affect me forever. All other girls at the school eventually started dating, giggling in bed at night about stolen kisses with cute boys, but I never could have a boyfriend. I tried. I wanted nothing more than be normal, like all the other girls. But whenever a boy tried to get closer, I’d freak out. No need to tell you how that goes when you’re a teen. At some point I just gave up, completely aimless after graduation, so I let my father decide everything. You were the first boy … man … I enjoyed any of that stuff with – and only because we met when you accidentally kissed me on the street because of mistaken identity. My anxiety initially went through the roof, but you were so adorably nerdy and embarrassed, it calmed me and shook something awake in me. Especially when fate brought us back together at the lounge as colleagues. Getting to know you was getting to love you, I couldn’t help falling for you. You had your own body issues and never pushed me to anything until I either initiated or signaled it was ok. And I thought I was fixed. Then my father interfered, I was so torn between years of complete obedience and wanting you, I failed you and obeyed him. We got another chance and I swore then I would never let anything tear us apart again. But somehow now I am, those feelings are driving me crazy, I cannot push it away anymore, those memories and when you touch me it just reminds me of that terrible man … I try to fight it, but it’s futile. It won’t go. Just won’t go away … I am losing you and cannot stop it.”
Charlee cried, hard, while Eric’s brain worked in overdrive trying to make heads and tails of what he just heard. Part of him wanted to comfort her, but her words discouraged him from even attempting that plus he felt paralyzed. He couldn’t speak. Wordless, shocked, he looked at Dr. Holton.
“You see, Eric, some deep wounds for Charlee have been reopened, bringing to light memories she had pushed far out of her mind. She also told me that her father said many terrible and unkind things to her when she ran into him at a grocery store recently. All that combined with the fear of losing a child can be enough to trigger severe overreactions to previously enjoyed activities and even normal, day-to-day routines in people with unprocessed trauma. The terrible time you both have been through released ghosts from her past that are haunting her now, causing her to shut out everybody, except the children, which her subconsciousness likely deemed safe as it was adults who hurt her. She has no control over that. You see it is not you she cannot handle, it’s the memories. Buried trauma is the worst enemy, and it would appear I wasn’t so wrong when I told you it was like the zombies from the movies trying to surface, except instead of trying to eat your brains they are consuming your relationship. Old trauma is a serious enemy in my profession, very tough to put to rest, much like zombies in movies. We all definitely have our work cut out for us.”
“But … but … Charlee. Why have you never told me about any of this? I thought we were a team, instead I feel like on the outside looking in. I was an open book to you and thought that was mutual. I could have helped you work through this, maybe it would have never escalated like it did, at least I’d have tried.” Eric felt like he was falling into a long tunnel. What just happened? This was a nightmare, right? Wake up already!
“Eric, Charlee may not have remembered it herself until now. A form of self-preservation tactic when someone, especially someone as young as she was, feels vulnerable, overwhelmed and alone in a horrible situation like that. Selective amnesia is what we call it. I think we all agree that it was handled dismally by her parents, but there is nothing we can do to undo that, just work through it. Marriage counseling isn’t what you both need right now, you are right about that, it just won’t do any good at this point. I have suggested to Charlee to come here for weekly sessions to work through this with me, before we even consider continuing the marriage counseling. Are you okay with this?”
“We cannot afford that, Dr. Holton …” Charlee piped up, her voice muffled from the earlier tears.
“We can. We will. If you want to do this, if it helps you – and ultimately us, you are doing this. I’ll find a way.” Eric decided.
“Eric … ” Charlee looked at him with sad eyes.
“No more. We have to do something. I am not even sure I feel comfortable letting you out of my sight knowing all this. This is insane. I still don’t even know what to say about this. The detective in me wants to go straight to the station and start an investigation.”
“Eric, that man is long dead, he was old when it happened and succumbed to a heart attack about a decade or so ago. Nobody left to prosecute, even if he were, it wouldn’t change my situation now. I need help to work through this and then lay it to rest for good this time, not plaster it all over the news. I am still the daughter of two important and very public figures, a judge and a politician. Media would eat us alive, I cannot do that to us, our little family. Just let it go, for me.”
“Okay, makes sense. If that’s what you want, but that father of yours, and your mother, seriously. How can parents do that to their own child? That would have angered me before I became a father myself, but now.”
“Believe it or not, Eric, once upon a time my parents and I used to have a good relationship, not that different from the one you have with yours. They used to be good parents, warm, caring and loving. But after all that happened, everything changed. I could not forgive them, and they had changed too. The guilt cooled and hardened their hearts. Appearances became paramount to them. In my mind I still remember them how they used to be sometimes, so I allow them back into my life thinking they are like they once were, and every time I do, I end up hurt again. Vicious cycle. I think I am broken, Eric. I do not know if I can ever be a lover, a wife, a real partner to you again. I am so scared. Scared that I am gonna lose you. And even if not, it’s just not fair to you. You deserve someone warm, sweet and attentive, not a cold brick you cannot even touch. Maybe I really should let you go, but I don’t want to, I think it would literally break my heart into two pieces, but stringing you along is so very wrong. I love you too much to do either of those. Another vicious cycle and I am so scared and confused.” she started sobbing.
Eric shot a glance at the therapist, begging for interference.
“Charlee, Eric has been pretty clear with you that he wants you to get better and will help you achieve that – and that he is going nowhere. It’s not as hopeless as it may feel to you right now. It’s quite normal to feel like that, but it is not a fact of life, just an emotion. I have been doing his for nearly 30 years and helped women with similarly horrifying experiences live happy lives again. Every person is different, but you are strong, you have a good man by your side who has already proven he isn’t easily deterred, I am quite confident to give you a positive prognosis, question is just how long it will take us to get there. You are the victim here and we need to try and work through it at the right pace, process it properly, not rush through it or sweep anything under the rug. I will guide you through that process. And we need you to be strong and not give up hope. For your children and for Eric. Can you promise to try that and avoid making rash decisions for the time being?”
“Eric, I think we both know that you still have unresolved issues of your own. I’d like to offer you the same as I offered Charlee…”
“Uh, nah, don’t take it personal, Dr. Holton, but I’ll pass here. I got a good support system, parents and cousins who have a way to give me reality checks when I need them. Some with honey, like my mom, and others with a solid slap in the back of my head, like my cousin Ewan. I’ll be okay. Just focus on Charlee.”
After the session was finished, Eric and Charlee walked out together, both still in a state of shock.
“Wanna grab a coffee together?” Charlee offered carefully.
“I’d like that.”
He smiled at her, she smiled back.
“Don’t give on me, please. I’ll try to get better, for you, for us.”
“You heard the doc, I am not easily deterred. And you promised not to give up either. Just remember that.”