Talk is cheap

Published in Overland 176 Spring 2004

Andy smoked a joint before he set off for his first session alone with Suzie. It was a spur of the moment thing, a whim really. Living with his parents had caused him to regress and sneak around like he did when he was a kid. He'd found the stash in the garage when he was searching for a bicycle pump. He rolled it up with the dregs of stale tobacco he'd found with it, a crumbling little handful of Bank, and sucked the smoke deep into his lungs.

It was supposed to be couples counseling, but he was booked in for a solo session at Suzie's suggestion. Suzie said she thought it would be good for him. He wondered how Suzie knew what was good for him, or for anyone else for that matter. What did they teach her at uni that made her so certain she knew what other people needed? What about her own life? Shouldn't she say more about that and use it as an example? But she never let anything slip.

He thought about what it might be like, just the two of them in her consulting room with its lush amber glow and the smell of aromatherapy oils burning on the coffee table. How would she be with just him there and no ally, no Liz with whom to exchange those knowing looks?

Every complaint that Liz had made about her husband in their sessions with Suzie, from his obsessions with cars and motorbikes to his poor time-sense to his apparent infidelity seemed to require no evidence. None at all. Suzie took Liz on her word. Her word was law. Liz was never pressed to give any examples to back her claims or even expand on them while his defense often came under intense scrutiny and usually had to carry the burden of proof. He hoped this wasn't his own paranoia and now that he had smoked the joint it made it even harder for him to think clearly about what was going on in that room with those sensual, warm colours and low, soft lighting. Like an old style bordello.

"Can you be more specific, Andy? We can't work with generalities," Suzie would say and Liz would nod and say "You see?" to Suzie. And he would be so stunned by the injustice of it that he could hardly speak. Specific? What about her? Where are her details? All she has to do is talk about her feelings—vague stuff—and that's enough. It was a muddle to him, the rules always shifting and adjusting so that he couldn't keep up while Suzie and Liz seemed to know instinctively how to talk and make sense to each other. There was a lot of nodding going on between them, a lot of agreement. And plenty of cold stares directed at him, many withering looks, as if he was a fool of indescribable proportions. It was as if they were talking another language, one that he was too stupid or too selfish, to comprehend.

This time, with just him and Suzie, he could clear a few things up, and maybe be more specific if that was what she wanted. In fact, he would get right down to tin tacks.

The dope had certainly enhanced the pleasure of the ride from the northern suburbs where he was staying with his parents, to Suzie's place in the hilly backstreets of the east. They were wide streets with plane trees, well-tended gardens on large blocks with that dignified hush that was the special preserve of people with money. People were more private in these kinds of suburbs; they stifled their sobs and muffled their shouts behind rendered double brick, behind thick hedges in houses set well back from the road. It was the kind of place that Liz aspired to from the middle range suburb where they lived. Even in that part of the world you could still hear your neighbours arguing; the brick was just veneer after all.

Right from the start Liz had admired Suzie's house, the silver Citroen out the front, the English garden with its camellias and rhododendrons and rose bushes and the kidney shaped lawn with neatly clipped edges and the liquid amber shading the yard. If they had such a place it would be Andy who kept the edges clipped, the hedge trimmed and it would be he who raked and swept the leaves that would litter the ground like chip packets blowing around in the autumn winds. He didn't like trees that made rubbish. But even if he could afford a gardener he would never, under any circumstances, pay someone to do something he was capable of doing himself. That was a line he wouldn't cross. He wasn't sure he and Liz were on the same track at even the most basic levels, like where to live and how to live, what to spend money on.

Lately, during his exile, he had been enjoying the chaos of the narrow streets and close housing of his old neighbourhood, the cramped hodgepodge of home-made sheds and other add-ons, bright green painted concrete, statues of David and Venus in seashell fountains, the vegetable gardens squeezed between slabs, the squawk of chickens and the occasional belligerent crow of a rooster and the barking of dogs enclosed in small yards. He liked the smells, the blend of cooking tomatoes and garlic, of onions in olive oil. He liked the poorly tuned radios playing top ten hits that crackled from panel beating workshops oozing grease and the sweet utilitarian sound of metal against metal. He liked the human voices arguing and laughing. He didn't want it all pushed back and hidden and yet whenever Liz raised her voice and started with that sarcastic tone, something inside him withered and shrank away and he wanted to run and hide.

As he pedalled, he felt the muscles in his quads tighten and tingle. It was a good, solid feeling. The more they tightened, the harder he pedalled. He was reveling in the pain, enjoying this battle with himself. His mouth was getting dry from the wind and the joint and the sheer effort of the journey. This again, was where he fundamentally differed from Liz. She was five-star, she wouldn't mind if a team of people carried her in an armchair. And she'd sit back and cop it, no problems. Whereas Andy couldn't stand it if someone tried to buy him a drink, the generosity of others made him squirm and panic. And yet his constant attention to her needs seemed demeaning at times. He knew he rebelled against this world of his own creation. But it was hard to explain this to Suzie with Liz ready to jump in and override his floundering by talking about how things made her feel, laying all responsibility for every fluctuating emotion of hers squarely at his feet. No wonder he began to itch as the time for each session approached; his eczema starting at the back of his knees.

As he began the steep climb up the hill that lead to Suzie's house he decided that he must tell her how much of a slob Liz really was. He could see from the meticulous garden and the fresh smell of her house that she was a woman who couldn't stand mess and might see it as a character failing in others, although as a shrink she was not supposed to judge. But Andy knew she couldn't help it. She was human after all. He would tell her that Liz never picked up after herself and now, her children too were leaving a slovenly trail behind themselves as they went in search of gratification from the plasma screen TV to the kitchen and back. She was teaching them to be pleasure seekers with no sense of responsibility and this bothered him; they might end up as drug addicts and criminals. Any discipline he tried to enforce she would undermine with her Mcdonald's thick shakes and Burger Rings. He would tell Suzie that he frequently found potato chips down the back of the couch and in the car and that he spent at least 70 per cent of his time at home sweeping or wiping up spills that had been left to congeal and dry on bench surfaces. Liz wanted to get a cleaning lady. He would tell Suzie that he himself had worked as a cleaner before he had become a lab assistant, which, where he came from, was like moving to another galaxy. His mother had sent photos back to Greece of him in his lab coat, making claims to the people in her village near Sparta that he was a doctor. When he went there for a holiday he was so embarrassed he couldn't bring himself to correct them. They treated him like a king. Wouldn't let him lift a finger. It drove him crazy and he went to stay in a monastery, hoping for some spiritual guidance and maybe even a little salvation. He enjoyed the hard beds and the simple food, but he thought the monks were as mad as snakes. When he came home he'd shouted at his mother.

"Why did you lie? Are you ashamed of me? Is that it?"
She threw herself onto the plastic-covered vinyl couch sobbing and wailing.
"It was for you," she sniveled, "because I love you so much."
"Yeah, right," he said, sensing for the first time where his confusion had stemmed from with this ham actor for a mother.

Suzie's front room, the one she used for her consultations, was about the same size as his parents' little single fronted weatherboard in Coburg. The whole house would have fitted in her room. He was floored briefly by that thought. What would they make of all this space, all these exotic cushions, all this primitive art, the Aboriginal dot paintings, and the knick-knacks, the low lighting? How would they be in this setting, upending the nonsensical minutiae of their lives with a stranger. What would they know about being honest, their whole lives they had been too frightened to express a genuine emotion lest it be used against them as they had used the feelings of others against them. How could they justify their emotional blackmail and their skullduggery, their snooping and eavesdropping and gossip? All they would be able to do in this room would be to wonder how much everything cost and how hard it would be to keep clean.

Andy's parents were beyond counseling. His father had long since given up resisting the histrionics of his mother and had surrendered all power to her in exchange for a few quiet moments. The notion of couples counseling was utterly alien to them anyway, they pestered Andy about what went on in the sessions.

"But why do you pay a stranger to listen to you talk?" his mother asked. "Talk is cheap," she said in English. She must've heard it on the TV.

Years back his father had revealed a secret plot to leave his mother and Andy had given his blessing and encouragement and said he fully understood and had even looked forward to bonding more closely with his father without his mother pulling the strings. But for some reason his father stayed put. Andy was disappointed in his lack of resolve and lost most of respect he had held for his father's quiet determination, seeing the same quality now as cowardice rather than stoicism. They never discussed this reversal but the fact of it had changed how he felt about his parents.

And now he too was well and truly on his back in a permanent state of submission, paws folded over, tail wrapped around his genitals waiting for either Liz or Suzie or both to deliver the blows. The marijuana had exaggerated in his mind the sense of embattlement. He felt like a lone warrior with his bike helmet beneath his arm and his trusty steed by his side. He was ready to take on whatever she had to dish out.

Suzie came to the door with a benign smile on her face. She was a small woman with muscular calves and a cropped, black head of well-washed and well-cut hair. It had a razor sharp line that swooped from close to the base of her skull at the rear to two little points at either side of her face. It was a small, neat face with bright, dark eyes that he could see now were a little playful. He'd never noticed that before. He'd seen them previously as penetrating and accusatory. Suddenly he felt his own sweat and heat as he stepped across the sponginess of the beige wool carpet and into the clean luxury of Suzie's consulting rooms.

"I'm a bit sweaty," he said, "sorry about that."
"Not a problem," said Suzie, "would you like a glass of water?"
She gestured to the coffee table where a tall glass sat on a coaster with a jug of water next to it, a lemon wedge floating in it.
He poured himself a glass and drank it down in one go.
"Goodness," said Suzie, "you were thirsty."
He smiled at her, still sitting on the edge of the lounge chair that faced hers. She sat back with her athletic legs crossed elegantly. She linked her fingers together and said; "So, tell me what's been happening."
Suddenly Andy felt a sense of intimacy between them that seemed both uncomfortable and pleasant at the same time. He felt sweat trickle from his temple and wiped at it. Without Liz, the whole ambiance was different. Suzie's eyes were dancing; the room seemed less dense with heavy colour and appeared to have more light.
"Nothing much," said Andy in response to her question.
"How do you feel about the time you've spent away from Liz and the kids?"
"I feel fine," he said, "good as gold actually."
"Fine?" said Suzie's smiling suspiciously.
"What do you want me to say?"
"It's not what I want that's important," said Suzie.
"Well," said Andy, "that's where you differ from my wife."
"So you feel your needs aren't being met?" she said, uncrossing her legs and recrossing them at the ankles. Andy laughed sarcastically and poured himself some more water.
"What do you reckon?" he said.
"I'm asking you about your feelings, Andy," she said, "It's got nothing to do with mine."
"My feelings? Since when has anyone given a flying fuck about my feelings?"
"You're saying your feelings aren't being validated?"
"Not being what?"
"That you have been . . ."
"Explain something to me, will you, Suzie," he said, sensing that certain things, certain truths, might slip out.
"OK," said Suzie. "Go ahead."
"Why is it that women want so much stuff?"
"You mean material possessions?"
He nodded.
"Double drawer dishwasher, upside down fridges and stainless steel this and that. It never ends. But why? What for?"
"It's the society we live in," she said flatly.
"Why do they want these new things all the time? All's I want, to be honest with you, is to live in a single room with nothing but a bed and an alarm clock and one bowl and one cup for my coffee and that's it. But I'm underneath a mountain of shit in that house. I can't get out. I don't understand what the hell we need all this stuff for and how I'm supposed to keep up with it all, the repayments on the car, you know?"

He stopped to take a drink of water.

"And here we are," Andy said, leaning back into his chair.
Suzie had been watching him as he spoke, her face impassive, her finger playing with strand of hair.
"Goodness me," she said finally, "You do feel under pressure, don't you?"
His mouth was getting dry so he took another sip and sat back in the lounge chair and could feel that the cushions were stuffed with feather down the way they exhaled a cool breath around him. It was quiet. Almost serene. Then through the quiet he could hear some distant violin playing.
"It's nice here," he said, "You've got a nice big house here with nice things," he gestured around the room at the art on the walls. "How did you get all these things? Did you buy them yourself?"
"Some of them," said Suzie.
"Liz likes your house, you know. She wants a house just like it she said. How much is it worth? Seven hundred, eight hundred grand?" Suzie shrugged.
"More? I'd say," he said, "I'd say eight hundred easy, in this area, on a hill. That's a lot of moula. Maybe Liz should be married to you instead of me. She says you understand how she feels and I can see that you do. But you're having trouble with me, aren't you. You don't know what the fuck my problem is."
"I can tell that you're frustrated," said Suzie.
"Maybe she is my problem, mate, And to be honest with you, no offence, but I think you might be part of it too. You're supposed to be the marriage guidance whatever but you're just raking it in at our expense. My expense actually. Am I right? When what we need mate is a mercy killing, that's what we need."

Andy stood up.

"I think you'd better calm down, Andy," said Suzie who had lost her playful smirk and was looking nervous, although she remained seated.
"If you were a mechanic mate, you'd have the decency to tell us to cut our losses."
Then he gestured around the room. "Are you happy with this, mate?"
"Andy, I think you're getting a bit agitated."
"Yeah, yeah," he said.
"I think we'd better wind things up for today."
"Fine, but first just tell me, are you happy? I'd like to know."
He was standing close to her now and had fixed his gaze on her. His mouth was like sandpaper and he could feel the tight saltiness of the drying sweat on his face.
"Happy?" she said. "Happy," He flapped his hands on either side of his face.
"Depends what you mean."
"What I mean?"
"Well, yes, I suppose I'm happy," she said, sounding a little less anxious.
"As long as you're happy, mate" he said with a wink, "I wouldn't want you not to be happy."
"But I think our time's up," she said.
"Your time's up," he said.
"Well, time has run out," she said.
"Exactly," he said, putting his helmet on and tightening the strap under his chin looking forward to letting the bike fly down that steep hill.