Image: Polly Becker
Interview: "Happy Endings"
Jill McCorkle talks about her recurring themes and her imaginary life as a therapist.
Dear Dr. Love,
By now you have gotten several letters from me and this will probably be the last. I don’t care that you never respond. In fact, I’m glad that you don’t, because if you did, a response would show a weakness in your professional ethics. In all my other letters, I have been trying to explain myself a little better because I always felt that maybe you liked Jerry more than you liked me. And what about human nature makes us all want to be the one liked the most? In those other letters I was still trying to convince you that I was the right one, but the truth is that now so much time has passed I just don’t give a shit. The right/wrong stalemate is what keeps people in your office for way too long. I thought I might settle things in my mind by writing you this final letter. And I will tell the truth—not that I haven’t told the truth in the past, I have, but let’s just say I also lied.
What has been consistent and honest in all my letters is how I don’t think your name works, and I still think you should change it. You might say it led you to do what you do, and you might mention other people with prophetic names like Judge Learned Hand, or someone I knew named Clay Potts, who makes mugs and stuff to sell by the highway, but I never liked the way your name feels like a bad joke to all those people who are struggling with their marriages. Maybe you should change it to Dr. Apathy, which they (the 1960s shrink set) said was the opposite of love—instead of hate—and I absolutely agree with this. In fact, I think if they ever remake The Night of the Hunter, which is one of my very favorite movies (or was until Jerry got religious), they might rethink the tattoos that the preacher has on his hands. Lord, Robert Mitchum was scary there using his hands to show the fight between love and hate, and him a cold-blooded killer hiding behind Scripture. But imagine a preacher (or a marriage counselor) with hands saying love and apathy. You love all those little games; you can put your hands behind your back and say, Pick.
Anyway, when you last saw me, I did not look good. In fact, I looked like shit on a stick. Most of us coming in and out of your home office did, you know. I know you think that you have figured out a way so people don’t see one another—five-minute intervals and in one door and out another. It is a big-ass house—but truth is, I rarely made an immediate exit. I would stop off in your little bathroom there at the front to splash water on my face and get myself looking good enough to go pick the kids up from school. Sometimes, you may recall, I would even have to excuse myself during a session. You might have thought I was being avoidant, but truth is, I was bored. I suspect being bored and having your mind wander during marriage counseling is not a good sign. I would suspect that that level of boredom should say something big. You should tell people right up front how, if they’re bored, then probably the best thing for everybody is to stop. Don’t take their money, don’t make them sit there and say stupid things back and forth.
Anyway, I did like sitting there in your bathroom, the way the white noise enveloped me and kept me from hearing all that Jerry was probably saying about me while I wasn’t there. He probably said things like how I often rearranged the furniture or changed the lightbulbs to get a better feel to the room, or how I didn’t check the cabinets and pantry before going shopping and how he was tired of me buying things like sugar or mayonnaise or a big can of pepper for fear we had none back at home. He didn’t like that I bought Chef Boyardee either, even though the kids love it. Who doesn’t? I don’t like being told what is right and what is wrong.
“Do you know how many bags of sugar are in that pantry?” he would often ask, and I would say, “No! How many?,” which made him mad enough to pull out a bunch of bags and stack them there on the floor like we might be getting ready for a flood. Then I might say something like Do you know how many Sports Illustrateds are in the bathroom getting all wet and soggy? or Do you know how you bruised my arm when you grabbed me so hard during sex the last time we had it? But you know better, because you know Jerry. Those would be my fantasy marriage-counseling complaints, where I might also have big stinky jock sneakers in the hall and a man thinking of all the new ways he might go about satisfying me.
In reality I would say, “Do you know how many daily-devotional books and Mensa quizzes are neatly stacked on the shelf in the bathroom? Do you know where the antibacterial cleanser might be, or that thing you use to scrub your tongue?” Jerry did not like for his tongue to look like a normal tongue. I don’t even know who thought of a tongue brush, but I am open-minded enough that I said if he needed to, I was okay with that, that I personally didn’t feel the need to scrape my own but certainly I wouldn’t judge him for doing so.
You (and the whole planet Earth) were always talking about Venus and Mars, which I understand. We don’t agree about the tongue brush, or the way I like toilet paper backed up to the wall and Jerry likes it spinning off the front. Different strokes and so on. But that explanation just didn’t work with religion, mainly because Jerry kept trying to save me. “From what, Jerry?,” I must have said 40 times. “What are you saving me from?”
I guess coming to you was like going somewhere like Saturn or Uranus to work it out. Remember when I observed that? And then I said how sometimes a planet is not a planet, like Pluto for instance. All these years we thought it was a planet only to find out it wasn’t. Clearly, I was too subtle for both of you, because you didn’t do anything with my observation, and Jerry just shook his head and winked at you as if to say, You see? You see how off she is? and I said, “Up Uranus.” Do you remember that? I’m hoping that you can picture us there that day: Jerry and Hannah from three suburbs over.
Anyway, I think that marriage vows should include an escape clause that says the contract is broken if one party ups and makes a big switch in religion or politics or aesthetic taste. I mean, these shifts just aren’t fair, and we need an easier way out. Some people talk about marriage versus civil union. Well, I think everybody needs to be civil, and I think anybody that wants to call a relationship a marriage should have the right to do so.
I’m an open-minded person, and these days a more honest person, so I’ll just go ahead and tell you that you were not our first counselor. In the beginning, we—like so many who come to you—were just hoping for an honest appraisal, like when you take your car in. Do they open the hood and just close it with disgust, like the way people often describe cancer: They opened and then just closed her right up? Or do they say, Well, this vehicle might not have been the best choice for you, but she has miles left in her. Keep her in tires and oil and she’ll probably get you where you need to go? Or do they say, Ah yes, she’s a beauty and if you just pay attention to the subtle sounds of this complex engine then she’ll be purring for life and won’t you feel proud to have a hand on her wheel?
My first choice of a therapist was Ashley Hoffman, but he is so brilliant and popular, a patient has to die for you to get an appointment. So I chose a Dr. Levine for his good Jewish name, because I had decided that the only way I could get some objectivity to counterbalance what had become Jerry’s religious fervor was to find a good atheist or agnostic or Unitarian. Well, that is not information that you can find anywhere in an advertisement. So I thought I could go the more subtle route and look for a good Jewish name, which I did, only to have another bad joke played on me. Dr. Levine’s mother, I discovered, was a Baptist, and that’s how he had grown up down in Alabama, with Mr. Levine nowhere in sight. His accent was thicker than mine, and he used the words bless and blessing all the goddamn time. Jerry liked him, of course. Jerry likes talking to men better than he likes dealing with women, even though he won’t admit it. I know you picked up on this too, but I’ll come back to that. I felt that this lack of separation of church and marital state was a big conflict of interest. I wanted to tell Dr. Levine that I wanted to sue his ass for false advertisement, because the field of psychotherapy has a great and rich Hebrew heritage. But, of course, I didn’t. Instead of that I told Jerry that Dr. Levine had to let all his clients go, because he was suffering a nervous breakdown of sorts, and then I opened the Yellow Pages, closed my eyes, and found you. The name Love sounded prophetic at the time. Ha ha.
But I did like how you always had the daily paper and People magazine in your bathroom, except sometimes when I started reading, I forgot that I had to go back in there and hear what a difficult person I am. Remember that time you had to come and get me and I told you I was feeling sick? What I was actually doing was reading about David Koresh and thinking how Jerry’s new religion was getting on my nerves, but at least he wasn’t that bad. Not yet anyway. Of course, I wanted to know what to be looking for in case the turn he’d already taken got worse.
Love or Apathy. The Game of Marriage. The Game of Monogamy. Some would say Monotony. You take turns. You go round and round. Sometimes you have to pay a penalty or lose your turn. Still, making a big change isn’t easy, and that is what I was often thinking while collecting myself and watching others coming and going. The people I saw leaving who looked good and all together were already done deals, I suspect. You could tell the ones who already knew they were out of there and were just going through the motions to appease the other one enough to get a better deal during the divorce—more money, more time with the kids. I mean, so many people go to counseling for the kids, and that’s a good thing when it works—kind of like a sermon when it’s good and inspirational and you can use what you hear—but it can also become selfish. All that money that could go to college, and all that time that could go to taking them fun places. I mean, I spent a hell of a lot to get bored and wander around getting creeped out by your spooky violent and primitive art stuff.
I wish I could get all that money back from you. One day I added it up and it totaled at least a new car, which I really need these days. Do you remember how Jerry wanted to have me diagnosed as crazy? And then how he was hoping I had brain cancer? “Something is causing your abstract thoughts,” he said. I mean no offense, well, actually I do mean a little offense, I never understood why you didn’t get pissed off and tell him to let you tend to your own business. I mean, you listened to him sitting there in all his born-again glory. He would have loved a reason to have me drugged or lobotomized so I’d just drool and go along with whatever he said whenever he said it.
I am someone who does believe in the higher power of necessary medication. Amen. At times, a smidgen of this or that is just what you need. I loved the feel of Demerol when I was in labor, and I don’t know what I would have done without that epidural—scream out lots of terrible things, I suspect, which I did anyway. And this drug they give you with a colonoscopy is just a dream—you’re relaxed on one side, wide awake and watching television. I wanted to nominate myself for an Emmy. And I believe in spiritual highs, too. What I don’t believe in is someone having the power to dictate someone else’s spirituality or aesthetic code. Like if I hate corduroy, that is my business, not his.
But I did not marry a born-again person and so, yes, I did have a problem when he up and got all religious on me. That religious business was just another way to control and manipulate. “You aren’t smart enough because you aren’t Mensa material. You aren’t neat and clean enough even when you say you’re trying. You aren’t saved, because you haven’t cried and humiliated yourself by confessing to the congregation all the awful things you have done in life so they can heal, bless, and forgive you.” That is not who I married. I mean, I didn’t marry a luxury vehicle, I know that, but I did marry what I thought was your basic white stripped-down Corolla. I married Jerry Barnes, Toyota dealer, who in grade school was told that he scored in the genius range on some stupid aptitude test and has spent his whole life doing things like the Rubik’s Cube to prove it. He was a lot of hot air but nice enough and kind of cute on a good day—a lot shorter than me but I didn’t think much of it, especially since Dudley Moore and Susan Anton were an item around the time we were dating. People would say, “There’s Dudley and Susan,” and I liked that. I know that’s stupid, but I was also only about 22 years old and still going to school for interior design. I liked a margarita on a Saturday afternoon and a glass of wine while cooking dinner, and so did Jerry, but now he is a teetotaler. He can’t do anything halfway or in moderation. Forgive my diversion, but thinking about first meeting Jerry made me think of my neighbor’s little Chihuahua, who is all the time trying to mount my Lab, Sheba, and I say, “There’s Dudley and Susan.” But now Dudley is dead, and very few people even remember that he was ever with Susan Anton. I loved that movie Arthur. Jerry did too, back when he was Jerry.
But being normal wasn’t enough for Jerry, he had to always be into this or that. He always had a new hobby, and he’d go at it full tilt for a few months and then move on to another interest. He was into Sudoku and then pottery, model trains, and beer making. He wanted to take dancing lessons, and then he got interested in a kind of tag wrestling that involved grown men moving all around one another and then grabbing and holding. I referred to it as “homoerotic dance,” and he accused me of not being open-minded, and I just said, “Whatever.” I told him that I’d never in my life had any trouble finding somebody who wanted to dance with me, and he should remember that.
I am realistic enough to know that psychological or subconscious reasons often explain why people go where they go and make the choices they make. I mean, even though he tells people I’m not saved, I did grow up going to church, right? And where I went, a virtual feast of questionable things was happening, so I’d be a total fool not to question. Youth directors and choir directors and assistant this and that who took a “special interest” in the children. Some liked young girls and some liked young boys. “(I’m a) Boy Watcher.” Remember that commercial? Or worse, remember those sunglasses? A slit of polarized glass so that no one could tell where you were looking—creepy. And that’s why I told Jerry that if he was having some thoughts in those directions, he needed to spend some time with himself and his thoughts and his impulses and come to a personal decision. And of course, that is when he came to the personal decision that he needed to rededicate his life to the Lord and that he needed to bring me along with him. I might add that Jerry goes to a church where people want to heal homosexuals and those who are pro-choice.
You must get tired of hearing the same old thing over and over, because of course marriage fighting isn’t really about the toothpaste cap left off, or the toilet seat up, or who loaded the dishwasher last. All that little nitpicky stuff usually means: You get on my fucking nerves so bad I can’t stand it. It means: What happened to the person I thought I was marrying? It means: You don’t like the cat, so I don’t like you. It means: I pretend I’m asleep when your hand brushes my back. I pretend your hand belongs to somebody else.
Now, I’m not trying to tell you your business, but I think if I were you, I would have a series of questions that lead to a big yes or no answer. Should I get divorced? Ding ding ding—the answer is yes. I mean, I realize that a lot of people go into your business for a little self-help, and that’s where you might very well overlap a little bit with Jerry being born-again. People with mental and emotional problems very often seek refuge in the church and the field of psychology. I’d say about 80 percent of you probably do that. And that’s fine if a personal weakness leads you to a calling. I can dig it. I mean, that is what led me to interior design, after all. Everyone in my town would tell you that I grew up in a rat-hole firetrap and that my chosen profession was all about bringing color and clarity and order into a life of chaos. I mean, my mother couldn’t help that she was one of those people who never cleaned house and never cared if anything matched or not. And my dad was a fireman, who should’ve known not to have stacks of papers everywhere with both of them chain-smoking. The cobbler’s children go barefoot, like your girl I met one day on a bathroom trip, but I’ll get back to that in a minute, if I remember.
By the way, if you are actually reading this letter, don’t think you can charge me for the time, like that lawyer keeps doing every time I e-mail or call him back to answer a question he asked me. Just the other day he said, “How are you doing?” And I said I wasn’t saying unless he stopped the clock and kept it stopped until I was done. I think he had trouble in that moment figuring out what part of himself was human and what part was not. That was the only time I had ever heard him pause in conversation, like he’d shorted out or something.
Some of my conversations with my lawyer have reminded me of those little games you had us play, which you need to know right up front do not work at all. I think you’d have to be a total idiot or someone who takes Mensa quizzes regularly to fall for such simplistic crap. I mean, anybody who ever saw Annie Hall knows to read the subtext.
You look so pretty today. (Like a bitch who spent too much at Nordstrom’s.)
Why thank you, love. (Fuck you.)
What I know now is that, just by way of thinking those thoughts, I should not have continued shelling out 200 bucks a pop to you. I’d have done just as well to rent a boxing ring for an hour. There’s a test right there. Get in the ring and if you are—in a great moment of anger—willing to drive your fist into the face of someone you promised to cherish forever (especially if the genetics have worked such that those are now the same eyes you associate with your children), well then, Houston, we’ve got a problem.
So I wonder about you. Like at the end of the day, do you put your feet up and tell your wife all about us? Do you open a bottle of wine and snuggle on that big divan up in your room (I made a wrong turn once going to the bathroom) and say, “Thank God I am not living such an unhappy existence”? Does this thought make you love her more? She looks a bit older than you, and so I did wonder (when I saw the photo on your dresser) if she had had a husband before you and how you had adjusted to that or if you all have some different kind of marriage like mentor/mentee, or mother and child. Truth is, you seemed a little too interested in a lot of what Jerry had to say, and since this is my last letter to you, I’ll just go ahead and say that. On some days I felt you two were picking up a frequency like a dog whistle that I just wasn’t able to hear. Of course, you might just have a great gift for empathy, but then I’d have to ask where was this gift when Jerry was trying to have me committed to the attic like that woman in Jane Eyre who set everything on fire.
I have to admit I was curious about you and your life, especially after I met your kid and saw your room, and what I observed undermined my confidence in what you might or might not know. I mean, those enormous ornate cornices you all chose in your bedroom I can overlook. That is my business after all, and a lot of people make the unfortunate mistakes you did. Yellow really is a hard color to pick and work with. Any artist will tell you that. But my advice would be to go in there and start from scratch. That overhead light looks like something Liberace might’ve had in the bathroom.
I think your job would be easier if you had a chart of sorts that told people how they should feel. Here is a normal range of jealousy, and here is where you went off the deep end. Here is true compassion and concern, and here are feelings that are malicious and calculated. That’s what I’d say about Jerry putting me on the prayer list at his new church. People keep leaving fruit on my steps, and I keep driving over to Jerry’s house and throwing it through the window. “Stop praying for me!,” I said, and he said, “I can pray for whomever I want.” He said he would continue to pray for those like me—the sick and deranged. I didn’t say what was on my unbrushed tongue, which shows how far I have come from the anger of it all. I am evolving each and every day. That’s what I told Jerry when he sighed and stared to the heavens and mumbled something on my behalf. Instead of putting a foot in his face, as I wanted to, I just told him how at my church, my own personal testimony had inspired many. How I told I was born into chaos—a swirl of dust and stacked newspapers and old plastic-lined drapes that had not been opened in years—how my parents had sex that one time and then I was on my own tidying up when no one was looking and reading house magazines about decluttering and complementary colors. “I am so evolved,” I told Jerry, “I never had wisdom teeth. I have an innate sense of when to get rid of what I don’t need.”
So, do you ever wonder what happened to us? Good old Jerry and Hannah. We went to a mediator after you, and we’re still dealing with the lawyers, the kids going back and forth every week like little ping-pong balls. I know you see these disagreements all the time, often enough so that perhaps you can predict the ending to those like us, but aren’t you ever curious, or is it just part of the job, part of the day, like you’re just one of many stops on the Underground Railroad? Or maybe not, since I can’t imagine a slave choosing to go back or to just sit and talk indefinitely. Emancipation was a word on my mind before I even knew it was there.
If I had your job, I might ask a person: If a nuclear disaster occurred, and you had to live out those final painful days just stretched out somewhere thinking about your life—This is who I am. This is what I love. This is what I believe—who would you want hearing your whispers? Or perhaps better: Who do you trust to hear your whispers? Whose breath do you want mingled with your own? Whose flesh still warm beside you?
I once heard a preacher discuss the miracles of Jesus in a way that made total sense to me. He said that science could explain the act, but that the timing was a miracle. And every now and then during that period of time we were seeing you, I would wake in the middle of the night to an old feeling, a sad feeling. Some dream had transported me back to when I could feel. And I could remember what hope felt like. Not happiness necessarily, but hope. A kind of natural happiness grows out of hope, a kind of longing and imagining of what might be. You know, back when I was so miserable, I read true crime all the time, the grislier the better, and I wondered, What is wrong with me? But I needed to reassure myself about where I was. At least I wasn’t married to a serial killer. At least he didn’t make me pretend to be dead or a young boy when having sex. Those aren’t bodies stacked up out there in his toolshed, but little Tupperware containers filled with sorted screws and nails. The fascination with someone else’s reality is a total escape (this is where I think you might come in). We look at a bad situation and say, “Whew,” or we laugh/judge/ridicule. We want confessions—car wrecks, true crime, divorce battles, someone’s nervous breakdown. Who is the fattest person in the family? But what kind of life is that, if you have to spend all your time filling up on all the awful stuff that is not your life? I had just ordered video biographies of John Wayne Gacy Jr. (sicko clown) and Jeffrey Dahmer (cannibal) when I caught a glimpse of myself in your bathroom mirror and thought, Oh my God. And that is when I had to slam on the brakes. I slammed on the brakes, and then the world crashed, and with the wreckage I heard silence, and with the silence I heard my own voice. I had been screaming all the while. For years I had been screaming. As in Horton Hears a Who!, that realization also made me see how selfish all this divorce/religion/self-analysis can be—I had not read to my children or just sat and watched their television programs with them in weeks. I had not stretched out beside them and rubbed their backs, whispered to them about all the good things that will happen in their lives, until they fell asleep. I had not done a thing to my hair in months, and I had worn the same jeans for a week straight, the same ones I had let my scarecrow wear the whole summer before. I was a mess.
Remember how I finally ended our time with you? Remember how I made a big confession that I had fucked the plumber who stopped by to make a few repairs? Well, the truth is I didn’t do that at all. That’s the story you hear all the time, kind of like the banker and his secretary, the professor and his student. The carpenter, electrician, plumber. The butcher and the baker and candlestick maker. That is a cliché right out of porn central. Bored wife wanders around the house all day wearing little to nothing and fucks whatever passes by. And you all believed it. Now that was offensive to me. I may be a lot of things but cliché is not one of them. And of course Jerry didn’t really believe it, though he jumped on it like a dog on a bone because then he could accuse me of something specific. Alienation of affection. Boo hoo. And when he threatened to let it affect the decision about the kids and how we’d divide the household goods, I started singing “(I’m a) Girl Watcher,” and we agreed to disagree and agree to a truce.
Though we never discussed my confession, I think deep down Jerry must know that I am too loyal a person to have screwed the plumber—loyal to the kids, loyal to my own moral code, and loyal to my own sense of aesthetics (no offense to the plumber, of course, but not my taste at all). No, my biggest betrayal to Jerry is that I quit trying. When I finally found my own voice, I realized I had nothing else I wanted to say to him. I stopped talking, nothing feeding nothing until nothing was huge and nothing begot nothing. Feeling nothing is not good, but it’s where a lot of people stop and stay. The nothingness is so delusional and numbing. It’s like stretching out in the snow and taking a little nap, and the comfort of discomfort is a scary thing. The lull into nothingness should be feared by all. I hope that as you read this letter you are actually able to identify me, to place me among the assembly line of broken parts and broken hearts that pass through your business. I hope you are able to remember how I often had to pee at the most unlikely (boring!) times and how you have always wished that you had gotten the recipe for my grandmother’s pound cake, which I described so well one day when you asked me to talk about something I was proud of. I know you are proud of all those times you went to Asian and African places, but I just have to tell you, those stories are depressing. Maybe I got speared and boiled in a pot in some past life, I don’t know, but those things you put on display give me the creeps. I’m afraid you’ll come out there one day and find a client speared right there in the hallway with what came off your wall. But what I’m most afraid of is that people want to come there and stay, get comfortable with the little games and the burden of trying to fix something that just can’t be fixed. I hope you will remember that, whatever I was, I was not apathetic. Bored? Oh dear God, yes, I was bored much of the time, but whenever I said I was bored or lonely or tired, it was my own voice saying it. I heard a voice that said, Feel something. And so I did, and I continue to. I wish you peace and love, Dr. Love. I wish you a happy daughter and a smooth-running vehicle and better decor. I thank you for the time you have spent reading me free of charge.
Hannah from three suburbs over
PS: Enclosed is a photo of me and my kids at Disney World right after we rode Space Mountain, which is why the little one looks kind of scared. She barely made it up to the height mark that will let you ride. It was so much fun we went as many times as we could and even after screaming and carrying on and getting slung back and forth, I am proud to say that I no longer look one bit like shit on a stick.