Gretchen and Steve have been married for a long time. Living in San Francisco, recently separated, with two children and demanding jobs, they’ve started going to a marriage counselor. Unfolding over the course of ten months and taking place entirely in the marriage counselor’s office, John Jay Osborn’s Listen to the Marriage is the story of a fractured couple in a moment of crisis, and of the person who tries to get them to see each other again.
Sandy always saw her couples for individual sessions at the beginning.
Two days later, when Gretchen came in alone, she looked exhausted, just dead tired. And she was late too, though just by a few minutes. She ran up the stairs to Sandy’s second-floor office.
“I’m sorry I’m late,” she said. She went to the chair she’d sat in before. “Thank God you have the little parking lot.”
She put her brown leather bag on the floor next to her chair. She breathed deeply a few times.
“This is a wonderful building,” she said. “I saw the bronze plaque on the wall near the stairs. You thank your mother for giving you the building.”
My mother put up that plaque, Sandy remembered.
“Thank you,” Sandy said. “What’s up? You look exhausted.”
It brought Gretchen up short. She snapped into the moment.
“I am,” Gretchen said. “Last night, I stayed up until two in the morning grading papers, and then I had to get up with the kids and get them to school on Dolores and then I drive to Fillmore to see you, then later, I need to get back across town to teach class at USF, then back to Dolores to pick up the kids. I don’t know, Sandy.”
“Where does Steve fit into all of this?”
“What don’t you know?” Sandy asked.
“If one little thing goes wrong, if school calls because one of the kids is sick, the whole house of cards tumbles,” Gretchen said.
“Where does Steve fit into all of this?” Sandy asked.
“He picks the kids up at school two days a week, and every other weekend he has them,” Gretchen said.
“So if one of the kids got sick, and you had to teach, why wouldn’t you ask Steve to take over?” Sandy asked.
“I don’t want to ask Steve for anything,” Gretchen said evenly. “I don’t even like the fact that he has the children two afternoons a week.”
“We should talk about that,” Sandy said. “But maybe not right now. Why don’t you hire someone to help you out with the kids?”
“I don’t want them to feel abandoned by me,” Gretchen said. “They’re already upset that Steve and I aren’t together.”
Sandy shook her head.
“You’re a professor at a university that must have a thousand talented students who need part-time jobs. Your kids might like to spend an afternoon with one of them, rather than with their exhausted mother, who can barely keep her eyes open because she was up all night grading papers,” Sandy said.
There was more, Sandy knew.
“But it wasn’t just grading papers, was it?” Sandy said.
“I was also on the phone for an hour or so,” Gretchen said quietly.
“This would be with some guy, right?”
“Tell me about it,” Sandy said.
“I’m embarrassed,” Gretchen said slowly.
“You’ll get over it,” Sandy said. She smiled at Gretchen. And you will, she thought.
“So right after I got tenure, I went to a conference about Dickens and his contemporaries. This guy gave a really good paper on publishing in London in the middle of the nineteenth century. I’d met him before. He had been very supportive of my work. We talked, and everything came out that was happening with Steve. We ended up spending the night together. He saw how much I had been missing out, how limited my life had become with Steve.”
“This guy’s name is?” Sandy asked.
“William Keener,” Gretchen said. “Bill.”
“Did you know Steve was having an affair when this happened?” Sandy asked.
“So now you’re both having affairs,” Sandy said.
“I hadn’t confronted Steve, but I knew it was going on,” Gretchen said. “He was vague about where he was. There were calls he got at odd times. I knew. It was amazing to watch him. How could he believe I was so stupid? But he just kept going and going. It is amazing to watch your partner just out-and-out lie to you.”
“So now you’re both having affairs,” Sandy said.
“I would never have had an affair if Steve hadn’t been having one,” Gretchen snapped. Angry, tired. “I was desperate. I was miserable. Everything was crumbling.”
“Gretchen, I’m not making any value judgments here,” Sandy said. “But I want to get things straight. Did you talk to Steve about thinking he was having an affair?”
“Yes,” Gretchen said. “Right after I got back from that Dickens conference. I told him I knew that he was having an affair. He admitted it. He told me that he’d stopped seeing her a few weeks before.”
“Does Steve know about Bill?”
“He probably knows something is going on, I went to the conference, and I came back a different woman,” Gretchen said. “But I haven’t told him.”
“Where is Bill?”
“He teaches at UCLA and he lives in Santa Monica. There’s another problem. He’s married. And he’s also been divorced, which was one reason it was so good to talk to him. He knew exactly what I was going through.”
“And he has children?” Sandy asked.
“One from each marriage,” Gretchen said.
“So how does he get to talk to you for an hour late at night?” Sandy asked.
“He got up in the middle of the night and went into his study,” Gretchen said.
“I have a suggestion,” Sandy said.
“I know,” Gretchen said. “I have to tell Steve.”
“That too,” Sandy said. “Although I’ll bet he knows. My suggestion is this. You are the one in charge here. You may not realize it, but you are in control. Not Bill; not Steve. You are in control of everything right now. My suggestion is that you do exactly what is good for you. For example, put Bill on your schedule.”
“How would that work?” Gretchen asked, sounding confused.
“Don’t sit around waiting for Bill’s wife to go to sleep so that Bill can slip down to his study and give you a call and keep you up all night,” Sandy said. “You tell him when it’s convenient for you to talk to him.”
“I need to talk to him.”
“He can’t just say to his wife, Excuse me, I need to go call Gretchen.”
“Maybe not, but that’s his problem, not yours,” Sandy said.
“I need to talk to him.”
“Believe me, he’ll figure it out,” Sandy said.
“I don’t want to stress him out,” Gretchen said.
“Him? You’ve got two little kids you are taking care of on your own, you have papers to grade, you have courses to teach, you have committees you have to go to, and your marriage has fallen apart. Who is the one who’s stressed out?” Sandy said.
“I want to talk to him,” Gretchen said, tears coming. “I need him.” She really was exhausted, Sandy thought. She was a wreck.
“You’ve got him,” Sandy said. “You’ve done a great job pulling everything apart, but right now you need to pull yourself together.”
“I’m in love with him,” Gretchen said, the words pouring out. “I can talk to him. I finally have someone I can talk to. For the first time in years. I want him so much it makes me ache inside.”
Gretchen looked at Sandy and held her hands out.
“But he’s married and he’s been divorced once. This is never going to work out. I wish his wife would die,” Gretchen said.
She was sobbing now. Sandy handed her the box of tissues she kept on the side table by her chair.
“I am exhausted,” Gretchen said.
“I know,” Sandy said. “How could you not be?”
John Jay Osborn graduated from Harvard Law School in 1970. He wrote The Paper Chase while he was a full-time law student. Osborn has clerked for the United States Court of Appeals, practiced law in New York City, taught at the University of Miami School of Law, and practiced in the estate-planning field, as well as giving advice and representation to artists and writers. He is the author of several novels and has written episodes for a variety of television shows. Since 1991 he has been a professor at the law school of the University of San Francisco.