Authors: Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen
I can see him having grown up on the East Coast, then attending an elite boarding school. Exeter, maybe, followed by Yale. That could be where they met. He’s the type to know his way around a sailboat and a golf course, but he isn’t a snob.
She would choose someone more gregarious than she is.
He’d offset her reserved, quiet nature, and she’d rein him in if he had a few too many beers and got rowdy during a poker game with the guys.
I wonder if it’s his birthday, or if they’re just one of those romantic couples who like to surprise each other with thoughtful presents.
Of course, I could have gotten it all wrong again.
That thought grips my mind as the subway car screeches
to a stop.
What if I got something much more important wrong than the details about Dr. Shields’s husband?
In no universe does it make sense that Dr. Shields just paid me three hundred dollars to run a quick errand. Maybe it wasn’t a simple errand after all.
The project you have become engaged in is about to evolve from an academic exercise into a real-life exploration on morality
Dr. Shields told me the first time I met her.
What if the errand was my first test? Maybe I was supposed to protest when Dr. Shields assured me I’d be paid as usual.
The crowd around me surges into the subway car and I’m swept up in the collective motion. I’m one of the last ones to board. The doors lightly brush my back as they close.
Suddenly I feel a tightening around
An edge of the wrap Dr. Shields gave me is caught between the doors.
My hand flies to my neck and I pull at the fabric, gagging.
Then the doors jerk back open and I wrench the wrap free.
“Are you okay?” the woman standing across from me asks.
I nod and gasp, feeling my heart thud.
I reach up to unfurl the wrap from around my neck. That’s when I realize I forgot
to return it.
The subway car gains speed and the faces on the platform blur as we hurtle into a dark tunnel.
Maybe the payment for today wasn’t a test, maybe it was the wrap. She might have wanted to see if I’d keep it.
Or maybe the real-life morality tests go back further, to the nail polish. Maybe all of these gifts are carefully designed experiments to see how I’ll react.
realization hits me with a jolt: Dr. Shields didn’t set a time for our next appointment.
I’m suddenly panicked I failed her tests, and now she won’t want me back.
Dr. Shields seemed really interested in me; she even texted me on Thanksgiving Day. But maybe after today she thinks she’s made a mistake.
I pull out my phone and begin to thumb a text:
I immediately backspace; that
sounds too informal.
Dear Dr. Shields.
That’s too formal.
I settle on a simple
I can’t sound desperate; I need to be professional.
I’m sorry I forgot to give you back your wrap. I’ll bring it next time. Also, don’t worry about paying me for today; you’ve been so generous.
I hesitate, then add:
I just realized we don’t have a time for our next appointment. My
schedule is flexible, just let me know when you need me. Thanks, Jess.
before I lose my nerve. I stare at my phone, waiting to see if there’s a quick response.
But there isn’t.
I shouldn’t have expected one. After all, I work for her. She’s probably on her way to see her husband right now, preparing to present him with his gift.
Maybe Dr. Shields was expecting me to
have a more sophisticated response to her sculpture. All I said was “Wow.” I should’ve come up with something more intelligent.
I’ve been staring down at my phone, waiting for a text from Dr. Shields, but somehow I didn’t immediately notice the phone icon signaling I have a new voice mail message. I snatch it up, certain Dr. Shields phoned when I didn’t have a signal.
the train plunges deeper underground and I lose the connection again. I hold my phone tightly in my hand until I reach my stop. I sprint through the turnstile and up the stairs, my case swinging by my side. It bangs painfully against my knee, but I don’t even slow down.
I burst onto the sidewalk, then stop short and jab at the voice mail button again.
The bright young voice—so different
from Dr. Shields’s cultured, carefully enunciated words—is jarring.
“Hey, it’s me, Amy. I thought of something on the plane. Meant to call you earlier but it’s been crazy. Anyway, one of my friends told me Dr. Shields just took a leave of absence from teaching. Anyway, I have no idea why. Maybe she has the flu or something. Okay, hope that helps. Bye!”
I slowly pull the phone away from
my ear and stare at it, then I touch the button to make the message play again.
Thursday, December 6
Adultery is commonplace; it does not discriminate among socioeconomic groups, race, or gender. Anecdotal evidence from counselors’ offices across the country supports this contention. After all, infidelity is one of the foremost reasons that compel couples to seek help from a professional.
Therapists are often the first responders when an affair
shatters a relationship, leaving the betrayed to grapple with feelings of rage and pain. Forgiveness is not always possible; forgetting is unrealistic. However, infidelity need not be a marital execution. Clinicians also understand that work can be done to rebuild trust through difficult conversations, accountability, and a reestablishing of priorities so the relationship is paramount. Indeed,
a betrayal can be surmounted. This requires time as well as the unwavering commitment of both parties.
Even though it is tempting to assume the correct course for a client is obvious, it is not a therapist’s job to offer such a blueprint.
It is easy to judge other people’s choices. It is far more complex when the choices are your own.
Imagine that seven years ago, you married a man
who infused your life with color and laughter, who upended your existence in the best possible way.
Imagine waking up every morning in the arms of the person who was your safe harbor, whose whispered words of love made you feel a swell of emotions you never knew existed.
Then imagine doubts began to creep in.
Early on in your marriage, your questions about his hushed, late-night phone
conversations and abrupt cancelations of plans were met with reasonable explanations: Clients were permitted to call at all hours on his emergency number. And sometimes a client needed an unscheduled session during a crisis.
Trust is a necessary component of a committed relationship.
But there was no explaining away the romantic text that landed on my phone screen three months ago:
you tonight, Gorgeous.
Thomas had said he would be playing poker with a few male friends that evening, and that he would be home late.
When he realized he’d misdirected the text, he immediately confessed. He spoke of his guilt and sorrow.
He was asked to move out that same night. He stayed in a hotel for a week, then he sublet an apartment near his office.
But expunging him from
my heart . . . well, that proved far more difficult.
Several weeks after Thomas moved out, a line of communication was reopened.
It would never happen again, Thomas swore. It was a singular indiscretion. She was the aggressor, he proclaimed.
When questioned, he supplied details. The narrative of their clandestine relationship was freely offered by Thomas, though it is typical for offenders
to minimize their misdeeds. Her demographic information—first name, age, appearance, profession, marital status—was ascertained.
Thomas seemed to want to rebuild our relationship. With any other man, this would have been impossible. But Thomas is unlike any other man.
And so counseling sessions were scheduled. Difficult conversations were had. And eventually, date nights were reestablished.
A rebuilding commenced.
There was only one problem. Certain aspects of his story did not add up.
Uncertainty is an excruciating state in which to exist.
A moral question that never appeared in my study continues to claim prominence in my mind:
Is it possible to look someone you love in the eye and tell a lie without experiencing remorse?
A new perspective soon intruded, threatening
the fragile peace we were painstakingly trying to rebuild: What if the other woman was merely the kindle?
What if Thomas was the flame?
Perhaps he burned through the one fling that has been verified.
But a fire is perpetually hungry.
One evening shortly after you snuck into the study, Jessica, my husband arrived home and dropped his keys and change in a small dish on our bureau,
as was his habit. Mixed in with the coins was a tiny, folded piece of paper: a receipt for a restaurant lunch for two.
Over glasses of wine enjoyed on the couch, a husband tells his wife of the mundane details that comprised his day: the irritating subway delay, the receptionist who learned she was having twins, the lost glasses that were discovered in the pocket of a blazer.
were mentioned. Yet an expensive lunch for two at a Cuban restaurant was not.
Had you not cunningly inserted yourself into the morality study, Jessica, this question might never have been answered. This experiment might never have existed. It is you who is bringing it to life.
Recollections can be faulty; personal agendas can color one’s words and actions. Only by conducting a scrupulously
executed inquiry can the truth be independently verified.
You may have given up your dreams of theater, Jessica, but you have earned a starring role in the next act of this unfolding drama.
When your text appears inquiring about your next session, it is as if you are confirming this, urging us forward:
You, with that heavy makeup case you lug around and the wild hair you
attempt to tame and the vulnerability you fail to hide.
You have proved your devotion today. Your text confirmed how much you need me.
What you don’t know is how much we need each other.
It is time to prepare for the next phase. It begins with the setting. Outer order engenders an inner sense of calm. The desk in the study—just a dozen feet away from the bedroom where Thomas’s pillowcase
used to hold the sweet scent of his shampoo—holds a laptop. Excessive alcohol will further muddy the mind, but two inches of Montrachet are poured into a crystal glass and brought to the workspace. There are minimal distractions in the room, facilitating the ability to concentrate on the task ahead.
An unorthodox plan must be considered from every possible angle. Mistakes are born when methodology
Conducting an empirical inquiry requires an established protocol: The collection and examination of data. Astute observations. Painstaking record-keeping. The interpretation of results and formation of a conclusion.
The title of the project is entered on the blank screen of the computer:
The Temptation of Infidelity: A Case Study.
The hypothesis: Thomas is an unrepentant
There is only one subject: My husband.
There is only one variable: You.
Jessica, please don’t fail this test. It would be a pity to lose you.
We began as strangers, you and I.
By now, we have become acquaintances. We are beginning to feel as if we know each other.
Familiarity often ushers in an enhanced appreciation and understanding.
It also shepherds in a new level of evaluations.
Maybe you have judged the choices of people you know: The neighbor who screams so loudly at his spouse that the harsh words carry
through their thin apartment walls. The colleague who opts out of caring for aging parents. The client who becomes overly dependent on a therapist.
Even with the realization that these acquaintances have pressures of their own—an impending divorce, depression, a family—your judgments still materialize with the surety and swiftness of a reflex.
These reactions might be immediate, but they
are rarely simple or precise.
Pause for a moment and consider the subconscious factors that may be coloring your evaluations: Everything from whether you enjoyed eight hours of sleep, are experiencing an annoyance, such as a recently flooded bathroom, or are still absorbing the aftershocks of a domineering mother.
If there is a chemical formula that decrees whether a verbal or silent condemnation
is made during the course of everyday, mundane interactions, it contains an ever-changing variable.
That unstable element is you.
We all have reasons for our judgments, even if those reasons are so deeply buried we don’t recognize them ourselves.
Friday, December 7
I was so worried I’d messed up the last time I saw Dr. Shields that when she finally phoned me back, I snatched up the phone before the first ring ended.
She asked if I’d be free tonight, like nothing was wrong. And maybe it wasn’t. She didn’t even mention my message about not expecting to be paid for bringing her the sculpture and forgetting
to return her wrap.
The call lasted only a few minutes. Dr. Shields gave me a few instructions:
Wear your hair down, polished makeup, and a black dress suitable for an evening out. Be ready by 8
It’s twenty past seven right now. I stand in front of my closet, staring at the clothes crammed inside. I push aside the charcoal suede miniskirt that I usually pair with a blush-colored silky
top, then I reach past my high-neck black dress that’s way too short.
Unlike Lizzie, who often texts me a series of selfies before we meet up, I’m as confident putting together outfits as I am blending a color palette for a client. I know what styles flatter me, but an evening out probably means something very different for Dr. Shields than it does for me.