Chapter One

Pink Cowboy Boots
December 8, 2011

In no universe would it be “right” for a woman to send my husband a photo of herself in pink cowgirl boots, an obscene T-shirt, and a micro mini skirt. Dr. Elsa had a PhD. in Social Work and had been in practice for decades, this woman in the micro mini. She was married for almost as long as we’d been.

• • •

We’d consulted with Elsa Dekowski, or Dr. Elsa as she liked to be called, during our only prior marital difficulty twenty years earlier. We’d been in graduate school and remodeling a house when suddenly Andy started acting irritable, not his normal nice, easy-going self but like I was a construction worker who worked for him. He was aware I’d had little experience doing home remodeling stuff. Most wives wouldn’t have jumped in to help, so I felt it was a lot that I pitched in and was trying my best. He had sounded increasing gruff and critical and raising his voice, almost yelling at me. He knew me well enough to know that wouldn’t help anything but just upset me. But it was like suddenly he didn’t know me, and I didn’t know him. When I explained that he was hurting my feelings, he would get briefly nicer then “forget” and revert to his supervisor tone. I didn’t know what to make of it.

This went on for about a week when the last straw occurred. After a full day of unpleasantness, he yelled at me one too many times. I was trying to paint cabinets, apparently not very well in his opinion. I decided I’d had enough of his attitude, put down my paint brush and calmly told him, “That’s it. I quit.” As I recall, he looked shocked and didn’t say much of anything.

We’d consulted with Elsa Dekowski, or Dr. Elsa as she liked to be called, during our only prior marital difficulty twenty years earlier. We’d been in graduate school and remodeling a house when suddenly Andy started acting irritable, not his normal nice, easy-going self but like I was a construction worker who worked for him. He was aware I’d had little experience doing home remodeling stuff. Most wives wouldn’t have jumped in to help, so I felt it was a lot that I pitched in and was trying my best. He had sounded increasing gruff and critical and raising his voice, almost yelling at me. He knew me well enough to know that wouldn’t help anything but just upset me. But it was like suddenly he didn’t know me, and I didn’t know him. When I explained that he was hurting my feelings, he would get briefly nicer then “forget” and revert to his supervisor tone. I didn’t know what to make of it. This went on for about a week when the last straw occurred. After a full day of unpleasantness, he yelled at me one too many times. I was trying to paint cabinets, apparently not very well in his opinion. I decided I’d had enough of his attitude, put down my paint brush and calmly told him, “That’s it. I quit.” As I recall, he looked shocked and didn’t say much of anything.

When I returned the next day, he’d repeatedly said he was sorry. I told him I felt that wasn’t enough to explain or address how he’d acted or make everything okay with me. I didn’t ever want him to treat me like that again and I wanted to know what caused it. Although I was very devoted to him, this wasn’t what I signed up for. I didn’t think I’d married an a**hole.

His father had been rather jerky to his mother during a few times he wasn’t silent. It was fairly subtle, but his attitude was bothersome, not to her as far as I could tell, but to me. Andy always seemed like his father’s polar opposite until this. When I said he was acting like his father, he looked horrified.

I threw some things in a bag, marched out the door with our dog, and spent one night in a Holiday Inn that I knew accepted pets. Partly to get my point across, mostly to get away from him. It was the only time I ever did that. I called to let him know where we were, and he apologized. I said I’d be back tomorrow, and we could talk then.

I told him we needed to see a counselor to figure out why he’d been acting so differently and how to make sure it wasn’t going to be an ongoing problem. As much as I loved him, if it couldn’t be fixed, the specter of being married to someone with that kind of personality would have been untenable. He agreed to see a counselor. It seemed like he wanted an explanation, too. It was the only time before 2011 that I’d seen him act like a different person.

I found a counselor, Elsa Dekowski, through the college’s referral system. At that point, she’d had a master’s degree in social work. We saw her three or four times. Elsa had been great: professional, efficient, caring, and she understood why I was so upset. She’d said he had anhedonia, which isn’t exactly a diagnosis, but a symptom of depression, and gotten his doctor to prescribe antidepressants. He was back to normal in no time and we were fine again. There was barely an internet at the time, so I couldn’t look up anhedonia and I’d just accepted what she said. Anhedonia is also a symptom of other things. I wished I’d known that. I did read that Finnish people are very likely to suffer from depression and his father had seemed depressed. It made sense that Andy had a genetic predisposition and the stress of going to graduate school and remodeling a house had triggered it.

• • •

No problems until 2011, when he’d started acting “off.” In September, I’d mentioned my concern about Andy during a phone call with a friend from Columbia, who’d recommended Dr. Elsa saying she lived in Charleston now. I’d not asked for a recommendation, but it sounded like a good idea. I didn’t have a better plan. I remembered how helpful Dr. Elsa had been before. I trusted her and she was on our insurance provider list.

At first, I went to see Dr. Elsa alone as Andy’s work schedule was tight, then we went to her office together a few times. She seemed as capable as before and we felt she would know how to solve the problem. After a few visits together, he saw her alone for individual therapy. I trusted her at first, but after a month of his therapy sessions with her, I came to believe something was wrong. Someone was texting him all the time and it turned out to be her. He went from seeming a little ‘not himself’ to acting like a different person.

• • •

After seeing this photo, I really didn’t trust her. I knew there was no way a therapist was supposed to send personal photos to a client. She’d been texting him a lot and their messages were strange like they were characters in a fantasy movie. And he’d not been getting better, but worse. He sounded delusional and she was encouraging him. I’d seen a lot of texts, unbeknownst to them, but this one was definitively inappropriate. The person who’d promised to fix my troubled husband was broken.

I slid down the wall in the bathroom onto the cold, tile floor. Then I sat there, squinting, studying the small screen on Andy’s phone. I had to be certain her shirt said what I thought it said.

Yup: I Love C*cks.

At first, I shook the phone as if it were an Etch-A-Sketch and questioned what I was seeing. Maybe it said I Love Jocks or I Love Rocks. Maybe she’s a fan of rocks and sent this to him because he’s a Geologist. Or maybe it was a reference to the college football team, the Gamecocks. That would make sense, but it was still not right for a 50-something woman–who was a therapist to send to a client–no matter what the tight T-shirt’s message meant.

The whole image wasn’t quite pornographic, but it was suggestive. It would be inappropriate even if they both weren’t married, as she was a “mental health professional” with a doctorate. The married part made it sketchy even if she weren’t a therapist. I tried to refocus, but it was hard–impossible to let go of this one. I looked at it again and was still appalled.

Really? Pink cowboy boots? Who does that?

It wasn’t lost on me that those pink cowgirl boots were nearly as outrageous as the too-small T-shirt. And then there was the micro mini skirt.

I wanted to scream but didn’t want to wake Andy or Elizabeth; it was after midnight. I wanted to reply to the texts myself. But for no reason that I could define, my gut told me the smarter course of action was to pretend I knew nothing about any of this. At least then I’d have a secret, too.

So, all I did was sit there on the bathroom floor, my butt getting colder by the second in a state of some shock.

At some point, I returned Andy’s phone to its cradle and grabbed my own.

Thank goodness that behind every naïve wife there’s a twisted, street-smart girlfriend she keeps around for times like these. Emmaline was the only person I knew who would be up at 1:00 a.m. on a Wednesday night in early December. No friends my age would be. But she was twenty-eight, single, and even partied on weeknights.

“What’s going on?” she answered, knowingly.

I told her about the texts.

“Elsa? What’s an Elsa? Can I help?”

“My life coach-counselor person. Andy and I saw her twenty years ago. She fixed him, ‘like that,’ in just a few sessions. So, Andy’s been seeing her for a month now again. He’s been acting strange and then I found this boatload of text messages.”

“Oh…my…gosh. So, your counselor and Andy are involved?”

“I don’t know. But it sure looks like she’s up for that. I can’t know this is wrong, especially for a mental health professional. That last part makes it a whole other kind of wrong. The woman who takes my insurance money every other week and Andy are sending each other overly personal messages. And some of them are weird, like, Harry Potter weird. They’re talking about wands and demons and using mental powers to make things happen. She’s brainwashed him. And he’s acting way weirder than before. And then there’s a spiritual component like she’s the high priestess in some occult religion. Oh, and the first one, it made me the sickest of all. It said ‘Hi.’ That’s it. ‘Hi.’”

“I wish I knew. And tonight’s message escalated it. A selfie of her in some outfit. A mini skirt, pink cowboy boots and a T-shirt that said, ‘I love C*cks.'”

Emmaline made a snorting noise. “Are you frigging kidding me?”

“Oh no, I couldn’t make that up if I tried.”

“Jeezzuss. What are you going to do? Can I do something? Do you need to come over? What do you need me to do? I can drag his sorry ass out of bed….”

“I don’t know what I need, Maybe tranquilizers, but I think I need to keep my wits about me.”

She laughed. “I bet there’s not enough tranquilizers to make you forget that. If there’s anything I can do, don’t hesitate to ask.”

This photo wasn’t the first text I’d seen, but the most flagrantly wrong, although the ‘hi’ one was somehow almost as disturbing.

“Hmm. That is suspicious. What the hell is she up to?”


Copyright © 2019 by Maura Muir. All rights reserved.

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