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“Dr. Skow isn’t coming,” Maya says.

Ronny’s hands are clasped on the ugly chrome pull-up bar screwed not quite level into the bathroom’s door jamb. He lowers himself, legs bent at the knees, a faint puddle of shadow beneath him. Ronny calls these exercises paying the toll keeper: ten pull-ups every time he passes a threshold.

“Car issues,” she says. “Transmission.”

Ronny drops from the apex of his final pull-up with a post-exertion huff. “His car’s electric.” He steps into the ensuite and strips. “It doesn’t have a transmission.”

“Aim,” she says, as he pisses like a horse into the toilet.

“He doesn’t know anything about cars. He’s being taken.”

Ronny prefers showering at firefighting pressures, so Maya doesn’t bother continuing the conversation. Without Dr. Skow to lead her in an exercise, she considers her emotions on her own. Does she feel disappointed that their marriage counselor isn’t coming? Ambivalent? Angry? Something tickles into her perception: she feels protective of Dr. Skow. Is he being taken in by a mechanic? Then another emotion creeps up over that one, growing thicker, forming a bud of betrayal.

Dr. Skow taught them to notice tell words, and transmission seems like one. Ronny caught it immediately but misinterpreted it. Nothing is wrong with Dr. Skow’s car. He lied because he needed an excuse not to see them. She ignores the voice that tells her not to jump to conclusions, not to create a living story out of a few dead facts. But she knows. She and Ronny divulged too much in last week’s session.

Maya fixes a drink and sits by the pool. A swarm of iridescent hummingbirds burble and chase through the cape honeysuckle with sugar-drunk aggression. They’re a bit like her and Ronny before they started seeing Dr. Skow. It’s nature’s way, really.

“You are not hummingbirds,” Dr. Skow said to her when she tried that excuse on him.

She and Ronny have been good, though. They’ve been seeing Dr. Skow for six months, and in six months they haven’t had a full-blown brawl. It was the expense of the last fight that made them seek out Dr. Skow’s help. Maya had taken one of the ancient hand mirrors from Ronny’s collection and smashed it across the costly vintage vacuum tubes of his hi-fi. When he went downstairs to investigate why his hours-long playlist of Styx’s deep cuts had devolved into an ugly hum, Maya tripped him and watched him and his drink shellac the last few steps. After seeing the damage she’d caused, Ronny snarled like a dog and scrambled up the stairs after her. She thought he was going to kill her this time, but that was one of the unspoken rules: no killing each other. Also: no kitchen knives, no purpose-built weapons of any kind. No screaming, either. Neighbors, the police—they wouldn’t understand.

This kink of hers took root at a young age. She was a tease and loved to run, to be chased, to escape—until she began to like not escaping even more, and then not only not escaping, but instigating her pursuers, especially when she wound up in this charmed, financially over-secure life that has dulled her with its unimaginable tedium. She is boring. Ronny is boring. Their rampages, and who they are within them, are never boring.

As a limping Ronny gave chase that last time, Maya locked herself in their bedroom, her body a throbbing chamber of adrenaline. There were no time-outs in their brawls, no safewords. He broke the door down, but not before she’d stockpiled. She hurled the wicker chair, his tablet, the bedside lamp, the coffee mug, a glass of water, a flashlight, reading lamp, pillows. She threw an alarm clock, but the cord caught it short and it fell and landed on Ronny’s foot, eliciting a howl. She caught glimpses of his rage behind his shielding hands. Out of ammunition, she backed into his walk-in closet, arming herself with the clear lid of a storage container and whipping the air with a belt to keep Ronny at bay. She was about to load up on shoes, beginning with a pair of wingtips, when Ronny lunged, his face crushed up against her shield as he spat her name. He, stronger than her but only by a bit—though much stronger these days with all those pull-ups—seized her by the arm and dragged her savagely into the room, the soles of her feet growing hot against the carpet. He threw her down on the bed and gave her ass a slap that stunned her. He sat on her as she tried to get away, binding her wrists together with what she would later discover to be the drawstring from her favorite pair of workout shorts. Not cool.

Afterwards—and after they had applied antiseptic and bandages and bags of frozen corn and peas to their injuries—Ronny went around and calculated $75,000 in damages, including the value of the antique mirror that people had gazed at since the twelfth century, an objet d’art destroyed in a moment. She was sore for days; Ronny’s chest was bruised yellow and purple for longer. They had to stop this: too many injuries, too much expense.

Ronny never initiated their fuck-fighting, and felt wrong about it, he told Dr. Skow last week, though Ronny has never said this to her. She tasted a lie, though it was true that she was always the one to get it going, usually with insults that started at the fringes of truth and then, one by one, began to hit home. Other times, she simply took away things that Ronny loved and destroyed them, like the mirror. He always got into the spirit of things in the end. She drew his truth out of him. Still, it had been too much that last time, six months ago. Her fault. Then his fault, as well. They found Dr. Skow and, week by week, revealed a bit more about their excess passion until they had divulged the complete picture. Dr. Skow listened. She waited for him to say that they should continue to add space between who they were and who they are now, to contextualize their episodes not as abnormal—he would never call anything abnormal—but as a moment from their past, the actions of people they no longer are. But he didn’t.

“Have you considered getting a dog?” he asked, apropos of nothing.

They haven’t bought a dog. What they have begun doing is drinking again—and keeping it from Dr. Skow because of his policy around that sort of thing. True, she and Ronny have traded the occasional barb, setting the stage for a verbal tirade, but so far have dropped back, cooled. Ronny rises at six, even on weekends, and meditates three times a day. So annoying.

Now, out by the pool and exploring her emotions alone in the wake of Dr. Skow’s cancellation, Maya is convinced that Dr. Skow abhors them.

Well, if that’s what he thinks of us… She sashays a thought, holds it at bay, but still feels a fierce delight rise in her. How easily she could lower the drawbridge and let the violence in. More than anything, she wants to enter the house and anger Ronny by taking away the towels, squirting conditioner into his eyes, enraging him. She wants him to chase her through the house in their twisted little game of hide and seek, for her to lose, as always, and for Ronny to be the man that he denies himself to be. She wonders if Ronny feels the same way, if these months of being aloof partners feels like an act. Who are they kidding?

The air around Maya pulses and splits with hummingbird acrobatics. The birds battle so swiftly that her eyes can only catch the moments when they pause and reverse course. She has not yet touched her drink. She rises and walks to the base of the cape honeysuckle and empties her drink into the dirt that’s speckled with a confetti of blossoms the color of rage. She drags out her yoga mat from the pool house and places it at the edge of the pool where she sits and collects herself. She feels the sun crest the edge of the roof and spear her across the forehead, just above her sunglasses, filling her with illusions of calm.

Maya only manages to follow her breathing for a few minutes. She opens her eyes and sees Ronny in the kitchen, assembling a wrap. She observes the way he wipes the tips of his fingers on a paper towel, then, inexplicably, on his shorts. He watches the market report on the kitchen TV. They have nothing in stocks, not a dime. A fool’s game. But Ronny likes to watch fool’s get taken.

She and Ronny aren’t fools. They own eleven apartment buildings, most of them fully paid for and hurling money back at them. What debt remains is carefully calibrated to bring their taxes to heel. The thought of all their tenants working forty-plus hours a week just to have a place to live when they aren’t working—and then paying her forty-fifty-seventy-five percent of their post-tax income for the privilege—is wild. People sitting in long commutes are doing it for her. People with scratchy eyeballs debugging excel formulas are doing it for her. People going to audition after audition, working nights hustling, are doing it for her, even if they’re too blinded by personal ambition to see it that way. Tenants who think they have a chance in this world, who rent their apartments to buy the illusion that it’s somehow theirs—all for her. Month after month the money pours in. The numbers are astounding, even after management fees, repairs and maintenance, employees, insurance, taxes, political contributions, lawsuits, squatter mitigation, and miscellaneous services.

Their rampages began in earnest when the rent receipts began dwarfing their expenses. Now that is something to explore, she expected Dr. Skow to say when she made the comment. But no, he went off talking about different breeds of dogs, their specific qualities and deficits. And now Dr. Skow isn’t coming this week. It keeps hitting her. A week of being good dull Maya without support.

Ronny heads upstairs. Looks through one of his telescopes. She imagines he’s gawking at some woman on the beach with a g-string crammed up her crack. He’d hate to lose his scopes. What if the optics were scratched, say? After six months, she feels out of practice, like she’s lost the vocabulary to start a fight. Ronny is the one fluent in the foul once he gets going. She prefers the physical, attacking him and forcing him to choose between cowering or restraining and overcoming her. He never cowers—she loves that about him. He knows the rules of the game.

Maya notes this emotion in her; this daydreaming state she’s caught up in. She also notes that she wishes Dr. Skow would show up all the same, transmission issues or not—and also how she doesn’t want him to ever return. She doesn’t know if she can stand a lifetime like these last six months. Before, when they still had their fights, their sex life had been an outrageous hour every month or so, pent-up and mind-blowing. Now it’s slow, boring, prescribed, infrequent, muted, colorless grunt work. She usually gives up. She wants to be fucked the way mallards do it. Like the Vikings must have. Like Visigoths and Huns, full of power and fight. Ravished. That Ronny prefers things the way they are now disappoints her, lowers her estimation of him, especially as she knows that his lust can be opulent and unconstrained.

Before she does something to disappoint Dr. Skow, Maya walks into the house and packs. She takes her car and checks in at a hotel not far down the coast. She texts Ronny and tells him that she’s gone away for a week until Dr. Skow is back. He sends her a thumbs-up, when what she wants is for him to search for her. In the intervening days, Maya orders meals from the best restaurants and eats them in her room at the writing desk. She watches boxing and wrestling movies and streams an expensive MMA bout. She slaps her legs hard until there’s a bruise.

On the day of their next session with Dr. Skow, she drives home. The pull-up bar between the garage and the house is gone, the screw holes sanded, filled, primed, and painted. A miracle.

Ronny is in the kitchen, making another wrap. He has begun growing a mustache.

“He’s not coming,” he says, then takes a bite. No how was your stay?

Maya feels her restraint over the past week come undone. She can’t do this for another week. Does Dr. Skow think she’s made of stone?

She hurls her bag at Ronny. His wrap, crushed against his shirt, spurts aioli onto his throat. The bottom half of his wrap unfolds, sprinkling arugula onto the floor, followed by halved cherry tomatoes, like drops of blood. She looks for something else to throw at Ronny when she hears a strange clattering. A Dalmatian comes around the side of the kitchen island.

“Got a dog,” Ronny says. “Practically deaf, and he needs to be house trained. But sweet.”

The Dalmatian is shy, hesitant, its coat short and the spots messy, not like her ideal image of the breed. Its eyes are careful. It does not seem interested in the food.

“You can’t just go out and get a fucking dog!” she yells, despite the evidence. She takes off a shoe and chucks it at Ronny who, impressively, catches it.

The dog barks, then moves agitatedly between the two of them. Ronny hands back her shoe, as though he is somehow magically impervious to her now.

Maya realizes that the adrenaline, fear, and ecstasy that she could once summon so easily, is at risk of never returning. It clarifies for her that even though she has been good for six long months, it is only because she knew she would eventually fail. And now, how can they have a decent fight in front of this dog, this witness? Maya realizes the wisdom of Dr. Skow’s advice and hates him for it. She picks up her bag, snatches away the shoe, and hobbles to the bedroom. The dog follows her, guard and guardian.

There’s no pull-up bar dividing the bedroom and ensuite anymore. Ronny, she sees, has decided it’s over. He is in perfect form and in perfect control of his emotions. She feels herself rebelling, but does the right thing: she calls Dr. Skow. When he doesn’t answer, she texts for help. No reply, the message unread.

She enters the media room to charge her laptop and sees that Ronny has moved out his elaborate hi-fi. He’s making concessions, but she doesn’t want concessions. What she wants is the impossible: a schism where she can be both good-Maya and bad-Maya and let each be true.

The Dalmatian lifts its leg and relieves itself on the Scandinavian recliner. Maya begins to raise her voice at the dog, then stops and instead watches as it finishes its long braided piss. She doesn’t need to be like the dog and investigate its actions afterwards–she can smell it from here.

Maya can hear Ronny loading the dishwasher in a clatter of ceramic and cutlery. The dog watches her as she quickly drops her pants and underwear and frees one leg. She straddles the chair, holding onto the neck rest that smells like Ronny’s conditioner. She does the same thing the dog did, and looks the Dalmatian in the eye, one animal following after another, last one the alpha.

She isn’t upset when the dog’s accident elicits nothing more than a groan from Ronny, who dutifully cleans up the mess, even heading out for special sprays and solvents. But there is deep pleasure for Maya in how the poor dog—despite the following weeks of expensive obedience training and Ronny’s hourly walks and praise-giving—still can’t get it into his head where and where not to relieve itself, often doing so in the most unlikely spots, as though it wants its territory to extend to every corner of Ronny’s domain.

When, exasperated, Ronny tells Maya he’s had it, she was right, he’s getting rid of the dog, Maya won’t hear of it. She lets it sleep in their bed. She plays fetch with it and teaches it to sit, roll over, and shake. She and the dog go for morning runs together on the beach. Dr. Skow, returning for their sessions, is pleased with their acquisition. In the weeks that follow, Maya decides she is, and always has been, a dog person. And then, one afternoon, Ronny catches her squatting over the footrest above his phone and car fob.

Away she darts, out of his grasp by a hair. In the garden, the two of them run round and round the pool, their feet making flesh-bone slaps against the concrete, the dog joining in the fray. Ronny gains on her. She jumps, the water surprisingly cold as she sinks into the deep end and waits, waits, waits. When she comes up for air, Ronny and the dog are gone.

The hummingbirds battle above her, their long delicate tongues hidden within sword-like beaks, but her war is over.

image: Catie Cook