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To Speak of the Woe that is in Marriage by Robert Lowell photo

Roxana never wanted her life to resemble Kramer vs. Kramer but lately the baby gets the ice cream out of the freezer on his own and she withdraws, forcing Robert to play "bad cop", as he puts it one day in Drama Therapy.

Roxana and Robert are in therapy because they argue: about the baby, about the laundry, and about therapy, too.

“How does one take it seriously?” Roxana hisses, winding through the parking garage, a wisp of highlighted hair in her mouth. “The way this woman speaks, the earnestness, the light lilting inflection?” She scrunches up her face.

"So how can I help you?" the therapist asks, eyebrows lifted.

She gives them a handout, titled Containment.

“It is not very unlike teaching, all these handouts.”

“It is up to the student to read the handout, of course.” Robert notes.

Learn to stay in control even when angry. Take time-outs. Challenge the myth that ventilating anger is healthy for you.

Roxana crosses out ventilating.

“Robert married me so that he could have a constant reminder of how loathsome women are,” Roxana tells the therapist.

“Let’s act that out, Roxana.” the therapist motions for Robert to stand up. She hands Roxana a stuffed rabbit. The side of Robert’s mouth begins twitching; Roxana is afraid he will laugh--if he does, she will, too.

After the session, the therapist suggests dating, like in the old days. "90 minutes a week!" she declares. "90 minutes a week of novel activity!"

Roxana scribbles the directive on a scrap of paper.

"There’s data!" she notes. "It’s been studied! The data points this way! Lots of research! 90 minutes a week!"

“We’ve plateaued,” Robert remarks, his eyes straight ahead, the heat on full blast. Roxana bites her lip.


Like a good student, Roxana books the sitter, makes dinner reservations, and buys theater tickets. Beckett's Krapp’s Last Tape, at the big theater downtown. It’s old and gaudy, all chandeliers and red velvet. They sit in the soft seats, the first ones in their row. Looking around as the audience filters in, Robert remarks on how youthful he feels among this particular crowd.

“We may be the only two under 40!” he declares.

Roxana listens to two women behind her, pre-theater chat. One wears a perfume that brings to mind a long lost aunt who used to kiss Roxana and her sisters goodbye, whispering, I’ll see you in my dreams!

“He’s trying to set me up with his brother. But his brother is older than he is!”

“What is he, 104?”

“I guess. I don’t need that. I don’t need to take care of someone.”

“No, you don’t. You need someone younger than you.”

“Yes. I need a companion.”


“It’s the loneliness. The loneliness is awful.”


“And it doesn’t get better."


“It doesn’t get better. Listen, I’ll tell you—the loneliness is the shits. It’s the shits!”

“And there’s nothing to be done about it.”

“No. As my friend Ronnie says, It is what it is.”

“It is what it is.”


At the office, Debbie, a tall redhead who seems permanently stoned, wants to include Roxana in an informal poll:

“Okay. So your husband comes to you and says, ‘Honey, I slept with someone.” Would you rather he say, like Mark Sanford, “And she’s my soulmate” --

“Oh dear God.”

“--Or, like Eliot Spitzer, he says, and she’s a prostitute.”


“Nope. Pick one.”

The table in the lunchroom is full of treats: chocolates, Oreos, banana bread and ginger snaps. Roxana takes a bite of a cookie, crumbs fall onto her sweater. She smiles when Debbie says again, “Well?” shakes her head and shrugs.


“Some things you can’t change.”

“No, some things we can't change. We change the things we can change. The rest, we try to accept.”

“Sometimes we change the things we can change.”

“We don’t always.”


“My daughter tells me, Go on J-Date. J-Date!”

“I don’t want to do that.”


“You don’t want a lover.”


“I’m not looking for a lover. I’m looking for someone to tell me ‘you should do this. You shouldn’t do that.’”


“My friend Audrey—she found someone on J-Date. A young guy. She’s rich, of course.”

“Right. I don’t need that.”


“It is what it is.”

“It sure is.”


The baby decides it is not acceptable, this going out on dates. "Fuck the data!" the baby screams.

“I want to be included!” the baby declares.

Roxana asks the baby what he wants to do.

“Let’s just talk.”

“Okay. Can I do the dishes at the same time?”


“What should we talk about?”

“Let's talk about death,” the baby says, cheerfully, “Let's talk about what happens when we die!"


Later in bed, the baby tells Roxana about his day at preschool,

“Maria isn't Jewish. Amy either. Leah is Jewish.”


“Am I Jewish?”

“Sure,” she says.

“Are you Catholic?” He asks.

“Sort of,” she says.

“What's sort of?” He asks. Good question.

“Well I grew up that way. I went to church and catholic school. I prayed and did the sacraments. But I don't anymore.”


“I still pray sometimes.”


“When I'm in an airplane and it gets really bumpy, or when you were in my belly.”

“Yeah. I remember that.”


“When I was in your tummy.”

“You do?”

“It was nice.”


“A little squishy.”

The baby puts his hands together then, closing his eyes. Hail mary full of grace the lord is with you blessed art thou among women and whose thine gifts commit me here Amen.


Roxana begins to cry, and when Robert asks why she screams:

“It is crucial to turn this shit into a self who will leave the house and get to school and be a mom and a teacher. Who will be a wife. All morning I’m puking. Do you know? Puking? I'm full up with estrogen taking the birth control pill again not sure why. My doctor suggested it. I take that pill and other pills and herbs and black cohosh and fish oil! I don’t even know what Black Cohosh is!”

If Robert were his father, he would think “Women!” and shake his head. He is not his father, but he does wonder sometimes.


Sometimes, Roxana tells the therapist, Robert assumes the Super Ego.

“I feel very female around him,” she notes. “That something about me promises destruction, that I am meant to be repressed. The way women are linked to the pleasure-seeking Id.”

The week before, she came home to a babysitter late one night and had a vision, that the sitter had done something terrible to her child.

“Don’t think about such things,” Robert scolded her.

“I could see myself murdering her, tearing her eyes out. I could see myself destroyed, that this would be the end of my life. The loss of my child. I shouldn't think about these things I understand sublimation and yet I was trying to say something about this certain psychosis--the intensity of it.”

The therapist asked if she was treated for postpartum depression.

“It’s not like that. I used to cry--”

Robert added, “She cried for weeks, months, after he came home with us.”

Roxana used to think of herself as someone with great discipline, the legacy of a Catholic girlhood, and yet.

The baby was so wise.

The therapist tells her about the "positive psychosis" of mothering. What Sophie Freud called passion.

“I couldn’t help it! I kept thinking about how helpless he was--I kept thinking about all the awful people with children, all the children out there being hurt and neglected and--”

“But it was her job, our job, to not think about these things!” Robert objected.

“Time’s up for today!” the therapist announces.


That night, Roxana holds the baby, savoring the very particular way his small body fits on her lap. Sometimes she becomes afraid of how she will miss his three year old self. That he will only be three years old once, which is now, which is always falling away dreadfully, even here as she thinks it or says it or writes it.

“It can be hard to have this beautiful thing in my life,” she tells Robert, “It gives the rest of life meaning. It makes the rest of life more important and also less important.”

“Is there data on that? How to live in the face of loss?”


The baby crawls in bed next to Roxana and asks, “Mama, will I be alive forever?”

Roxana wants to say yes forever, but she can't make herself. Instead, she says,

"You'll be alive for a long long time," and squeezes the baby, thinking about when she won't be alive, and that death and life are really sort of the same thing, yes.

The baby seems satisfied.

“Okay,” he says. Just like that. And then he tells Roxana about the latest adventures of his imaginary friends: Josh, Gloria, and NeKuNakuNoku.

“Nekunakunoku writes children's books. Josh is in China. Gloria likes pork chops.”

“Where does she eat pork chops?”

“Oh at a place on Clark and Foster.”


“Mama, what does born mean?”

“Mama, where was I when you were a little girl?

“Mama, what does nothing mean?”


“I had this empty feeling tonight.”


Robert is reading Sacred Cow by Diamela Eltit.

“And I realized that this emptiness is tied to the feeling of longing. That I am so used to longing as a way to fill that void.”

“You know?”

“Beckett will do that,” he said, not looking away from his book.

“And what I realized was that I will always long for something. You see, once I longed to be married. It was what I wanted. Now I have it. But I still have that emptiness.”


“And it is not that the emptiness is the same. It is relieved by your company, by the fact of being loved--”

“But it is still there.”

“It is a verb.”

“It is always there.”


“What do you mean a verb?”

“That that is how it must be. To satisfy it destroys it. So it moves elsewhere.”


“Desire is a homeostatic system.”


“Push it down in one place it rises in another.”


“I read that somewhere.”

Roxana tells Robert about a woman in her class who writes very sexy stories about her affairs with married men.

“It really bothers some of the students.”.

“Too bad.”

“But I love it.”


“You can have an affair if you want.”

“That's not what I'm saying.”

“It's okay.”

“Do you want to have an affair?”

“Don't deflect.”

“You deflected first.”

“I was talking about a student.”



One day, the baby asks for another baby:

"Mommy will you go to the hospital and get a baby? I want a girl baby."

His friends all have babies.

Roxana dreams of another baby, a big fat baby, a baby that doesn’t look like her baby, who was tiny & wrinkly at birth--this baby has a full head of black hair and a jelly belly.

Nine pounds! a nurse declares, impressed.

She is at the hospital but can’t remember giving birth to the baby, though the nurse assures her it is her baby.

It must be my baby, she tells herself, though she feels nothing for the baby.

This is your baby, they say again. A boy. Here he is, they say. Take him.

image: Tara Wray