/ Fiction /
The community session convened at 8:00 each morning in the conference center, a low, rustic-looking, yellow-sided building that bordered the town green. The dozen or so clients would trudge inside, yawning and clutching Styrofoam coffee cups after a late night at the lodge’s bar. Hillary Redding, one of the two seminar facilitators, would await them in the doorway, chirping “good morning” and hugging her favorites. Standing just over five feet tall, with gray, stringy hair and mottled skin, she had the wiry build of a long-distance runner and often dressed the part in running shoes, shorts, tank tops, and a pink headband.
Dale Redding, no longer her husband but still her business partner, also favored summer casual attire, in keeping with the Life Enrichment Education Project (LEEP™) aesthetic. For him, however, that meant crisply pressed chinos and polo shirts. Trim, white-haired, and pale-complexioned, his face impassive save for the darting eyes, he stood, rigidly, nearly six-and-a-half feet tall. Some called him “The General,” though not to his face. He was not a hugger.
With the chairs arrayed in a circle, the morning sessions would begin with a recapitulation of the previous day’s “learnings,” followed by a preview of the new one’s activities. Next would come the “feeling circle,” an opportunity, Hillary would say, to “take the temperature” of the group each morning. Having a particular fondness for adjectives beginning with e, she always offered up the first “feeling statement”: “I feel excited/eager/enthusiastic/energetic/elevated this morning.”
Dale would follow suit, attesting to his own eagerness or enthusiasm, though his lugubrious monotone called their genuineness into question. Each group member would then have a turn. The clients soon learned to shy away from ambiguous adjectives, such as “anxious” or “apprehensive,” for they would trigger discussions that Hillary would not allow to end until she had rooted out the cause of that anxiety or apprehension and persuaded the client to “reframe” his or her thoughts more constructively. Next, with the chairs rearranged lecture-hall style, Hillary or Dale would speak on the day’s chosen educational topic or topics, a menu that included self-awareness, body awareness, communication, relationship and group dynamics, and emotional intelligence. “A lot of misunderstandings and arguments,” Dale told the group one morning, “result from our assumptions about other people’s motives. Suppose you say to your significant other, ‘You always leave you’re dirty dishes in the sink. You’re so inconsiderate.’ What do you think will happen? Some of those dishes might go flying, right? Now suppose that instead of casting blame, you use what we call an ‘I statement’: ‘When you leave the dishes in the sink, I feel disrespected.’ Think about how much more constructive that is.” All in all, Dale thought, the session went as well as he could have hoped. The group listened attentively when he lectured, and the members threw themselves whole-heartedly into the I-statement role-playing exercises that followed. Typically, he ate lunch alone in a far corner of the lodge’s dining room, a spacious enclosure with dark paneling, exposed wooden beams, an enormous hearth, and landscapes by local artists hanging from the walls. Hillary usually dined with her favored clients. Today, though, after filling her salad bowl at the buffet, she surprised him by dashing across the room to his table. She had a pedagogical bone to pick with him. “Why dishes in the sink?” “What?” “It’s so typical. Blame the woman for getting emotional about the dishes, not the slob of a husband who leaves them there for her to clean up.” “I don’t think this is the time or place to re-litigate old marital grievances.”
“I’m not talking about marital grievances. That’s been over and done with for years. I’m talking about your use of gendered language.”
Her denial notwithstanding, he knew that one grievance, having nothing to do with dirty dishes, had carried over into their post-marital partnership. He had seen it in the side eye she had cast at him before the start of the morning session while he bantered by the coffee maker with Megan McConnell, a russet-haired beauty in her early forties with glowing jade eyes and a lusty bedroom laugh.
“It was the first example I could think of.”
“Well, you should have thought a little harder. But you couldn’t be bothered. That’s the trouble with you. Sometimes, I wonder whether you take any of this seriously.”
“The trouble with you is that for as long as I’ve known you, you’ve been telling me what the trouble with me is.”
Hillary stamped her foot, grabbed her tray from the table, and stalked off to join her favorites Dale, who had yet to take a bite of his own meager lunch—a much smaller salad than Hillary’s and a stale dinner roll—had no appetite for it now. After busing his tray, he hurried to the exit.
* * *
Following lunch, the community divided into two “learning pods,” held in separate breakout rooms, one led by Dale and the other by Hillary. On a piece of butcher paper fastened to an easel in a corner of his group’s room, Dale had scrawled with a purple marker a quotation from Thoreau: “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.” Though the windows looked out upon the back of the statue of Henry David Thoreau at the near end of the town green, the environs inside did little to inspire such boldness. The walls were a drab off-white. A smell of Styrofoam, stale coffee, and marking pens hung in the air. The orange, hard-plastic chairs afforded the sitters no mercy. Often during a session, group members would stand and stretch, clutching their backs and grimacing. Some forsook the chairs entirely, seating themselves cross-legged on the blue-gray carpet.
For this first two days, this learning pod had proceeded as most did in Dale’s experience, with the early sessions given over to the usual gripes about demanding bosses, backbiting coworkers, aloof husbands, and ungrateful children. He decided to lay down a challenge.
“When I was in the service,” he told the group, “we had a lieutenant who used to tell us, ‘No fear, no courage.’
Fear was normal and necessary, he continued. Real courage meant overcoming one’s fears. A group such as this one provided both a safe environment and an opportunity for those willing to venture outside their comfort zones to discover things about themselves that would change their lives.
Inhibitions collapsed, swept away by a flood of confessions. Jan Svoboda, the only other man in the room, an angular, spiky-haired Czech immigrant in his forties who now made New York City his home, lamented the compulsive philandering that had caused so many of his relationships to fail. Deborah Mitchell, a haggard-looking African American woman of around fifty, revealed that she had an autistic son at home and a husband who provided almost no help with his care. The stout, blond Denise Barnes had a pregnant teenaged daughter. Camille Lambert, a diminutive French-Canadian with straw-colored hair, who wore thick, round glasses that reflected the harsh light from the recessed fixtures, regretted the years she had lost as a virtual prisoner of a jealous, abusive husband. The heretofore cheery Megan McConnell broke down when she recounted how her husband had left her with the two children just a week after a biopsy revealed that she had breast cancer.
But for an empathetic nod here and there, Dale remained silent and poker-faced, until his experience told him that the flood he had loosed needed containing. At 5:00, just before dismissing the group for the dinner break, he delivered a brief lecture. The session, he said, had proved very fruitful in that the group members had begun to trust one another and communicate at a much deeper level than they had in the first couple of days. But a learning pod was not a therapy group. With a life cycle of just a week or so, the former had to focus on the here and now, on helping the members to develop the tools that would enable them to become more empathic listeners and better communicators, both in the workplace and in their personal lives. For dinner, Dale drove to a diner in a neighboring town, where knew he would not encounter any of his charges. Gripped by a sudden craving for meat, such as he had not felt in years, he ordered the biggest burger on the menu. His appetite deserted him, however, after just a few bites, and he left most of his dinner untouched. For weeks now, he had had an irregular appetite. That and the accompanying fatigue were ominous signs. He would have to make that overdue follow-up appointment with his oncologist. He tried to recall the approximate date of his last chemo treatment—a matter of more than idle curiosity. His survey of the medical literature had led him to estimate that for each recurrence of his cancer, he should subtract one year of life. He knew, though, that because history did not provide a reliable basis to project future disease course, such calculations were but a morbid form of amusement.
At 7:00, when the group reassembled, its mood had lightened considerably. Megan McConnell, seated next to Dale, put her hand on his shoulder and said, “Bless me, father, for I have sinned. I had a glass of Merlot at dinner.”
Evidently, after the cathartic afternoon session, she and several others no longer felt the need to maintain the pretense of honoring Hillary’s widely mocked request that for the duration of the seminar, the group members refrain from behaviors that could cause them to lose their focus during the sessions, such as drinking, smoking, and the one other at which Hillary only hinted, though it was the most likely to have that effect: coupling. For his part, Dale had learned long ago that adding a little alcohol to the mix during off hours often accelerated the group bonding process, diminishing the potential for the ugly conflicts that could otherwise arise during the sessions.
“Just one?” he asked, showing a rare smile.
“It was a big one.”
There was laughter all around, and even Dale chuckled.
“Well, this is what we call a teachable moment. While I wish Meagan would have passed up the Merlot at dinner, I do appreciate her honesty about it. As we’ve stressed throughout, honesty is one of the core values of LEEP. When people speak honestly and forthrightly to one another, they grow to respect one another…”
Honesty, respect, core values. He began to repeat himself, the words pouring forth as if of their own volition, juxtaposed at random. He felt light-headed—likely, he thought, as a result of having eaten nothing all day but a cup of yogurt in the morning and those few bites of his dinner.
As he droned on, the giddiness that had filled the room just a few minutes before leaked out like air from a punctured tire. Somewhere in the infinitesimal gap between the words core and values, he lost his way and fell silent. The pod members shifted about uneasily in their chairs, some exchanging puzzled looks. Camille stood up, stepped out of the circle, and stared out the window. Jan checked his phone—the cardinal sin in a learning pod.
Megan, the most loquacious of the bunch and perhaps the most discomfited by the silence, finally seized the floor. Resuming where she had left off that afternoon, she spoke of the financial and emotional struggles she faced in raising two children alone while constantly haunted by the fear that her cancer could return at any moment. Others followed with further revelations—of anorexia, depression, wretched marriages. The tears flowed liberally, and boxes of tissues made the rounds. The pod members encouraged, soothed, and hugged one another, while Dale looked on silently.
He felt his shoulders sag, as if his body were buckling beneath the weight of all the suffering contained in that bleak, airless room. When the session ended and the others left, he remained seated, folded upon himself, his forearms resting upon his thighs.
“Are you all right?”
Startled, he stood up—too quickly. The floor began to sway beneath him, and he reached for the back of his chair to steady himself.
Megan, standing just inside the doorway, began to edge forward, looking worried. “You look like you’re going to be sick.”
Tightening his grip on the chair, Dale held his breath for a moment.
“I’m fine. It’s just been a long day.”
He sat down again.
“I suppose it has been for you, too. I hope it’s been of some benefit, though. There are times when I wonder about what we’re doing here. People are certainly appreciative. I get thank you cards, letters, e-mails telling me so. But we don’t do any meaningful follow-up, and we don’t have any hard data. I’m not sure LEEP World Headquarters wants any.”
She touched his shoulder lightly.
“I know I’m glad to be here.”
* * *
Returning to his cottage, he lay down in bed. The display on his alarm clock read 9:52. Closing his eyes, he hoped that sleep would come soon, though it seldom did before 2:00 or 3:00 a.m., if it did at all.
Near midnight, he rose, stripped off his briefs, and donned a pair of swimming trunks. With a bottle of wine in his right hand—a cheap, bitter table blend that he had purchased at the town’s only liquor the day before—and a towel draped over his left shoulder, he exited the cottage and headed for the Jacuzzi, a frequent refuge on those nights when insomnia held him in its grip.
Between his cottage and the red flagstone patio where the Jacuzzi lay, stood the building that housed the dining hall and the bar. The bar was full, and the unusually crisp summer night echoed with raucous shouts and laughter and thumping dance music. Dale gave the building a wide berth as he passed. The gate to the patio being closed at that hour, he climbed over the cedar railing, set his bottle down upon the flagstone, and pulled the canvas cover off the tub. Then he turned the heat and the jets up high, removed his t-shirt, and sank slowly into the roiling water. The tightness in his neck and shoulders that always plagued him after a full day and evening of group work began to ease, giving him hope that he might he get some sleep when he returned to his room.
From somewhere nearby there came the sound of laughter—Meagan’s. Turning to his right, he saw her, Jan, and Camille lurching drunkenly across the lawn, the tall Czech in the middle, with an arm draped over the shoulders of each of the women and a bottle in his hand.
“Tell me how is this for feeling statement like Hillary says we should make,” bellowed Jan. “When you bend over, I feel naughty.”
“When you talk like that,” answered Megan, “I feel like changing my mind about finishing that wine in your room.”
“I make joke. Now, with benefit of learnings from LEEP, I am changed man. New Jan is perfect gentleman.”
“I certainly hope so.”
“’ey, look,” cried Camille. “It’s Dale.”
“Hi, Dale,” yelled the three of them in unison, waving at him.
Dale answered with a shamefaced half-smile and a feeble wave of his own.
Returning to his cottage, he did manage some fitful sleep, but awoke for good before dawn. A quick jog and a shower gave him a short-lived boost, but by the time he arrived at the conference center for the morning’s community session, fatigue had overtaken him again. Sidling up to him at the coffee maker just before the group convened and attracting another stink eye from Hillary, Megan McConnell asked, with an insinuating smile, “Late night?” She did not appear any the worse for her own nocturnal exploits. Dressed in sandals, white tennis shorts, and a plum-colored t-shirt, she looked fresh and ripe as summer fruit.
“Me neither. Maybe I’ll see you in the Jacuzzi some night.” She laughed her lusty laugh.
In the “feeling circle,” Dale made an embarrassing faux pas, telling the assemblage that he felt “enervated” rather than “energetic,” as he had intended. Hillary, who had not spoken to him since lunch the day before, gave him an icy stare. During the mid-morning break, she beckoned him to follow her into an alcove, where she demanded an explanation.
“It was a slip of the tongue. Not the biggest mistake I’ve ever made. Not by a long shot.”
She told him exactly what she thought of his passive-aggressive “mistake,” bracketing the word with air quotes, and his insinuation about their marriage. Emerging from the alcove, he saw Megan and several other apparent eavesdroppers turn away and go scurrying back toward the meeting room. He went the opposite way, shoving the front door open as he exited the building. Walking briskly up Main Street almost to the edge of the town, he settled himself in a sidewalk café, where he spent the rest of the morning drinking coffee, nibbling at a bagel, which he did not finish, and reading the newspaper.
* * *
In the learning pod that afternoon and evening, the torrent of disclosure raged on. During the latter session, Rosa Chavez, who had barely spoken a word to that point, finally had her turn. A slender woman in her thirties with luminous round eyes, she stood barely five feet tall, and when she sat, her stooped posture and hunched shoulders made her look as though she wished to disappear altogether. After much coaxing from the others, she launched into a meandering, tear-filled account of the painful descent of her brother into depression and alcoholism, leading him, ultimately, to blow his brains out with his service revolver. A cheerful, prankish sort and a great success with women but never much of a student, Carlos Chavez had joined the military out of high school. He had returned from his second tour of duty in Iraq having lost the lower half of his right leg and something less corporeal but even more precious.
“It was like he was hollowed out.”
Dale let Rosa speak her piece, and when she had finished, he praised her for her courage.
“What I would like to do, though, as I mentioned yesterday, is bring this group back to the here and now. In a previous life, I was a psychiatric social worker. I worked for the VA for many years, and I led many therapy groups for combat veterans. A learning pod, as I’ve said, is a very different animal. Here we’re not dealing with that kind of trauma.”
Meagan walked over to the sobbing Rosa and gave her a hug. “Well, that wasn’t the right way to put it. What I meant was, as I was saying yesterday, because we’re just here for a short time…”
“I’m beginning to wonder why we’re here at all,” interrupted Meagan heatedly.
“Me, too,” added Jan. “For four days, I am sitting in group, and still don’t know what I am learning from it.”
Others echoed his sentiments.
“I apologize if anything I said has caused offense,” Dale said stiffly.
“That was certainly not my intention.”
“That sounds like a politician’s apology,” Meagan answered.
After a few minutes more of verbal flailing, Dale dismissed the group early.
When the session ended, Meagan lingered, as she had the night before.
Now she apologized for having confronted him so aggressively and turned the group against him.
“Sometimes, I can be a real harpy, as my ex used to remind me at every opportunity.”
He assured her she had acted bravely in sticking up for Rosa, that he had taken no offense, and that if he had indeed lost the trust and confidence of the group, he alone bore the responsibility.
Hesitantly, he touched her shoulder. She leaned against him.
“I’m sorry. I’m making such an ass of myself.”
She was crying.
“No, no, not at all. Please don’t think that.”
Stealing a glance at the doorway, he hugged her, but very gingerly. In her eyes, he saw a need that frightened him.
“Megan, I don’t think this is a good idea.”
Three years before, a jealous husband had tried to run him over. Ever since, he had scrupulously steered clear of entanglements with female clients. He did not fear death nearly as much as exposure, scandal, and the inevitable consequences that would follow for a highly remunerative business, even one he had grown bone weary of and come to regard as a racket.
“I’m sorry,” she sobbed, and then ran from the room.
* * *
Again sleep eluded him. The Jacuzzi called to him, but he hesitated. The possibility of another meeting with Megan evoked both hope and dread; the thought of finding Jan, Camille, and possibly others there as well, only the latter. At half-past midnight, having drunk enough that he no longer cared, he set off across the lawn, carrying with him another bottle of the same astringent table wine he had taken with him the night before.
The night, like the previous one, was a cool one. In a cloudless, charcoal sky, the moon and stars glowed. Above the moon and to its left, there hung a much smaller but even more luminous disk. Venus, he guessed.
As he neared the patio, he heard the gurgling of the Jacuzzi and stood listening for voices. Hearing none, he climbed the steps. Megan, wearing a pastel-blue one-piece bathing suit, sat languidly in the tub, her arms outstretched, head thrown back, eyes directed skyward. He stood for a moment at the edge of the patio, lust and prudence warring within him.
She turned to him and smiled mischievously. “Aren’t you going to offer me some? Or do you only drink alone in the Jacuzzi at midnight?”
“No, I drink in lots of places and at any hour.”
Stepping forward out of the darkness, he sat down beside the tub, his feet dangling in the water, and handed her the bottle. In her presence, he kept his t-shirt on, to conceal the surgical scars on his abdomen.
“No glasses, I’m afraid. And the wine is not very good. I wasn’t expecting company. Though I’m glad to have yours,” he hastened to add. “Are you feeling better?”
“Much better now.”
Lowering himself into the tub, he left a gap of about a foot between him and Megan.
She passed the bottle back to him.
“Your better half doesn’t accompany you on these midnight hot tub excursions?”
“My better half?”
“Hillary. I assumed she was your better half. You certainly bicker like a married couple.”
“We usually do a better job of hiding it from the children, so to speak. We’ve been divorced for many years. It’s strictly a commercial partnership now. But if people want to think we’re still married, I see no reason to tell them otherwise. It’s good marketing to present ourselves that way. And it keeps me out of trouble.”
He chuckled softly.
“But not always?” replied Megan, sliding her body to the right, until her leg and shoulder touched his.
“I bet you’ve slept with a lot of women in these groups.”
He thought for a moment, took another sip of the wine, and offered her the bottle again.
“I wouldn’t say a lot. Considering. There’s been no shortage of opportunities. Married women, usually.”
“You have a thing for married women?”
“It’s more that they have a thing for me. I may not have much in the way of looks, charm, or charisma, but when they compare me with their husbands, I tend to come off pretty well. I’m willing to listen, at least. They can’t resist my emotional intelligence. Or what they take for my emotional intelligence.”
“And you know they’ll be going back to their husbands at the end of the week. So it works out well for you.”
“Doesn’t say much for my core values, I suppose.”
“No, it doesn’t. Is that why you’re not married to Hillary anymore?”
“That and a thousand other reasons. You ask a lot of questions.”
“You don’t give a lot of answers. Serious ones, anyway. In the group or in the hot tub.”
She gave him a playful bump with her shoulder.
“That’s probably because I don’t have any.”
“Or you’re holding back. Remember what you told us in group yesterday?”
“I say a lot of things in group every day. I remember very few of them.”
“‘No fear, no courage.’”
“Something I made up on the spot. Or maybe I got it from a movie.”
Setting the bottle down beside the tub, she stroked his calf with her foot.
“Is there a reason I should fear you?” he asked.
“Only one way to find out.” At last, he kissed her.
The voice from above sounded impatient, even a touch belligerent.
Like parents whose children had walked in on them during a compromising moment, Dale and Meagan quickly drew back from one another.
At the edge of the tub stood a young man clad only in gray swimming trunks. He had a sunken, hairless chest, a goatee, a silver stud in his right earlobe, and a sneer on his lips. A slender, sleepy-eyed, auburn-haired woman who looked even younger—eighteen or nineteen, if that—stood beside him, wrapped in a white hotel towel.
“Mind some company?” asked the man. “Don’t mean to interrupt or anything, but there’s room for more than two in that tub.”
“We were about to leave anyway,” said Megan, irritably.
The young woman tossed aside her towel, revealing all: the bony, angular, almost boyish contours, the cupcake-sized breasts, the dark pubic triangle, and the pink rose tattoo just above it. Spurred on by a smack on the rump from her companion, she stepped into the hot tub and, flashing Dale a teasing smile, deliberately lowered herself into the water.
Meagan’s eyes flared with hatred.
The young man, keeping his swimming trunks on, cannon-balled into the churning water, swamping the other three occupants of the tub. His name, he said, was Rico; his companion’s was Heather. Tonight, they were celebrating their two-week anniversary together.
“Impressive,” said Megan.
“I’ve seen you guys in the dining room. I work here at the lodge. Do some cooking, odd jobs here and there.” Throwing an arm over Heather’s shoulder, he added, “And I do her.”
At ease in her unblemished skin, unaware of, indifferent to, or possibly welcoming the attention of the others, Heather leaned back and turned her gaze skyward.
Dale sat immobile, unblinking, inwardly raging at the young couple. Their boorishness, in his eyes, was one of their lesser offenses; their youth, health, and vitality he found far more galling. Trapped in a badly scarred body that might well be failing him, he felt, in their presence, like a dried-out husk of a man.
Meagan stood up and glared at him.
“Are you coming, or would you rather stay here and watch the show?”
He did not move. She clambered out of the tub. Finally, he did follow her out, but far too late. When he reached for her hand, she snatched hers away.
He saw that she was crying again, her eyes red and distended.
“It’s just as well. You would have been very disappointed. I don’t have the breasts of an eighteen-year-old.”
“Is that what you think I want?”
“Don’t you all? You can’t help yourselves. None of you. I should know that by now. I’m a very slow learner. Emotionally stupid as can be.”
When she turned her back on him and walked off, he did not pursue her. He felt, suddenly, exhausted. Leaning upon the railing, he watched her recede into the night.
He crept up to the tub, inside which Rico and Heather were kissing, to retrieve the wine. Rico had his hand between Heather’s legs. Whether or not they noticed his presence, he could not tell, and he doubted that it mattered to them. He held the bottle aloft.
“To Rico and Heather. Happy anniversary, kids. And here’s to another two weeks.”
He took a swig. Never had he tasted anything so bitter. Inverting the bottle, he poured the rest of the wine out onto the patio.