Nine-fifteen on Monday morning. My second patient of the day.
Gibbs Storey hadn’t changed much in the ten years since I’d last seen her. If anything, she appeared to be even more of a model of physical perfection than she’d been in the mid-nineties. I guessed yoga, maybe Pilates. Her impeccable complexion hadn’t suddenly become pocked with acne or ravaged by psoriasis, nor had her high cheekbones dropped to mortal levels. Her blond hair was shorter but no less radiant, and her eyes were the same sky blue I remembered. The absence of any wrinkles radiating around them caused me to wonder about a recent Botox poke, but I quickly surmised that Gibbs’s fair skin would probably never be susceptible to the tracks of age. She’d be in possession of some magic gene, and she’d be immune.
She’d always had beauty karma. Along with popularity karma. And the ever-elusive charm karma.
She didn’t have marriage karma, though.
I’d first met Gibbs and her husband, Sterling, when they came to see my clinical psychology partner, Diane Estevez, and me for therapy for their troubled relationship. Diane and I saw them conjointly-a quaint, almost anachronistic therapeutic modality that involved pairing a couple of patients with a couple of therapists in the same room at the same time-for only three sessions. Ironically, with therapy fees being what they are and managed care being what it is, Diane and I hadn’t done a conjoint case together since that final session with Gibbs and Sterling Storey.
After they’d abruptly canceled their fourth session and departed Boulder -“Dr. Gregory, Sterling got that job he wanted in L.A.! Isn’t that wonderful!” Gibbs informed me breathlessly in the voicemail she’d left along with her profound thanks for how helpful we’d been-neither Diane nor I had heard a word from either of them. That was true, at least, until Gibbs called, said she was back in town, and asked me for an individual appointment.
Gibbs’s call requesting the individual appointment had come ten days before, on a Friday. My few free slots the following week didn’t meet any of her needs, so we’d settled on the Monday morning time. At the time she had accepted the week-and-a-half delay graciously.
In the interim between her call and her first appointment, I’d pulled her thin file from a box in the storage area that was stuffed with the records of old, inactive cases and examined my sparse notes. The few lines of intake and progress reports that I’d scrawled after the conjoint sessions told me less than did my memory, but I didn’t need copious notes to remind me that Diane and I hadn’t been all that helpful to Gibbs and Sterling.
Couples therapy is not individual therapy with two people. It is a whole different animal, more closely akin to group therapy with a radioactive dyad. Issues within couples aren’t subjected to the simple arithmetic of doubling; problems seem to be susceptible to the more severe forces of logarithmic multiplication. Therapeutic resistance in couples work, especially conjoint couples work, isn’t just the familiar dance between therapist and patient. Instead, a well-choreographed routine between husband and wife takes place alongside every interaction between either client and either therapist. Each marital partner knows his or her steps like an experienced member of a ballroom dancing pair. She retreats as he aggresses. He surely demurs as she swoons.
A couples therapist needs to learn everyone’s moves before he or she can be maximally effective.
My memory of the Storeys’ conjoint treatment was that Diane and I had only just begun to recognize their peculiar tango when they terminated the therapy and moved to California.
The first conjoint session had been a typical “what brings you in for help” introductory. “Communication” was the buzzword of the day in the care and feeding of relationships, and that’s the culprit the Storeys identified as the reason they had entered into our care. Each maintained that they desired assistance “communicating” more effectively with the other. He was, perhaps, a little less certain than she of his motivation.
Neither Diane nor I had believed either of them. No, we didn’t entertain the possibility that they were out-and-out lying to us-at least I didn’t; I could never be a hundred percent certain about Diane-but rather we were waiting for them to approach the revelation that they might be lying to themselves, or to each other, about their reason for being in our offices. “Communication problems” was a socially acceptable entree to treatment-an acceptable thing to tell their friends.
But Diane and I weren’t at all convinced at the time that it was the reason we were seeing the Storeys.
“Hi, Dr. Gregory,” Gibbs said as she settled on the chair in my office for her first individual appointment. Her greeting wasn’t coy exactly, but it wasn’t not-coy exactly, either. “Long time,” she added.
Her fine hair was pulled back into a petite ponytail. She smiled in a way that almost dared me not to notice how together she looked.
I nodded noncommittally. My practiced chin dip could have been measured in millimeters.
“I’m sure you’re wondering why I’m here,” she said.
Another microscopic nod on my part. Most days while doing my work as a psychologist, if I were paid by the word I’d go home a pauper. But Gibbs was right, I was wondering why she’d come back to see me after so many years. I had a guess-I was wagering that she’d divorced Sterling and had moved back to Boulder to start a new life. It was a scary journey for most people. Me? I was going to be the tour guide.
That was my guess.
“You remember Sterling? My husband?”
I spoke, but since it was Monday morning I failed to assemble a complete sentence. “Yes, of course” was all I said.
Gibbs raised her fingertips to her lips and leaned forward as though she were whispering a profanity and was afraid her grandmother would overhear. She said, “I think he murdered a friend of ours in Laguna Beach.”
Okay, I was wrong twice.