NOT UP TO IT • by Bruce Costello

“Were you both informed when you made your appointment that I am a trainee counselor?” asked Peter. “My trainer is in the next room behind the one-way mirror.”

“S’alright,” said Ella, a small, red-faced woman in her forties. Her husband, Harry, a big man wearing overalls, was slumped in a chair on the opposite side of the room. He nodded without looking up.

“I’ll start by asking each of you what your primary emotional needs are,” Peter declared.

“I don’t know what you mean,” said Ella, peering at Peter, running a hand over her mousey hair.

“Let me explain,” replied Peter. He was a thin man in his fifties with a gold earring in one ear and a silver ponytail that swayed when he turned his head.

He leaned back in his chair.

“When we’re children,” he announced, “we have primary emotional needs. For love, feeling heard, supported, accepted and so on. All being well, we meet these needs in the relationship with our parents.”

Ella scratched her head.

“When we grow up,” Peter proclaimed, “we have the same sorts of needs, but we seek to meet them in the relationship with our adult partner. If the needs aren’t met, the relationship becomes distressed.”

He studied his clients. Harry’s head was still down. Ella was gazing at Peter, eyebrows raised.

“So I’m going to ask each of you,” he droned on, “what your primary emotional needs are and the extent to which they are met, or not met, in your marital relationship.”

The words slid easily from Peter’s lips. He imagined his trainer nodding behind the mirror.

“Who would like to speak first?”

“I never knew I was allowed to have emotional needs.” Ella scowled across the room at her husband, who wriggled in his chair. She screwed up her face and continued. “Well, for one thing, he never talks to me. He’s always on the blasted computer.”

“How does that make you feel?”

“Hacked off.”

“What do you do when you’re hacked off, Ella?”

“Get grumpy.”

“Uhuh. Uhuh,” said Peter, with a knowing nod.

“How do you feel, Harry, when Ella gets grumpy?”

Harry looked up. He had sad, puppy-dog eyes. “Dunno. Aw, bad.”

“Bad? Tell me more.”

“Can’t handle her yelling and shouting and carrying on. Rather do stuff on the computer.”

“Does Ella’s anger remind you of anything?”

“Um, well, me mother used to get real wild.”

“Uhuh. So, when Ella gets grumpy, her anger triggers memories of your mother, and you retreat further into the computer. Uhuh. I see a pattern here.”

He smoothed his pony tail and let his hands rest behind his head.

“What do you think you could change, Harry, to help break this pattern?”

“Dunno. Aw, I dunno.”

Peter turned to Ella. “Could you tell Harry what you’d like him to do differently?”

“No,” she replied, tossing her head. “He won’t listen to anything I say.”

Peter leaned towards her, his hands outstretched, palms upwards.

“Could you tell ME?” he whispered.

She gaped at him.

He repeated. “Ella, could you tell ME what changes you’d like from Harry?”

“Head transplant.”

“We’re not looking for such big changes at this stage.”

“Well, he could spend some time with me, ask me how I feel. Listen to me, for once!”

Peter nodded approval, and glanced at the one-way mirror.

He addressed Harry. “Do you think you could try listening more to Ella?”

“Yeah. If she doesn’t yell at me.”

“But if she feels listened to, she won’t be so angry, and won’t feel like yelling,” Peter explained.

He looked at the clock and frowned. So far only fifteen minutes had elapsed of the fifty minute session. It had been going well. Perhaps too well. He cast a sideways look at the one-way mirror. ‘When in doubt, say nothing. When not in doubt, say even less.’ Peter shuffled his feet and fell silent.

Ella was breathing heavily, chest heaving. She crouched rather than sat in her chair. Her tiny hand, balled into a fist, was rising and falling above the arm of her chair.

Harry was staring at the ceiling with blinking eyes, his lips moving. He touched his forehead.

Silence descended on the room. A shiver ran up Peter’s back. He felt like the driver of a blitzkrieg tank that had raced ahead, deep into hostile territory, then run out of both fuel and gumption.

“Well, I think we’re making good progress, don’t you?” he muttered at length, looking around with a hapless smile.

Ella sat bolt upright. “I’ve had a gutful of this counseling bullshit! A fucking head transplant is what he needs! Why can’t he have one?” Ella shrieked, following up with a string of expletives. Her shoulders were jerked back, her jaw thrust forward and she was glaring at Peter with a look that would fry an egg.

“It’s too soon to be looking towards the surgical option, at this stage. And my supervisor would never agree, anyway,” replied Peter, crossing his arms over his chest.

Ella turned on her husband. “Well, stop pissing around and tell the halfwit counsellor what this is REALLY about!

Harry lifted his knees to his chin and covered his face with his arms.

“You cowardly bugger!” Ella shouted. “You said you’d confess!”

Harry looked up at Peter with pleading eyes.

“I’ve been seeing someone else,” he whispered.

“And? Tell him! Tell him the whole story! Go on! Tell him!”

Harry opened and shut his mouth.

Ella leapt from her chair.

“He’s been having it off with a woman he works with,” she shrieked, eyes spinning, “an ugly, half-wit bitch called Poppy. Her poor husband is a paraplegic and can’t get it up!”

Peter threw a horrified glance towards the one-way mirror, from the direction of which came a string of loud curses.

Ella and Frank stared at each other open-mouthed.

“I am sure my trainer will agree to a head transplant now,” Peter said, as a man in a wheelchair burst into the room, “though the procedure is still in its experimental stages.”

In 2010, New Zealander Bruce Costello semi-retired from his day job as a counselor and took up writing to avoid housework. Since then, seven of his short stories have been published in New Zealand and Australian print magazines HER, PINK, that’s life!/Fast Fiction and M2. Over a score more of Bruce’s stories appear in New Zealand, Australian, American, British and Israeli on-line publications: Fiction on the Web, Modern Day Fairytales, The Bookends Review, Microhorror, Metro Fiction, Turbine, Snorkel, Flash Frontier, Apocrypha and Abstractions, Linguistic Erosion, Fiction 365, NIB Magazine, Cyclamens & Swords and Alfie Dog Ltd. He was shortlisted in the Short Story section of the 2012 Victoria Cancer Council Art Awards and awarded a Commendation in their 2013 Awards. He has three times won the HER Magazine NZ Short Story Contest.

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