Lena sighed with satisfaction as she dropped her feet into the bubbling tub, powered on the massage chair, and began to leaf through her stack of magazines. Lena usually started with People, loving the delicious trashy celebrity gossip, but Elle’s April issue had a spread of Shakira—so hot—and 200+ of Spring’s Best Shoes, Bags, Belts and Bangles. Definite winner. Lena smiled, offering Joanne a good morning as she began scrubbing and exfoliating. Joanne gave incredible foot massages, Lena gave big tips, and neither felt obligated to make small talk. Perfection. Lena sank into the rolling pressure of the chair massage and began to flip through Elle.
As Joanne clipped and filed and buffed, Lena perused the latest trending accessories, then turned to a quiz page. Though she would never admit this to another soul, Lena loved magazine quizzes. An embarrassing addiction on par with America’s Next Top Model and Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, both of which she knew were disgusting, and yet would happily binge in secret.
As usual, the title sucked her in with a bold headline. Are You in a Healthy Relationship or is it Time to Worry? Yikes. Right to the point. One or the other. Lena felt a tiny zap in her belly as she considered that the first year of marriage had not exactly been the idyllic honeymoon phase she had imagined.
The honeymoon itself was gorgeous, two dream weeks in Italy last September, full of gelato, languid afternoon sex, exquisite art, and laughter. They spent days holding hands and strolling down winding cobblestone streets, breathing in the window boxes bursting with flowers, elegant wrought iron balconies scrolling like calligraphy across weathered plaster facades.
“Stay in bed,” Ray murmured on their fourth morning in Rome. He placed a steaming cappuccino and cornetti on the metal bed stand, and kissed Lena’s forehead. “Back soon.” She blinked in the dim light that angled through the heavy shutters of the Trastevere apartment. By the time she pushed her way out from under the quilt, Ray was gone. The scent of strong coffee wafted from the tiny blue cup he had left moments before.
When the door creaked back open an hour later, Lena had already devoured her pastry and espresso, showered, dressed in a tight, sexy denim pencil skirt, a thin black tank just opaque enough for her to get away with no bra, and strappy leather platform sandals. She sat reading, tucked into the window seat that overlooked the Tiber River. She smiled up at Ray, and gestured to their dog-eared guidebook.
“Can we go to Bracciano today? To that lake?”
“Absolutely. And you know how we’re going to get there?”
She flipped to the page she had marked. “Well, we could catch the train at the—”
“Nope,” he interrupted. Then he held up a set of keys, and gave them a little shake, a school-boy grin spreading across his face.
Lena’s eyes widened. “What are those for?”
“Look out the window.”
Lena twisted around to peer through the hazy, mullioned panes. The sun glinted off a sleek, metallic-blue motorcycle parked at the curb below.
“Is that—did you—”
“I sure did!”
Ray let out a hoot as Lena leaped up from the cushions and grabbed him around the neck.
“Holy shit!” she said.
“But do you know how to drive that thing?”
“Oh please,” he scoffed, “of course I do.”
“Without killing us?”
He cackled again, and did a little jig of excitement. “I know you’re not a big fan of my step-dad, but hey, he taught me how to drive anything with an engine. Go-carts, ATVs, dirt bikes—all that Virginia redneck shit you hate so much.” Lena rolled her eyes and he shrugged. “Hey. It’s true.” He rattled the keys again, and this time, a slow smile curved Lena’s lips. She backed up a few paces and posed, hands on her waist, hip cocked to one side.
“Can I wear this?”
Ray looked her up and down, and his eyes flashed. “Hell yeah. You ready to hike up that skirt?”
They kept the bike for the rest of the week, day tripping from Rome to Tuscany, and Lago di Bolsena, where they drank so much wine they had to get a room for the night and sleep it off. Lena sank into the heat of each day, relishing the dewy sweat that slid down her back, cleared her pores, curled her hair. She felt relaxed. Fluid. Easy.
But then they came back to the real world. Ray at the dealership all day. Lena busy with her patients. And, well—nothing extreme happened. Just that lately, Ray seemed—colder? Less connected? Less—into her? She wasn’t exactly sure, but their interactions felt off. Touchy. Prickly in a way that triggered a stream of low-grade anxiety. Lena shook her head. Whatever. Phases. Different phases were normal.
She pulled a ballpoint out of her purse and read question one.
Your partner knows and accepts who you really are.
Lena considered. Mostly, she thought. But that wasn’t an option. Often? Sometimes? He did appreciate her best qualities. Humor, cooking, capability. But were those her best? Or did Ray love the qualities that benefitted Ray? No, no, he also loved her style, and intelligence, and creativity. But he didn’t like it when she got mad. Or irritated. Even when it wasn’t about him. Which was understandable. Sort of. She did get loud sometimes. But not over nothing. Sometimes she couldn’t even express a concern or frustration before he was telling her to cheer up and get over it, or explaining why it wasn’t so bad. So when she felt conflicted, or overwhelmed, or distressed, she was more likely to process with a friend, or her mom. But that was normal. Right? Women were just better at—listening. Handling contradictions. But that didn’t mean he didn’t know her. Accept her. Of course he did. He just—maybe—preferred certain moods? Though Lena really did hate it when Ray told her to cheer up. She was fucking cheery. She was one of the cheeriest goddamn people she knew. But only a robot could be cheery all the time. And who the fuck wants that anyway?
Lena debated for another moment, then circled letter B.
Your partner supports your goals in life.
A few weeks ago, Lena arrived home late from an intensive pro-bono session with a youth at risk for suicide, and then a follow up with his father. She texted Ray when she was on her way, but when she walked in the door, hungry and drained, there was no dinner for her. Ray had eaten a frozen pot pie. Crumbs and sticky residue spread across the counter, alongside his dirty plate, and the crumpled aluminum pie tin. Cheers from a sports game blared on the TV. As Lena looked around the kitchen, she flushed, her heart accelerating. She started slamming cupboard doors, banging pots and pans and muttering as she searched for easy dinner options.
After a few minutes, Ray strolled into the room and gazed at her, impassive. “What’s wrong with you?”
She glared at him. “Nothing’s wrong with me. I’m tired. I’m hungry.”
“You look really stressed. Maybe you should stop taking on extra work for no pay.”
“Oh wow. Thanks for the advice. You know what would be nice instead? Dinner.” She wrenched open the refrigerator door. Her cheeks flamed and she could feel her heart pounding in her head.
“You didn’t ask me to make dinner.”
“Why should I have to? I always make sure there’s something for you. And how the fuck was I supposed to call you in the middle of a session with a super distressed client?”
“Want a pot pie?”
“No I don’t want a fucking pot pie.”
“How about you calm down and relax.” Ray peered at her, and suddenly, the slight smirk that pursed his lips, and the mildly puzzled tilt of his head made Lena feel like some sort of caged zoo animal under observation. And she exploded.
“How about you get the fuck away from me!”
Lena circled letter C.
Your partner listens when you share your thoughts and feelings.
Ray let Lena pick the paint colors for their new house. And even though he thought a few were over the top, he smiled fondly, and shrugged.
“They look like clown colors to me, but you have way better taste. I’m sure it will look great.”
But that wasn’t really thoughts and feelings. More like conceding to Lena’s preferences. Which made her sound kind of shitty. But she really did have better taste. And it’s not like Ray was rooting for blue and Lena insisted on purple. He didn’t suggest anything. Was he conceding? Or abdicating? Or maybe she jumped in so fast with ideas that he didn’t even bother. She had heard that before. At work. Even from a friend or two. “You’re so fast. You’re done before I even get started.” She had always taken this as a compliment. But maybe there was a flip side. Maybe she was the one who wasn’t listening.
Lena shifted uneasily in the massage chair, the backs of her legs sticking to the pleather. She was getting off track. Maybe she should skip to the next question.
You and your partner give and take in equal measure.
Ray rubbed the knots out of Lena’s neck and shoulders. He carried everything heavy and asked for honey-do lists on the weekends. He did all the grocery shopping and washed Lena’s car before she noticed it was dirty. He planned birthday surprises. He charmed her parents. He brought home the bacon. And every once in a while, he cooked it too.
Okay, good. Solid letter B.
You and your partner share common goals and plans for the future.
Ray had brought up kids more than once in the last few months. Lena was on board for parenthood at some point, but still felt unprepared as she closed in on three decades. Somehow, she had been more eager for kids five years ago than now, married, with a new house, and her private practice so full she was considering reducing her client load.
“I want to travel more first,” she had told Ray. “Take crazy trips we can’t do once we have kids.”
So they booked a flight to New Zealand, and discussed Cambodia, Brazil, and India.
That was common plans, right?
But Ray got impatient when Lena tried to bring up the harder stuff. The realer stuff. Like Ray’s childhood. Which seemed important to address before they started their own family. But he would never acknowledge the impact of his parents’ dysfunction. Ray gravitated toward a bootstrap narrative, staying on the surface of his own history instead of exploring what Lena worried was the unresolved trauma that lay underneath.
“I was raised by a single mom,” he often said.
“I don’t make excuses,” he often said.
“My dad was totally fucked up, and I turned out great,” he often said.
“Well,” she had tried, one evening after work, careful, searching, again, for a way in, “do you ever get scared about becoming a father?” He stared at her.
“What do you mean? Why would I be scared?”
“I guess—well—I think it’s scary. Most people probably do. Have fears around parenthood.”
“I mean, not really.” Ray smiled, and loosened his tie. “I think we’ll be great parents.” He went to the fridge and started poking around, then dug out a container of salsa.
Lena paused to think, shifting to a new approach. “I love my parents a lot, and I think they were great in a lot of ways. I also think some ways they parented had a negative impact. The pressure to be so successful all the time. The “my way or the highway” stuff. So when I think about being a mom, I worry I might repeat some of those patterns.”
“Well then don’t,” Ray reasoned, his back to Lena as he rummaged through the cabinet and pulled out a bag of tortilla chips.
Lena stayed at the kitchen table, her body quiet, eyes on her husband, busy with snacks, still not looking at her. “You think it’s that easy?”
“We’ll just do our best.” He dumped the chips into a large plastic bowl, and peeled the lid off the salsa.
“But sometimes, even when—”
“I’m gonna be a great dad.” He stuffed a handful of chips in his mouth, a few bits falling out onto the counter. “Want to start practicing the baby-making?” he asked through his mouthful. “You know,” he added, wriggling his eyebrows, “we gotta make sure we know what we’re doing! Practice makes perfect.”
“Ray. Come on. Stop joking. I was trying to talk about—”
But he was already walking out of the room.
“Hey babe, I’m grabbing a beer,” he called over his shoulder. “Want one?” Lena heard the TV come on, and the channels switching until he stopped on SportsCenter.
Lena looked back through the answer options and sighed. Unfortunately, there was no option for persistently avoidant.
You and your partner maintain your own identities and lives outside your relationship.
Two Sundays a month, Ray played golf with the dealership squad. Eighteen holes took a zillion hours. Perfect for Lena’s long afternoons at Caña in Oakland with her bestie, where they danced until their feet hurt and sipped Cuban mojitos.
Ray was an equal opportunity ESPN enthusiast. And something was always on. Football, basketball, baseball, hockey, boxing, MMA—and of course, golf. On TV. The very thought made Lena want to rip her eyeballs out. During his marathon sports watching, Lena caught up on paperwork, shopped, went to the Saturday morning Congolese dance class at Duboce Rec Center, hiked with her mom, sprawled on her girl’s couch snacking and talking for hours, drank happy hour cocktails with her Mission Family Center squad. Organized the garage. Repotted malingering house plants. Lena was expert at keeping busy.
She circled letter A. Decisively.
You are comfortable engaging in conflict with your partner.
Last Tuesday night, after her seventh client of the day, Lena arrived home exhausted, with a burgeoning headache. She really needed to adjust her schedule. Thirty clients a week was killing her. Maybe she and Ray could brainstorm a bit, see if they could afford for her to dial it down. But not tonight. Tonight she needed a big glass of water and a dark room where she could bury her face in a pillow and knock out the migraine digging its claws behind her right eye.
Lena pushed open the door to horns blaring from the surround sound speakers Ray had proudly installed the weekend before. He greeted her with a grin, and grabbed her hand to spin her to the rhythm of the ska music. Nausea surged through Lena’s belly. She tapped her head and gestured for him to lower the volume. Ray’s face fell.
“But I just got new speakers!”
“Sorry hon. I have a headache.”
“Maybe you need to cut down on your clients.” His tone of knowing superiority washed over Lena, and the hammer pulsing behind her eye began to pound harder.
“Can you please turn the music down? I need some quiet.”
Ray turned to the sound system, muttering. “Yeah like always.”
“What’s with the extreme language? Always? That’s not accurate.”
“Stop analyzing me. You’re not my therapist.”
Lena’s pen wavered for a moment. She circled letter D.
Do you feel safe with your partner?
In the car on the way to the salon, Mario’s Let Me Love You hadplayed on 106.1. Lena loved that song.
You should let me love you
Let me be the one to
Give you everything you want and need
Baby good love and protection
Make me your selection
Show you the way loves supposed to be
Must be the melody, she thought, because the premise was ridiculous. The idea that anyone could—or should—give you everything you want and need. What did that even mean? Sometimes Lena’s wants and needs changed on a minute-to-minute basis.
But the protection. That was a thing. A real thing.
Her face felt hot as she flashed on the date night debacle from a few months back. A night she and Ray had still not discussed.
They had gone to a little club at 21st and Van Ness. Two men stood outside smoking, and as Ray and Lena strolled up, one asked for ID. As they pulled out their licenses, the other said, “I’ll need to pat you down,” and before they could process what was happening, he moved to Lena and ran his hands up and down the length of her body. Then both men cracked up, and Lena realized they were not bouncers, but merely two rapey assholes. She turned to her husband, who just stood there looking at her. Frozen. Silent. She turned back to the men, hissed, “Fuck you!” and shoved past, Ray trailing behind, their laughter echoing in her ears. Her skin prickled. She needed to get her back against a wall. See who was around her. She felt unsteady on her high heels. She pressed her hands against the bar and stared at Ray. Her eyes were hot and dry, and her face felt like stone.
“What?!” he snapped. His jaw was tight and his eyes darted around the bar, looking everywhere but at Lena.
Lena’s mouth dropped open with disbelief.
“No seriously,” he continued, a petulant whine creeping into his voice. “What do you want me to do? Get my ass beat by those guys?”
Yes, she thought. Yes! Put your body between mine and theirs. Tell them to take their fucking hands off your wife. And then she felt every inch of her exposed skin, the air molecules brushing up against her bare midriff, her back, her arms, and she felt sick, and pressed her lips together to keep from crying, or shouting, or shrieking, and she wished he would at least ask if she was okay.
But he didn’t. And as Lena stood there, and watched his features soften, and turn pleading, he looked like a child. A weak, helpless child. This man she had married. This man whose most essential job, whose most primitive biological imperative was to protect her. And something inside her, some heat, some flame that she had promised, had devoted to this man, this one particular man, went cold.
Lena’s heart beat fast. Her cheeks burned and her chest itched and the heat started to spread. She felt the first burst of adrenaline release into her bloodstream. So she closed the magazine, and laid it in her lap. She grabbed the remote to restart the massage, which had shut off without her noticing, and focused on Joanne, who was kneading her calves, strong fingers digging away the tension, rubbing lotion and fragrant oil into Lena’s freshly exfoliated skin. And then Joanne cradled Lena’s feet, using a thumb and forefinger to trigger pressure points in her instep, her heels, on either side of her Achilles tendons. And Lena forced herself to stay with the healing sensations radiating from her feet. She breathed. She was fine. It was over. She was in the salon, relaxed and safe. Nothing had really happened. It’s not like she had been fully attacked this time. Not much more invasive than what they did at the airport. And as she told herself this story, and Joanne pressed her kind, healing touch into the soles of Lena’s feet, her heart slowed, and her breath came deep from the base of her belly, and she swallowed down the acid burn of dread before it could harden and lodge in her throat.