Sandy was still trying to believe he was attending couples therapy as he parked at the doctor's center of the hospital.
"Before we go in here," Kirsten started. "I want to encourage you to be open-minded-"
"Wow, what did they do to you in rehab?" Sandy teased her.
Kirsten smiled sweetly at him as she grabbed his hand. "And," she emphasized, wanting him to understand her seriousness. "I want to thank you for doing this. I know you're mainly doing it for me but, just remember, I am doing it for you."
Sandy squeezed her hand. "I'd do anything for you."
On the second floor, Kirsten led Sandy toward room 212 and knocked on the door. The receptionist could be seen in the glass of the door and motioned for them to enter.
"You can go on in," she stated politely, motioning to a door to the left.
They entered the smaller room and immediately, Sandy noticed the bookshelves. The books were in no obvious order, leading him to believe they were actually used and not just for show. On the desk, a name plaque read 'Dr. Elizabeth Murray'. The brunette behind the desk stood immediately and extended her hand. Sandy noticed that she was tall and a bit heavier than most women he saw in Newport. Her full face and chestnut brown eyes were welcoming. Sandy couldn't help but wonder if that was a tactic to get a patient to bear his soul.
"Good morning, Kirsten," Dr. Murray smiled.
Kirsten shook the doctor's hand and turned toward Sandy.
"Sandy, this is Dr. Murray. Dr. Murray, this is my husband, Sandy."
"Hi, Sandy. It's nice to meet you."
"You too, Doctor," he said politely as he shook her hand.
"Please. Call me Elizabeth."
Sandy and Kirsten sat on the couch across from the desk; their hands reconnecting, securely.
"Would you like something to drink before we get started? Coffee, water, soda?"
Kirsten looked toward Sandy before answering for both of them. "No, thank you."
"Ok. Well, to start, a few things about myself. I am originally from Portland, Oregon but I moved to California to attend college at Berkeley."
Sandy noticed not one but two framed degrees hanging on the wall. Mentally, he smirked at Kirsten. She had really pulled all the stops when she picked this doctor. She knew her husband could hardly resist anything to do with his beloved Berkeley.
"I doubled majored in psychology and communications before eventually getting my doctorate in psychology." The doctor paused once again. Her tone was not as bubbly as Sandy had expected when he had seen her. "So, you could say, I'm overqualified to be doing therapy sessions. In fact, I'm usually involved in studies and writing for journals about my research.
"All that is to say, you have one persuasive wife, Mr. Cohen. So, for all the skepticism you have about this, she's gone through a lot to set this up for the two of you."
Sandy definitely had not expected this. Not many people could leave him feeling guilty, especially within minutes of meeting him; however, the doctor definitely had a point. If Kirsten had done so much, the least he could do was be receptive and participate, as hard as that would be.
"Okay. We'll begin with Kirsten. Just tell us what your goals are for these sessions."
"Sandy and I normally don't have trouble communicating but lately… since the incident… we haven't been able to." Kirsten paused, feeling herself become emotional. "I hate to see him hurt like this and I know it's partly because he's holding everything in. I think if he has someone impartial to talk to, then he could really start to heal." She took a deep breath. "We both could."
"Good. Sandy, what do you hope to get from this?"
"Um, I'm not exactly sure. I feel like I should be honest and say I can't really see this 'fixing' me. But Kirsten wants me to try and, like you said, she went through a lot to get you, Doctor."
Doctor Murray looked at the gentleman in front of her, evaluating him. Finally, she asked, "Sandy, what are you afraid of?" He looked up at the doctor. When he did not answer, she decided to explain further. "Why do you not want to talk to me? What harm do you think it would do to talk to me, someone who is completely unbiased?"
Sandy took a deep breath. "I don't really-" He stopped short, trying to think about his words. "The only person I am completely open with is Kirsten. And even then, there are things, things from my past especially, that I can't tell her. I just don't feel comfortable bearing my soul to anyone but her. So if I can't talk to her about this, then I guess I can't really talk to anyone."
Kirsten silently listened to her husband speak. She was pleased but saddened by his progress. Sandy's silence about his abusive childhood was something she had long since given up on. Early in their relationship, once it had started becoming obvious they were soul mates, Kirsten had tried to get Sandy to talk about his past and what his father had done. But he had finally convinced her that she was better off not knowing and she stopped pressing him on the subject.
For him to now acknowledge it showed Kirsten how hard he was trying to be cooperative and she loved him for it.
"Why don't you talk to her about your past?"
"Well, because it's no one's burden but mine. She doesn't need to know everything I've ever witnessed or had done to me. Her knowing won't fix it and… I don't want her to start looking at me as if I'm damaged or something. My past shapes me but it doesn't define me so why bring it up?"
"Obviously I don't know the exact situation, but let me ask you: if Kirsten had experienced the same thing as a child, would you want her to talk to you about it?" She took his silence as a yes. "Why is there a difference?"
Sandy shrugged a little as he thought. "Because." He was still struggling with an answer. He looked over to his wife. "Kirsten," he paused, still unsure. She turned toward him, thinking he was calling her name, and they looked into one another's eyes. There Sandy found his answer. "Kirsten is the best thing I've found in this world. She's not perfect but she's perfect to me. All I've ever wanted is to protect her and that includes protecting her from my past. I like that she sees me as her Superman. If she knew all those things from my past, she wouldn't look at me that way."
"That's not true," Kirsten whispered, her heart beating fast. Just as she felt they were making progress, Sandy broke their connection, closing his eyes and turning away.
"It should be. I don't deserve to have you see me like that anymore. Not after…" He couldn't bear to say it.
Dr. Murray spoke up. "I'm glad we've gotten here without any prompting. We need to discuss the event in some way or another. Whether it be your feelings towards it or what actually happened." She stopped, letting them decide how to proceed.
There were several minutes of silence; neither party knowing how to start. Sandy felt like he had said enough.
"I really just wish we could accept that it happened, forget about it, and move on. But I don't think that'll happen." Kirsten stopped, hoping her words would encourage Sandy. When they didn't, she decided to take matters into her own hands. Essentially, she was going to tattle, give the doctor something to work with. "Sandy can't or won't do that. Sometimes he has something in front of him that he's 'working' on, like a crossword or something, but he doesn't make progress or even move much for five minutes, and I know that he is thinking about it."
"How often does that happen?"
"Several times throughout the day."
"What do your thoughts normally consist of?" Sandy didn't move. "Do you think about the act?" Still nothing. "I know you are a lawyer and you know the system. Do you question what the police are doing to find him? Do you wonder what the man looks like? If you've passed him in the grocery store getting a jug of milk?"
At the last questions, Sandy looked up at the doctor, his jaw clenched and his eyes dark. She took note of his expression and knew that at some point, a one-on-one session would be required. This man was holding more in than his wife knew. Doctor Murray looked over to Kirsten, who was looking at her husband with sad but understanding eyes. Murray questioned herself. Maybe Kirsten did know how much he was holding in.
Kirsten ran her hand soothingly down Sandy's back. "Baby, please."
He acknowledged her with a small tilt of his head, though his eyes did not meet hers. Doctor Murray noted the deep sadness in his eyes.
Sandy stayed silent for a few more moments before finally speaking. "I'm constantly thinking about how different it would have been if I had been there. What I could have done."
Kirsten sighed with some relief as she finally learned what Sandy's main thoughts had been over the past week.
With her hand still supportive on his back, she spoke softly, wanting him to understand. "Sandy, we both know what would have happened if you had been there. You would have stopped him and we would be talking with a piece of glass between us right now."
"I'd rather rot forever than have you suffer like this," he growled. Kirsten could hear in his voice that he was struggling to keep back his tears.
"I feel the exact same way about you, Sandy. Don't you understand that?"
Finally, he looked at his wife, allowing the doctor to see the tears in his eyes. "No," he said gently, not wanting to hurt her.
Kirsten turned away from him. She was saddened as she began to doubt any progress would be made today. The doctor was about to step in again but Kirsten cut her off, her voice filled with emotion.
"Why do you think you love me more than I love you? Why does it have to be some sort of competition?" Tears fell down her cheeks.
"Because, Kirsten. You can't love me as much as I love you. I'm not worthy of that much love. But you-" he choked on his words. "You're wonderful and kind and-"
"Sandy, we both know I'm not a saint. This past year alone I put you and our boys through hell. I made you move to a town you hate full of insufferable people who hate you." She knew her voice sounded almost hysterical and she paused to breathe. "I've only given you a handful of reasons to love me. Sometimes I'm not sure why you bother." Her head fell, unable to look him in the eye.
"Hey," he cupped her face in his hands. "Don't you ever talk like that. Kirsten, you are my world. Without you…" he paused, trying to find the right words for such an unimaginable pain. "Well, I'd need a hell of a lot more than a therapist." He tried to joke and was relieved when Kirsten smiled. He smirked back before looking at her seriously. "You are my life." Without care that there was a stranger watching them, he leaned in and kissed Kirsten tenderly with all the love he had. As they pulled away, they couldn't help the smiles on their faces.
"Well," Doctor Murray's voice brought the couple back to the present. "This seems like a good place to leave it for now. You both did very well. I won't say anyone is 'cured', per say, but very good progress. Sandy, if you feel comfortable, I'd like for you to return solo sometime this week. Or should I say, Kirsten and I would like for you to come back in. That's how we get you to do things, isn't it?"
Kirsten laughed and Sandy smirked. "That's normally how it works, Doc," he admitted, ducking his head.
They left, scheduling Sandy to return in two days. He put his arm around Kirsten as they exited the hospital.
"Want to grab some lunch?"
"Sure," she smiled up at him. They drove to the diner, neither wanting to go anywhere that would require them to keep up pretenses. They sat down across from one another and put in their order before beginning to talk.
"So what did you really think?"
"It was okay." He answered honestly. "I felt a little bit guilty, though." He began picking at his fingernails, a nervous habit he had when they had first started dating. Kirsten hadn't seen him do it in years and she was saddened once again by what this event was doing to her husband. "You did a lot to get her and you did it for me. And I know it's not fair to you for me to be this way. So I'm going to try."
Kirsten grabbed his hands to stop his nervous fiddling and force him to look at her.
"That means the world to me. I know you, Sandy. I know how hard this is for you. I love you for doing this for me." She grinned at him as he smiled. "I love you," she repeated firmly.
"I love you, too," he said, quietly. They looked at one another for a moment before Sandy untangled their hands and stood up. Kirsten looked a bit confused.
He slid into the booth beside her and put his arm around her, hugging her to him. "I want to be next to you."
Kirsten smiled up at him before snuggling into him a bit. He ran his hand up her arm twice before squeezing her to him again.
"We're gonna be okay," he whispered in her ear.
She closed her eyes, knowing his words were true. It wasn't her marriage she was worried about; it was her husband.
"I know. But are you going to be okay?" She asked, pulling her head away and opening her eyes to look at him. The solemn look she was becoming familiar with came back to Sandy's face. He looked at her out of the corner of his eye for a moment but remained silent.
As he looked back up toward the kitchen, he noticed the waiter approaching. "Here comes our food," he said, ignoring her question. Sadly, Kirsten tried to let it go, not wanting one unanswered question to ruin the progress they had made.
That night, as they lay down in bed, Sandy gently put his arm around Kirsten.
"I was thinking about going surfing in the morning," he mentioned.
"I think that would be great," Kirsten said enthusiastically.
"Really? I don't think I've heard that from you… ever!" He teased.
She giggled. "Well, it's time for you to do something for you, Sandy." She added sincerely before rolling over to face him. One of her hands wiggled its way into Sandy's shirt and touched his stomach. "Plus, you've really got to do something about this beer belly." Her eyes watched the fabric of his t-shirt move with her hand and she giggled as her fingers traced the muscular lines of his abdomen.
Sandy smiled with her, enjoying her touch. His hand rested naturally on her waist as he watched her face, mesmerized by the shine of her eyes in the moonlight. Suddenly, her hand stopped over his chest and she looked up at him. Little by little, she moved toward him until her lips covered his. Her hand tightened and fingernails lightly scratched his skin. His hand moved to her lower back and held her securely.
They broke apart but their foreheads still rested together.
With their eyes still closed, Kirsten whispered into the darkness, "I love you." To which, Sandy responded in kind.
Kirsten's hand stayed under the fabric of his shirt and moved to his back. She pressed her head to Sandy's chest, her ear to where his heart was beating. Once she found her spot, her grip on him tightened, holding him to her. Sandy moved his arms to hold her more firmly, wanting her to sleep soundly knowing that she was safe.
The next morning, when Sandy awoke for his morning surf, he looked down at his wife and found her in practically the same position she had gone to sleep. He moved meticulously, trying his best not to disturb her. Just as he was about slide out of the covers, Kirsten's hands gripped at the fabric of his shirt, her face scrunched up in an adorable frustrated manner. Sandy sighed inwardly and began to snuggle back into the bed.
Kirsten opened her eyes halfway to look at Sandy. "Are you going surfing?"
"It's okay. I can go later."
"Go. Have fun." She said and tried her best to smile at him, though it was difficult given how early it was. "Surf's best in the morning."
Sandy smiled down at this woman he loved more than anything. "Go back to sleep," he said, as he kissed her forehead.
"Mmhm," Kirsten mumbled as she buried her nose in his pillow and took a deep breath.
Sandy was still smiling as he changed into his gear. He kissed a sleeping Kirsten one more time before heading out to the beach. As he walked on the sand, he breathed the salty air in deep, almost as if it would literally clean his brain if he inhaled enough of it. He truly wanted to clear his mind, if only for a moment. Surfing usually did the trick but Sandy wasn't sure it would be enough to handle all that he had on his mind.
He paddled out, enjoying the taste of the ocean on his lips. The waves were starting to take shape and Sandy had a feeling it was going to be a good day. He let the first wave pass him by but he was determined to catch the second one.
Adrenaline rushed through his veins. His arms pulled him over the water, working to be ahead of the tide. After that, it was all autopilot, no thinking required. He rode wave after wave, letting his body do what it was trained to. He was amazed at how energized he felt in the water. He hadn't expected to last this long, much less be ready for more.
After several hours of riding waves, Sandy walked out of the ocean and planted his board in the sand. He sat down beside it and looked over the ocean, thankful for his escape. He knew it wouldn't last long so he was trying to appreciate it while he could. It wasn't long before the thought of Kirsten drew him back home.
They enjoyed a nice breakfast before Sandy went into the office and tried to do some work. He was pleased to find that he was able to concentrate on his job better than before. He wanted to believe it had more to do with surfing than the doctor.
Better yet, he wanted to believe it had to do with Kirsten. Last night, he had felt a bit of their intimacy return. He could still feel her warm hand on his chest, his heart beating underneath it. Though he knew they were still a long way from any sexual intimacy, this was a step toward getting their full connection back.
The next day, after another early morning surf session, Sandy and Kirsten headed to his one-on-one therapy with Doctor Murray.
"I'll be right out here," Kirsten said to him as she let go of his hand.
"I'll be okay, Kirsten," Sandy said, amused at her concern.
"I know," she smiled, trying to calm herself. She wasn't sure why she was so nervous, especially when Sandy so obviously wasn't. It was like they were switching roles. As she thought about it, Kirsten supposed she was probably just jealous Sandy might say something she would never hear.
"Thank you for returning, Sandy," Doctor Murray immediately welcomed him as he walked in her office.
"Of course. How's the research coming?"
Doctor Murray looked up from the paragraph she was highlighting to judge whether or not Sandy was sincere. When she saw he wasn't mocking her, she merely nodded.
"It's coming along." She shut the book and placed it on the shelf. "How about you? How are you feeling?"
"Better actually. The past couple of days…" He was hesitant on how to explain them. "They've been good. For me and, I believe, for Kirsten as well."
"What has been different?"
"Well, I haven't thought about it that much. I've been focused on being with her and enjoying our time together. I also returned to surfing yesterday, which normally helps me clear my head."
"Seems like it helped even with something of this magnitude."
"I think it did."
"So you've had a lot of 'sessions' this week, huh?" She teased, causing Sandy smirked. "Would you consider surfing therapy?"
Sandy answered, "I guess so. I've never thought about it in so many words but yeah. When life gets difficult, it's one of the things that helps."
"Well, that's good. Why did you just now turn to it?"
"I couldn't leave Kirsten before. I mean, I could have, but I didn't feel comfortable."
"I still don't like it but my wife's always been very independent. I can't keep her locked inside forever; she doesn't want that. So I go to work and she goes places with her friend sometimes."
"She doesn't go surfing with you?"
Sandy laughed. "Oh, no, not Kirsten. She hates the ocean. Always has."
"Even walking beside it or looking at it? She's involved you in this kind of therapy. You could involve her in your kind of therapy."
He thought about the doctor's suggestion and had to admit that it had merit.
"Sandy, at our last joint session, Kirsten expressed that she would rather herself experience harm than you. You rejected that. Can you explain why you feel that way?"
He thought about his answer.
Doctor Murray added. "You also said that you aren't worthy of her love."
"I've made a lot of mistakes. She deserves a better man-"
"Sandy, this goes against Therapy 101 but let me stop you right there. I've spoken to Kirsten off the record. In fact, it was when she was trying to convince me to do sessions with you two. Your wife said things to me about you that I've heard you say about her. It's clear that you two are deeply in love with one another. You say she deserves a better man, but I'm telling you that there's no other person she'd rather be with."
"Let's return to the question. Why do you feel like she shouldn't want to keep you safe?"
Sandy let all of the doctor's words set in and he tried to think of an answer. "It's just… that's my wife. I'm her husband. She shouldn't have to protect me."
"Just because you don't need it, that doesn't mean she can't feel desire to protect you."
There was a pause and Sandy thought about his relationship with Kirsten and their past. The therapist saw a smirk play at the edge of his mouth.
"Will you tell me what that's about?"
"Oh. Um, now that I think about it, Kirsten has been protecting me from her father for years. Not physically, of course. But he's never liked me." Sandy continued to grin at the thought of his father-in-law. "She protects me from Newpsies and all the things they said when we were first dating. And the things they probably still say."
"She protects your heart," the doctor suggested.
Sandy thought over her words for a moment. "Yeah. She does," he said with a smile.
Doctor Murray looked at Sandy and made a decision. "Well, Sandy, I started today's session all wrong, though perhaps it's for the best."
He looked at her confused.
"I wanted to delve into more darker details but I think maybe it's better this way. We're cutting today short. You won't be charged the full hour, of course." Sandy shrugged and put up his hand, letting her know that wasn't a concern. "Today it's better for us to leave on a high note. So unless there is something else you wanted to discuss." Sandy didn't say anything. "I figured as much. You are free to go. I'll see you and Kirsten next week."
"Thank you, Doctor."
To Kirsten's surprise, Sandy came out of Dr. Murray's office after only twenty minutes.
"What's wrong?" She asked, immediately concerned and wondering if she needed to go apologize to Doctor Murray.
It was then Kirsten noticed that Sandy was actually smiling.
"So it went well?"
"Great," she smiled back at him.
Sandy made it all the way to the car before his excitement got the best of him. As Kirsten waited for Sandy to open the door, he moved closer to her.
"Hey," he said softly. "I wanted to talk to you. I kind of had a revelation today."
While Kirsten was more than excited to hear it, she couldn't ignore the fact that she was wedged between the car and Sandy.
"Can we talk in the car?" Her tone struck something within Sandy.
"Yeah, sure. Are you okay?"
"I just…" she pushed herself away from the car, feeling nauseated just from leaning against it. "Parking lots still kind of… I don't know. They make me nervous, I guess."
"Oh. I'm sorry. Of course. Yeah, here," he opened her door for her.
He was still apologizing when he got in the car. "I'm so sorry. That was stupid. I should have-"
"It's okay, Sandy." She said, grabbing his hand. "Please. Tell me what happened."
"Well," Sandy started before turning and locking the doors.
"Thank you," Kirsten sighed.
"We were talking about the other day when I said that I didn't understand you wanting to protect me. She helped me realize that you've been protecting me all along. From your dad, from the Newpsies."
Kirsten smiled sweetly at her husband.
"You protect my heart and you always have. I love you for that." His hand reached up and stroked her hair gently. "I'm going to kiss you."
Kirsten chuckled. "You'd better."
Sandy smiled at her and leaned in, brushing his lips against hers before sealing them together tightly. Kirsten's hands moved to Sandy's head and held him steady against her. When they broke apart, they were happy to be met with each other's smiles.
They remained close and Sandy whispered, "I finally think I'm gonna be okay."
Kirsten's heart leapt in her chest and she smiled even wider. "Good," she said, hardly able to keep her voice steady. She stole his words. "You're my life, you know?" Her hand found its way over his heart again.
Sandy grabbed a hold of her hand and looked deep into her eyes, wanting her to see the honesty there. "I do know."