I'm Still Standing: A feel good, laugh out loud romantic comedy, page 1
I’M STILL STANDING
An uplifting & funny romantic comedy
To Elizabeth and Lorcan
For encouraging my sister and me to keep our ideas high and bright
To keep working hard with our faces tilted skyward
To follow our dreams and reach for those stars
Don’t Stop Me Now
Colleen’s email sign up
Also by Colleen Coleman
A letter from Colleen
Book discussion guide
‘Mr and Mrs O’Connor?’
‘I’m Evelyn.’ I shake the relationship counsellor’s hand. ‘I made the appointment.’
She nods, violet eyes piercing mine. ‘Shannon Brannigan, very pleased to meet you. I must say, you two are the youngest couple we’ve ever had in here. Newly-weds?’
I shake my head. If only. We were all over each other when we were newly-weds. Inseparable. Couldn’t keep our eyes or hands off each other. That all feels like a very long time ago now.
‘No.’ I shake my head. ‘Married seven years, together ten.’
‘Ah, I see. High-school sweethearts.’
We never dreamed we’d ever be somewhere like here, top floor in a plush city office block miles away from our cottage by the sea. We’d have scoffed at the idea. Counselling? Us? For God’s sake. A complete waste of time and money. Touchy-feely claptrap. Too invasive. Too American. Too expensive. Our attitude would have been that if you need to come to relationship counselling, then you need to break up. Simple as that. Our attitude. I check that. This is still James’s attitude now. I know he thinks coming here is a stupid idea. We used to be united in our thoughts and dreams and attitudes.
Not for a long time now.
Shannon Brannigan holds out her hand to James. I can tell by his bored, glazed look that he’s not been listening, just staring at her stock beach-scene screen saver – sun, sea and surf. Typical.
I nudge him.
He scowls at me like I’m his mum and he’s a hassled teenager. Honestly, the kids I teach are more mature.
He shakes her hand and offers a half-hearted smile. I had to drag him here, and he actually looks like he has been dragged. Long, unruly curls in a knotty blonde Afro, basketball vest and sunglasses. Indoors. Ray-Bans in cloudy, drizzly Irish weather. I ask you. Reality check, James. We’re not in Ibiza now. I actually just avert my eyes. Effort? Personal pride? Basic manners? I’m not going there. It gives me a headache.
‘What?’ he says.
I say nothing. Look to the screen saver too. White sand, turquoise sea. Looks like one of our honeymoon photos. That time now feels like it belonged to somebody else. To my left, I can feel James surveying me.
‘Just because you dress like a politician. There’s no dress code, right?’
I’m in my work clothes. Because I’ve come straight from my grown-up, responsible job that requires me to not play FIFA till the early hours every night of the week, to get up and be ready on time and wear actual clean professional clothes that were purchased this decade and not scraped off the carpet with my foot after pressing snooze twenty times. If I could rewind and meet James now, for the first time, would I even give him a second glance? Possibly not. He’s good-looking, no doubt about that, but I’d think, nah, too cool, too affected; not my type. And if for some weird reason we ended up on a date, I just know I’d pick up on the warning signs. I’d speed-read his laziness, his selfishness, his sarcasm and his intolerable messiness. And I’d say: I’m out. I’d run. I’d run a MILE.
Shannon Brannigan claps her hands together. ‘Follow me, you two, this way.’ She seems a bit smug, like she’s seen it all before. She’s probably thinking: Settled down too quick. Grew up and grew apart.
I hope not, though. I’d like to think she’ll come up with something a bit less clichéd for her extortionate fee. Maybe she’ll give us a series of date nights to complete to rekindle our love, or recommend some tantric titbits that will elevate us to a new level of intimacy and therefore make us stop eye-rolling every time the other speaks. And if so, that makes this incredibly straightforward. Maybe I’ve just counselled us to a resolution before even sinking into her sofa of a million cushions. James and I got married too soon to know who we really were, and now, seven years later, we have grown into two completely different people. But these things happen to couples all the time, and she’ll write us a bespoke marriage prescription that will see us shipshape and tickety-boo in no time. Yeah, that makes the colossal fee sound like good value after all.
Ms Brannigan offers us two seats side by side and James rolls his eyes and sticks his hands deep into his jeans. I really hope she knows what she’s doing. Hope she has that marriage prescription ready, because we can’t go on as we are or we’ll kill each other.
‘Can I get you a drink? Take a moment to orient yourself with your surroundings.’
James finds the window and stares at it like he’s planning to jump through it.
She pours us some water. ‘How did you find me?’ she asks.
‘Online.’ I take a sip and elbow James. We’re here, we’re paying; for God’s sake act like you are bothered. I decide not to tell her that she was just a pop-up ad that got into my brain after my daily Google search of Is the seven-year itch real? How do you know if you should stay married? How many young marriages survive? Why is my husband such an idiot? Does it ever get better… really?
I thought maybe I could just become more understanding and accepting of James, let things go, stop caring so much, but it’s impossible. And yes, I get that he hasn’t cheated on me (too lazy), or tried to push me down the stairs (not up early enough), or emptied our bank account (can’t remember his PIN… ever). So there’s no big stuff, but there’s an awful lot of small stuff. A constant, relentless, teeming downpour of infuriating, exhausting, draining, arse-aching small stuff. And I can’t see the good amongst it any more.
‘I’ve studied your pre-session questionnaires.’
‘Questionnaires? More like an interrogation. There were nearly one hundred questions on that thing,’ says James.
Inwardly I sigh with relief that he actually completed it. At least she has something to work with. At least it shows a little bit of willing on his part.
‘Thank you, I appreciate your co-operation. They were very insightful and really helped to inform me about where you two are at right now – as a couple and as individuals. The very fact that you are both here today is a real positive. It means that you are ready to change for the better, whatever it takes. I want to help you overcome any perceived obstacles and get you back on track.’
That’s true, I really do want change. I want to mow down any perceived obstacles and leap into something new, something meaningful and happy and fulfilling. I straighten up in my seat. James pulls his hands down his face and blows out his cheeks.
‘Try to be honest at all times. Remember, this is a safe place. I’m not here to judge you. I have no agenda other than to help you realise what the best course of action is. I believe that you already know what you need to do, that you already know the nature of the problem, and deep down you know the right solution. I’m here to help you find your own way to that solution. Sound okay?’
We both nod. Solutions. That’s what we’re here for.
‘I thought we’d start with a little game. Just an ice-breaker to get us talking, to open up some new lines of communication. Explore areas we may have neglected until now.’
She reaches under the table and pulls out a board game that looks similar to Monopoly.
‘Let’s dive straight in. I find this game an excellent tool, particularly for couples who appear locked into the same narrative. James, please roll the dice, then move your counter, and whatever colour space you land on, please select a card of that colour.’
James shifts forwards in his chair, picking up the dice without making eye contact with either of us and breathing heavily through his nose. He rolls a six, moves to a red square and selects a red TRUTH card, which reads: Describe your partner.
‘Past or present?’ he asks.
The cheek! I turn around to challenge. ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
Shannon rests a hand on my knee. ‘The other player must remain silent and allow the speaker an uninterrupted opportunity to respond.’
James cracks his first smile of the day. ‘Uninterrupted? Silent? Now we’re getting somewhere.’ He rubs his hands together. ‘Past: my partner was happy. Present: she’s unhappy. Very unhappy. Very snappy. All the time.’
I squirm in my seat. ‘Um… that’s not true. I am happy sometimes, just not often around you.’ The words are out before I realise it. Shannon holds a finger to her lips. ‘Sorry,’ I whisper into my chest.
James continues. ‘She used to listen, but now she doesn’t. She used to do other stuff rather than just work all the time and then come home and bitch about work and then fall asleep on the couch because she’s tired from work and then spend time calling people from work to talk about work some more. We used to do stuff together. Nice stuff. We used to be happy. She used to laugh and joke around, but now she just moans and sighs and sometimes shouts and yells.’ He flicks me a look. ‘I’m just saying how it is, Evelyn.’
I need to sit on my hands to steady them, I’m that angry. This marriage counselling was supposed to be about James realising he was a crappy husband; this is not about me. I nag and snap and yell because he makes me do it! If he just did what he was supposed to, when he was supposed to, and to a decent standard, I’d not have to go on at him like I do. My face is flushed with infuriation. I need to get myself together. I can’t sit here with a red face and fit to claw his eyes out and then claim I’m not bad-tempered. I take a big gulp of water and steady myself.
‘Thank you for your truth.’ Shannon nods to James. ‘Evelyn, it’s your turn. Roll the dice whenever you’re ready.’
Slowly I shake the dice with all the apprehension of a gambler with everything to lose. I roll a two. Purple space. I take a purple WISH card and read it aloud.
‘If you woke up in the morning and everything amiss in your life had disappeared, what would your day be like?’
Oh wow. I like this wish card. I wish it was more than a wish. An image springs to mind immediately. I can envisage it like a beautiful movie.
‘I’d wake up fully rested. I’d open my eyes and it would be so peaceful. The house would be clean, uncluttered, almost fragrant. There’d be no crap anywhere, no need to nag or argue, no sarcastic comments. I’d go to work and I’d have the energy to do my job really well because I was happy and relaxed, and when I got home, I’d call my girlfriends. We might go out to the theatre or go shopping, share a bottle of wine in town. I’d get back to a nice ordered house, my favourite music playing lightly in the background, and look forward to a bath and a book and slipping into bed, then doing it all over again the next day.’
‘Is that it?’ asks James. ‘If you could do anything you wanted, you’d work and have a bath in a tidy house?’ Eye roll.
‘Yeah, it is. Quite a simple existence, I suppose. I’m actually quite calmed by the thought of it,’ I tell Shannon. ‘Bliss. Order. Peacefulness.’
‘James, if you drew that card, how would you have responded?’ she asks.
He stretches back into his seat, smiling. ‘I’d wake up in a beachfront villa, sun in the sky. I’m all by myself, no work, no responsibility, no lists of jobs, no emails from banks and insurers and tax bullshit. Nobody telling me what to do or how to do it. No one judging or criticising, nagging me… just me and the sun and the sand between my toes.’ His cheeks are flushed, and there’s an animation in his eyes I haven’t seen for a long time.
‘And an ice-cold pitcher of mojito?’ I venture.
He smiles and rubs his hands down his thighs, nodding. ‘Oh yes.’
Shannon lets the silence settle between us. ‘Two very different ideas of what a dream life would look like. And that’s perfectly fine; usually that’s not a problem, usually it’s something we can work with.’
Usually? We both shift up slightly, lean in to hear what she has to say.
‘But the issue I’m having with you two is that I’m not convinced you actually want to go forward – either of you, as a married couple.’
‘Pardon me?’ I ask, confused.
I can tell James is slightly confused too. He tilts his head to listen more carefully, his fingers stroking his stubbly chin. ‘What do you mean exactly?’
‘I don’t think either of you really wants to be married any more,’ she says matter-of-factly. Like it’s obvious.
I’m shaking my head at her, and then at James. I thought she was supposed to fix us up. I thought her job was to write the marriage prescription. The eye-wateringly costly tantric marriage prescription.
‘I’m sorry, but I’m just not following,’ I tell her. James shushes me and leans forward, elbows on his knees.
‘My deep concern is that neither of you included the other in your vision. Not once. Not in any way. If anything, you became most at ease and hopeful at the thought of being apart, at having a space, at feeling free to live your lives as your best selves – and you have very definite and different ideas about what that looks like.’ She focuses on me, violet eyes, wide and earnest.
‘Evelyn, does any part of you share James’s vision?’
I bite down on my lip. I can’t lie. She’ll know. He’ll know. I’ll know. ‘Before, in the past maybe… but not now.’
I look into my plastic cup. No more water.
‘James, does any part of you share Evelyn’s vision?’
He taps his lips thoughtfully. ‘No.’ He makes eye contact with me for the first time since we entered this office. ‘And Evelyn, I’m sorry to say this, but I don’t think I ever will.’
We stew in our confessions, the silence between us growing thick and hot. I guess it would make sense for us to argue now. For me to tell him why it is completely impractical and impossible for him to just turn his back on his construction business, for us to leave our family and friends and all responsibility to go and live like complete hedonists somewhere on the Balearic coast.
But I don’t say a word. I feel like we’ve already said everything. I wait for him to speak, to try and convince me. But he doesn’t. Maybe this is the first thing we’ve actually agreed on in ages.
Shannon hands us each a mini whiteboard and a chunky black marker.
‘We’ve considered your desires, your innermost dreams about what would bring you happiness. Now I want us to consider the future. It’s really important that you answer h
I swallow hard. That’s not easy. I’ve never made a decision without influence from peers or parents or James. I’m glad it’s a wipeable board – something about being able to erase this instantly without trace lessens my anxiety about what she’s going to ask me to do. Us to do. We are still in this together. We may still be able to work things out. Maybe all that earlier was just a scare tactic, pretending that we’re unfixable, that our marriage is over and we need to split. What would people think? The shame of it. It would be easier to stay together just to avoid being village gossip, I think. But I guess that’s why we’re here. Because we’re not finding staying together easy at all.
I take the lid off my marker.
‘If all your dreams came true, how would you like to see yourself in five years’ time? What’s your life like? What have you achieved? What are you proud of?’ She nods to signal that we should begin.
At first I dare not write anything. It’s too precious, too personal. What if they shake their heads or pull a face or ask me for details as to how exactly I’m going to get from here to there in my perfect world? I don’t want to write down anything that they might disprove or rationalise out of existence.
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