The courthouse elevator lurches. The people temporarily shielding my stepdaughter’s mother and me from a direct view of each other disembark, leaving me alone with her. She’s wearing her Family Court outfit: threadbare dress with flat shoes, turbulent hair tamed into a humble bun, eyes wide and frightened, both hands clutching her purse to her ribs.
Beneath this demure costume The Petitioner hosts a pair of swimmer’s arms and a desire, I’m certain, to throttle the neck her former husband kissed this morning. While strangulation has probably occurred to us all, it’s far too expedient a solution for Family Court, where slow-drip, intravenous poison (a.k.a. “papering”) is the strategy of choice. I inch toward the wall, my fight-or-flight mechanism pulsing pointlessly in this five-by-five chamber. She opens her mouth to speak.
Strategic chatting: it’s worse than asphyxiation.
Usually, I attempt some kind of civil exchange. But only yesterday, a tongue-pierced messenger pounded and rattled my door, bearing yet another tome of insults on court paper, lines numbered for precision. Unenamored with the litigious microculture in which one person trumpets the most flammable lies and aspersions about another but still expects to chat in the elevator, I opt for an edgy silence.
I have tried to like her-or at least understand her. A masseuse, an idealist, an animal lover with a letch for freshly baked desserts, she is a woman of admirable qualities. My stepdaughter adores her. My husband once adored her. I at least wanted to like her. How could I not be charmed by someone who named her car Matilda?
Once seated on a courtroom pew, my husband squeezes my hand so tightly that my wedding ring cuts into my fingers. I loosen his grip a bit, careful to maintain an encouraging but covert hold: the extent to which emotional displays are appropriate here. I lean over and mouth a hello to our attorney. A few rows in front of us, The Petitioner sits with her two attorneys, heads bobbing. The gallery stands for the entrance of the judge, a plump, bespectacled woman who greets the day’s calendar with a weary sigh.
Family Court is a dangerous gamble: an institution made necessary by human greed and impoverishment; a casino of windowless rooms where the smoke is thick, the stakes are high, and peace of mind is bargained away in small chips. Today, we up the ante with this black-robed stranger, whose deal of the deck will impact our family life in the most enduring and minute ways.
During the usual opening chatter between judge and bailiff, I reflect on the early days with my husband’s daughter: the pink bear I bought her before I met her, my furtive waves from the car window, the introductory strolls in the park when she clung to her father’s shoulder and blinked at the walking oddity known as Daddy’s Friend. Sometimes, the three of us went to the playground; other times, I busied myself elsewhere while father and daughter made a picnic on the grass. On Thursday afternoons, while both of her parents were at work, I made mashed potato lunches, sang songs, and read her stories before naptime. In the series of drop-offs and pick-ups that comprised our weekly routine, her mother was sometimes pleasant, sometimes not. I knew she was worried about losing her daughter’s loyalty, not just to one but to potentially two other parental figures. I assumed that time would confirm the righteous strength of the maternal bond and allay her fears.
After four years of dating, my fiancé and I went house hunting and shopped for rings, a family emerging between me and my two beloveds. These times were exciting and wondrous, though anything but blissful. For all the while, as we tasted wedding cakes and fitted our Flower Girl with glittering shoes, the phone calls between my future husband and his former wife became nastier and more frequent, the court filings more prolific.
This too shall pass, my bridesmaids assured me. She’ll meet a guy or change careers; she’ll let go after he marries you, a splinter out of her finger; with a wife-in-law who has flexible work hours, who could resist the free daycare?
If you knew it was going to be this hard, my fiancé asked, would you still have said yes?
* * *
In the first case on the Family Court calendar, a father allegedly returned the son to his mother a day late from summer vacation. The schedule was unclear, and each parent read it to his or her own preference. The father should have called. The mother panicked. Somebody used the K-word. She accused. He denied. Now, they both want blood.
Mixing up dates and times, fear of kidnapping-it’s early stuff, I know from experience. In the first wobbly year after divorce, the mother and father study each other, stunned to find themselves on opposite sides of the courtroom. Deception is still a shock, attorneys are still for the unreasonable people one reads about in the newspaper, reunion is a fantasy in at least one mind. The judge sends them across the hall for mediation: a place where former spouses learn to say “co-parenting” and “joint custody,” a place where people have hope and expectations, a place to which my husband and his ex-wife will not be sent today, having exhausted two mediators already.
“What are the Dollhouse People up to?” I once asked my stepdaughter while her father and mother were being “mediated.” I had taken that morning off from work (maternity leave for stepmothers) and was hanging new curtains in her room.
“This is the little girl, and her parents are going downtown today to plan nice things for her,” she told me.
“Hmm, and which room is the little girl’s?”
“She lives in this room here with her mom and dad, and they all sleep together in this bed.” She fluffed a miniature sachet pillow I had made her for a Christmas present.
“And who lives here?” I pointed to the adjacent dwelling she had established in the cupboard of her nightstand.
“This is where the stepmother lives. Here’s her hammock and her bookshelf and her cup of tea.” I smooched the top of her head; “next-door neighbor” was a decent rating, I figured, from a five-year-old who never asked for a third parent. On my way out, I plucked the laundry basket from her closet.
“I want that done today,” she said.
“What’s that again, hon’?”
“I mean, could you please wash my clothes before I go?”
* * *
Once again my husband restricts the blood flow to my fingers, and once again, I loosen the grip, gently, aware that the most benign gestures can influence the judge.
My husband and his daughter are not into Special Occasions. When she is with us, I might be able to drag them to the museum or an occasional ballet, but for the most part, it is each other’s casual presence they seek. He enjoys picking her up from school, pulling weeds with her in the backyard, pointing to Jupiter on a summer night, performing magic tricks for her friends. When she’s not with us, he misses her the way he would miss an amputated limb; damaged equilibrium, phantom pain, mourning. From the moment she was old enough to talk on the phone, he has called her every night to wish her sweet dreams, and the man would not consider living more than ten minutes away from her. His devotion is quite inconvenient for his ex-wife’s lawyers and the Deadbeat-Dad image they are trying to portray.
Our case file makes for a stunning collection of lurid testimonials and incendiary correspondence, a sensational tabloid in which casual comments among friends are presented to the judge as evidence of tragic parental shortcomings, and each word uttered in normal family rumble and tumble is subject to distortion: If my husband’s daughter watches television at her mother’s house, it’s fine. If she watches Saturday morning cartoons at our house, the child has been placed in front of the tube to rot. If her mother lets her spend Saturday afternoon at a friend’s house, it’s normal, but if her father allows his daughter to visit that same friend, the child has been dumped on someone else’s parents for the day. When her father takes his daughter for a late lunch and they run out of time for dinner before her 7 p.m. drop-off with her mother, he is a Disneyland Dad. If he works in his studio while his daughter plays upstairs, he’s not interacting with his child. Any participation by me is presented as the extent to which care of the child has been abandoned.
The worst irony of this situation is that one reason my husband left his first wife was to spare his daughter a childhood spent in the shadow of a disastrous marriage. No one would dispute that these biological parents are better off without each other, yet none of us is allowed the solace of having spared this child from a continuing battle.
Combat soldiers say that to view the opponent as human is suicide; for me, it’s the only sane approach, peacetime or not. During the lulls between court appearances, when my husband’s ex-wife is rarely mentioned and the trenchbound strategizing is all but forgotten, I try to imagine what it must be like for her, coping with a situation seemingly visited upon her: the divorce she didn’t want, the court-ordered arrangement by which her daughter spends every other weekend without her. For a single mother who went back to college in her mid-forties, presumably to fortify herself as an independent woman, it must be frustrating to be perpetually in contact with a man who, however close to her child’s heart, is an emblem of the past she wants to leave behind. To then endure a third parent, neither selected nor approved by herself? Not an enviable position.
But these ruminations clash with the martial atmosphere in the courtroom, where, at this point, we have been sitting for an hour and forty minutes: the meter on our attorney fees clicking ever upward, our favorite eight-year-old’s tuition fund conversely diving. The conference with the judge will last twenty minutes, but, due to the unpredictability of the daily calendar, we are required to occupy the gallery long before the curtain on our case rises. The next case involves a mother who cannot read the schedule and a father who wants to change the drop-off place from the parking lot at Denny’s to the one at Lyons.
“Why can’t my mom come to the house?” my stepdaughter asked me one day as I buttoned her into her coat. “Why do we have to meet her at the coffee place?”
“It’s better for us to meet your mom down the block,” I replied, the front-porch memories flashing through my mind: my stepdaughter’s mother dropping by again without our permission. She’s asking to borrow the phone, the bathroom, or a spare piece of fruit; she’s talking spirituality and lobbing a shoe at our brick steps; she’s vowing to nobody in particular that she will rescue her daughter from us. Fortunately, the child wasn’t present for most of these dramas. And yet, how incomprehensible it must be that her mother is prohibited by court order from coming within sight of the house when dropping her off or picking her up.
“Do you like my mom?” my stepdaughter recently asked.
“I don’t know her very well.” Call it a dodge, call it semantics, but do you really know a person whose good side you’ve never seen?
“Mommy says she wants a cooperative relationship with Daddy.”
“That’s good. I think it would be nice for everyone.”
“So do I. What’s a cooperative relationship?”
When people cooperate they work well together, I explained, extolling the virtues of sharing over greed, restraint amid frustration, respect for personal sovereignty. Fortunately, my husband’s daughter is innocent of the latest proposal from her mother’s attorney: no overnights for Father’s birthday; of sixteen school-vacation weeks, only two are to be taken with Father. Nor does my stepdaughter know that if her mother wins today’s round of litigation, the time she is now allowed to spend with her father will be decreased by nearly a third.
“Chase me!” she commanded, retrieving me from a dazed fascination with the corner of our kitchen cupboard. We rumbled up the stairs, screaming with relief.
* * *
More courtroom tragedies pass before us: a restraining order, a commitment to attend rehab, the denial of an unmarried father’s request for more time with his child. My husband’s forehead has an impatient shine. Theoretically, we should be encouraged by the comparative severity of other people’s problems. After all, we have no language barrier, no drug addiction, no sexual abuse claims. Yet, these court appearances fill me with disappointment and shame: disappointment, that perhaps we humans have not evolved that much, after all; shame, that our presence in Family Court betrays an inability to work out the most basic machinations of cooperation. It feels weird to belong to a family in which the child’s every meal, doctor’s appointment, birthday party, and vacation are dictated by court order. Yet, I can only shudder to think of what might have happened were it not for the final authority of the court. It is humbling to admit that, hated as these procedures are, our family requires them.
Just when I think I can’t stand another minute, the clerk calls our party of litigants and attorneys to the judge’s chambers. My life will be duly affected by the outcome of this caucus, in which my marriage, my relationship to my stepdaughter, my home, my car, and my telephone, among other topics, will be discussed. But, as merely the spouse of The Respondent, I am, be it by blessing or injustice, not permitted to attend.
And so, I nip across the street for tea and headlines, both of which are perennially bitter but more palatable than my imaginings of the confab in the judge’s chambers, where the parties are allowed to sling any mud they wish, whether included in the court filings or not: Will the judge order my husband to remarry his ex-wife since they are so bad at divorce? Will The Petitioner have the opportunity to spin her own version of Cinderella in which her child is forced by a cruel stepmother to wear rags (clothes I buy), slave all day (clean her room), and fend for her life (amuse herself for an hour)? Will the judge decide that my husband’s ex-wife is entitled to a key to our house, plus permanent bathroom privileges? Perhaps it is simply the case, as a previous attorney suggested, that the judge ignores most of what the parents say, and the outcome is more about percentages or the luck of the draw: If the presiding judge believes in joint custody, the ruling will respect the rights and responsibilities of the “weekend” parent. If not, the primary-custody philosophy prevails, and time with the child is treated like standard horse-thievery: possession is nine-tenths of the law.
Or suppose that while I’m in this café, a disciple of Timothy McVeigh blows up the building in which Family Court is housed? Or a fire starts in the elevator shaft? My husband would want me to raise his daughter in the absence of her mother and father. A brief fantasy of all I could do for her without this battle raging between her parents quickly dissolves into a more sobering probability: a custody battle with The Petitioner’s relatives. All my years of loving this child, and I might never see her again? The pain of losing her to be somehow endured while concurrently mourning my husband?
On the way back to court, I buy my stepdaughter a set of colored pencils because, like hanging her curtains or washing her clothes, taking care of her is the most reliable brand of solace on such a day as this. Then I sit on a bench and watch the elevator needle bend down from the fourth floor. People emerge: faces stoic, wounds reopened, briefcases bulging. Some have gambled and lost, and theirs is the dour slump of defeat; others have won the jackpot, but even they look solemn, their winnings merely the long-awaited return of what was stolen from them. Most, however, wear the grimace of sustained anticipation, for, like us, their fates have yet to find them in the mail, to govern their lives for years to come. Or at least until time, from this process, does them part.