When I finally fell back down to earth off my lofty perch, I discovered I had grown much, much smaller.
In my rebellious years around college I had pushed the envelope of social values. My hell-raising – such as it was – was part of my generation’s struggles in the name of civil rights, anti-Vietnam war, feminism and gay rights. I also directed energy to organizing migrant grape pickers in New York State – nothing to do with the more famous California grape workers group; college professors at CUNY as a member of the negotiating committee of the first union-CUNY contract; and hospital social workers at NYU on behalf of my then-wife’s employer Local Union 1199. Eventually all of the causes got melded into routine American values. I had solid proof my vision wasn’t completely out of whack.
For four plus years – from the moment the guy in the elevator served me with divorce papers to the one note funeral oratorio of our son’s apartment door slamming behind me – my life was brimming with optimism. Futurist talking heads convinced the world that women and men of tomorrow will not be like women and men of the past. Women in droves were already abandoning their aprons and vacuum cleaners to venture into the world of jobs and careers. It struck me as more than plausible to expect men to stake out new territory too. It seemed inevitable that the world would be making room for a brave new kind of Father. I invested all my chips on that bet.
Nevertheless – despite residing on that high plane – I put my very own signature on the bottom line of a formal Separation Agreement that reeked of backward looking. I was now just another divorced Dad on New York’s Upper West Side. Smelling of the odor of defeat. Four years of righteous sacrifice trying to be a path-breaker left almost no traces.
My gender role drummer was too fast. I signed on to be an every-other weekend, once a weekday afternoon intruder into my child’s busy schedule.
I found an apartment seven blocks from our son’s home. Other than being close, my new living space had naught to recommend it. The two rooms were tiny; the atmosphere was old and stale. The windows – the symbol of my opening to the world – faced an air shaft, so I never saw the sun or street life or even a leaf of green. To rest my dream-shattered head it took a few months before my bed graduated from a blow-up camp mattress to a sanitized pre-owned professional-strength posture-pedic.
The next task after the reality of my failed experiment sank in was to reorganize my shrunken self.
My former wife and I began our separated lives with a few respectful gestures. We swapped access to our son here and there so he could make family visits and such. We kept our conversations brief and quite civilized – nothing nasty or hostile. If we had differences, we pedaled them softly.
In the last few weeks of our negotiations my former wife sounded reasonably amenable to my ambitious plan of significant parental input. The document we finally produced had to pass certain standards to meet the court’s requirements: specifying times and days of visitation, naming exact amounts of money to change hands, etc.
When negotiations started to move favorably, I was given verbal assurances that my former wife intended to be flexible and I could expect more closeness and contact with my son than doled out to the average divorced Dad. She said as much a few months earlier to the court-appointed psychiatrist.
With nothing more substantial to rely on, I took her kind-of-sort-of promises to mean there’s still the sliver of hope. My lawyer had previously stopped me from writing my long list of high-octane complaints about her. So she hadn’t seen the pile of grenades I harbored in reserve. Because of that omission her pride hadn’t been savaged, so she had fewer reasons to hold a grudge.
She kept herself out of the money-earning labor market. It was not up to me to be concerned about her finances beyond the alimony and child support dollars we had recently negotiated – and the gift I gave of my life savings thrown in as sweetener. She was on her own. We had declared our mutual financial independence.
Nevertheless, when the first weeks of our new lives unfolded in an agreeable manner, I got squishy.
My finances caused me to live within narrow limits. Every penny mattered. I could follow a hard nose and walk away. No power on earth could force me to hand over one penny more than what the paper said.
Or I could look at the Big Picture. Money might be scarce at the moment. But I had myself convinced the future would be cushier. Something in the air – not a judge or lawyer – told me I would soon have a clear mind to focus on improving my income. If a boost of twenty or thirty percent more income in a year or two or three was on the horizon, why not spend part of those future dollars now if they would insure a smooth foundation for the long haul?
I donated food, clothing and a few other essentials. I paid for nursery school classes for a few days a week. Summer was coming on, so when she suggested he needed a fan for his room, I supplied one. In tune with the poverty role she was playing, she assured me paying the electricity for air conditioning would be too rich for her.
Hoping against hope, despite all that had happened, there was a teensy weensy chance we could put our years of hostility into a sealed time capsule and begin reconciliation.
Our former marital residence was located on the corner of a busy two way Manhattan cross street. Traffic can be heavy. Turning traffic can be inconsiderate. About two months after being eradicated from my former apartment I was walking toward the same building en route to visit a friend.
It was dusk – a little after 7PM – when light from the sun is fading. A baby stroller emerged out of the front door of the building. Our son was the rider. The person pushing the carriage was not my former wife, but a young girl — a girl so short her head was hardly taller than the top of the stroller. Hello, I said to the pusher. What’s happening? The girl said she is babysitting, and is on the way across the street. She planned to go to her own apartment across the street until 8PM, less than an hour away. Then she would again cross the street to return our son to his mother at the end of her babysitting assignment.
I made a snap decision. I thanked the young girl for her assistance, and took our son and the stroller from her – and from the peril of becoming a crash test dummy for a little girl hardly tall enough to have any vision over the top of a stroller on two more trips across a busy street in fading light. I valued our son’s survival more than any fine points of our arrangement.
I returned our son to his mother less than an hour later and explained my reasons for protecting him. She didn’t appreciate my difference with her judgment. On the spot she made threats to go to court.
On the phone two days later, she reported she had already spoken with three lawyers in her quest to teach me the new rules. She eventually hit the jackpot. A few days later, my lawyer called to report getting a long, accusatory letter from an Elder Stateswoman of Family Law. This distinguished lawyer – who now represented my former wife – wagged a menacing finger at me for the stroller episode, and added several other alleged breaches of our two-month old agreement to make a surprisingly long list of my supposed deficiencies. She wanted me to straighten out and fly right. Or else.
Back in combat mode once again, I typewrote a very long reply to the new lawyer’s letter, going into excruciating detail about my honorable intentions during the stroller episode, and refuting each of the other claims in her menacing blast. I had receipts. Despite what her letter alleged, yes, I did pay for this and that; yes, I did send that payment on time; yes, I had already paid for more than twice the insurance I was obligated to get etc etc etc. Get off my back – I was as good as saying. I don’t need threats from lawyers before I do what is right for our son.
As her final act before Madame Distinguished Stateslawyer disappeared from my life, she sent my lawyer another letter. She conceded I was a good guy on all the financial issues. She also seemed to appreciate my desire to see my son more often, as she wrote “…I will be advising my client to try and be flexible in her attitude toward your client’s desire to spend as much time as possible with [our son]” – quite a healthy endorsement of my side of the equation.
In any event, as a lawyer she would do no more since my former wife stopped communicating with her. She couldn’t justify hanging around the case any longer.
I might have won this particular skirmish on points. But I learned a new lesson: A contract is a contract except when it’s about a child. When a contract is about a child it means whatever you don’t expect it to mean.
Things started going downhill from there. A few weeks later I experienced the depressing episode of having our son’s birthday pass with only a telephone chat but no in-person hugs.
In about ten more days my former wife and our son crossed paths with me further down the block where they lived. With them was a neighbor and her young daughter, both of whom I knew a tad. When the young daughter recognized from the conversation and gestures that I was my son’s father, she bolted away in what looked like terror. This was the first instance that left the chilling impression that someone was telling very frightening tales about me.
Later our son added some unexpected spice to a dinner table conversation. He said his mother told him his family name was the same as his mother’s maiden name, not Raphael, his parents’ compromise name. I stiffled any overt emotional response, as galling as his report was. All I did was emphasize our common name. And suggest perhaps he misunderstood what his mother said.
After I dropped our son off at the end of another weekend he held his mother’s hand and looked forward as they walked away. He was unaware that his mother had her head turned around and was mugging nasty faces at me.
When I appeared at a Halloween party sponsored by the block association she made a spectacle of wanting to call the police.
On another occasion mother and I walked together part of a short city block while our son reached up gripping one of each of our hands. This opportunity to hold onto both of us at the same time came to him only once in his lifetime.
Having amply demonstrated that her signature on the bottom of a document sharing joint custody with me was fake, the onion continued to peel to its rotten core. It sure seemed to me my former wife was tearing our agreement to shreds, undermining me, mocking me, being downright nasty and underhanded. Things I did which I thought were good, she reacted as if they were bad. What I thought was a graceful concession; she treated as the least that was owed to her. Things I thought were above and beyond the call of duty, she acted as if they were pulled from the dark bottom of my bag of tricks.
I felt like the characters in a cartoon I saw long ago. Two scruffy looking men are dangling next to each other by their chained arms and legs high on a wall of what appeared to be a maximum security prison. One man turns to his mate and says, “Now here’s The Plan….”
My plans were not made of the same stuff as my reality.
Since I was a couple of years shy of forty years of age when the final stamp was put on this divorce, our son would probably be my only child. I owed it to him to give him my unswerving commitment. Whatever else he might think of me, he should never doubt I tried to be available to him, to be reliable and a constant in his life.
There is a term the legal community uses when one party to a contract – say a divorce agreement – takes matters into their own hands and acts as judge and jury. The term is “self help.” Sometimes demoted to “vigilante justice.” Judges usually become quite righteous when spying one party administering self help. As cumbersome, drawn out and expensive as it might be, the proper thing to do in the court’s opinion is to bring your case before a judge.
With so many years left in our son’s life, committing self help in his pre-school years made no sense – if I would ever have need to turn to the courts for actual help in the future. No helpings of self help on my menu.
We went back to court a few times over this and that. The court often agreed that I was right and she was wrong. Didn’t matter. She knew the real game. Rules are made for fathers – as long as mother isn’t bloody awful. For me, playing by the rules didn’t get any rewards. But playing any other way would wipe me out.