Tanned, leathery neck and scrawny little chicken arms. I know chickens don’t have arms, but if they did, they would look like hers.
The way she keeps arching her back and lifting her hair, elbows facing the ceiling. All I can think about is uncooked chicken wings. In her sleeveless top, her hollow but thankfully fresh-shaven armpits are constantly exposed to Robert, my lawyer, and me, since I am sitting beside him. She looks like a flapping, preening chicken, strutting in front of her ex-husband.
They used to be married but are long-since divorced; he has remarried and divorced a second time, I don’t know about her. He is calm and almost snide except he is too well-mannered and in-control for a display of any kind. “What time is it?” he asks benignly. “Let me make a note of how long Brenda insisted we ‘discuss’ this clause.”
The mediation lawyer, an older grey-haired woman who favors natural fibers and chunky wooden necklaces, smiles into her yellow legal pad.
And Brenda, sitting across the table from her ex-husband, exposing her armpits and her pitifully narrow chest, arching her back, ruffling her hair, squawking “No! My client…”
Her client is my husband, my soon-to-be-ex. He doesn’t say much, she does the talking for him. She stares at me, and I stare back.
“…The expectation of full-time work….documentation of jobs you have applied for…how do we know you’re not turning down work and instead taking trips to Europe, meanwhile he’s paying you spousal support…”
I gave up a career to stay home with our children, one of whom is autistic and intellectually disabled. I am forty-eight. According to this bitch lawyer, he pays me $1000 a month in spousal support, and I’m turning down jobs so I can take trips to Europe. Right. I’m a clerk at a hospital. Casual, not even part-time. I have difficulty not feeling guilty when I buy groceries for myself.
My husband starts crying and says he doesn’t think it’s fair that he has to pay spousal support, when I’m the one who moved out. He says it’s a patriarchal system that is penalizing him. OK, so how about our whole marriage? For almost twenty years it was a patriarchal system. Why is he objecting now?
His lawyer says there is an expectation that I should be making more and taking less. I feel like a teenager, but she isn’t my mother.
It’s not her job to understand, it’s her job to spit my former husband’s words back at me. The words that reek of mistrust. But these are my children too, and don’t you think I would take care of them the best I can?
I get angry. I meet her gaze and stare her down. I say something not altogether nice to my husband-but-maybe-now-my-ex. I don’t really remember what – something about, “OK, I’ll jump through your hoops for the sake of maintaining a civil relationship” and I must have scowled – did I just score a point? I can’t tell. The room is quiet, but I don’t know if I’ve said the right thing (shit, yes!) or the wrong thing (oh, shit) and they’re trying not to embarrass me.
I think it was the right thing, and I think they respect me for having said it; but it all feels so new, like a part in a play, except I’m not acting. Or maybe I’m acting like myself. I’ve never acted that way around him, but then again he never wanted to see anything except what he wanted to see, for all those years. And then when I started to grow into myself, he said he “just wanted status quo”. He said he was proud of the personal work I had done, and he envied the fact that I applied myself to it, and he admired me for it; but really, he just wanted me back the way I used to be.
That “me” is gone. Well, she wants to pop up again when he presses her buttons…like when he cries, and she feels guilty…he knows where those buttons are, and maybe he isn’t deliberately pressing them, maybe he’s just doing what he’s always done, but now she sees it for what it really is. Emotional manipulation, the other mothers had told her. Toxic environment. No, she said. We never fight. Exactly, they said.
At the end of the civilized legal showdown, a compromise: in three years we will “review” the amounts for spousal and child support, but in the meantime I can get on my feet financially without fear of him clawing back support payments.
“Quantum,” my lawyer said, rather than starting “anew”. In hindsight, which tactic should we have taken to review our relationship when it started wearing thin, quantum or anew?
On the way out, my lawyer follows me downstairs to the street level. He chucks me on the shoulder, saying we got suitable “protections” for me, and I’ll be fine. I thank him and he leaves.
I stand in the hallway as the mediation lawyer makes a photocopy of my tax assessment and we chat, our faces cracking into large smiles, both relieved it’s over, and both able to be ourselves now that the pressure is off. I like her. She is married with children in university. When we first started the mediation process last August (when she said we should budget for three meetings), the next day she was driving her daughter to university out east. At our fifth-or-so meeting, she was driving east again, this time to pick up her daughter for the summer. Now it’s August, and soon she’ll be driving her daughter back for her second year of university. God, I hope we have this thing signed and resolved before September. My ex-husband has a way of stalling, foot-dragging, sticking in the mud, dragging everyone else down, whatever you want to call it. I’ve paid for gas for two trips out east.
It doesn’t seem right to leave without at least saying good-bye to him, so I wait a few minutes until I realize he must be squirrelled away with his lawyer upstairs. Maybe she’s wiping his tears and patting him on the back. Women like to do that for him. Did I do that for him? I was his mother more than I want to admit.
Fuck you, Chicken Arms.
I feel triumphant for the rest of the day. I’m surprised at myself – I’m handling this so well!
That evening I get an email from my lawyer. “Good meeting today. You’ll be fine. Your retainer of $2,000 is used up. Please drop off another cheque for $2,000”.
Oh well, an investment in myself, I suppose. No choice but to pay. I’ll be glad in the future.
My future. Oh yeah, that. My lonely future.
After supper, the headache sets in. I make it to ten o’clock and go to bed. There is a hollow ringing in my head. What have I done? Now I am crying, tears running down my face when I get up in the night.
I make it to the morning. I begin texting but decide to call instead.
His voice is cold, mine is rough.
I say, “That was hard yesterday.”
He is guarded. “Yeah.”
I tell myself, don’t apologize, just explain. “I had to be tough because your lawyer was tough.”
“I waited to see you after.”
“Yeah.” Silence. Then he says, “I’m taking the children for pizza tonight if you want to come.”
I say, “OK, sure, I’d like that.”
We go to a little place that’s no more than a takeout joint with a few cheap tables and chairs. There’s an electronic doorbell that chimes every time someone enters or exits. Our younger daughter, the disabled one, thinks the sound is funny and she laughs repeatedly. I smile with her, but the sound annoys me. Our older daughter sighs and looks bored. The pizza is cold and tastes like cardboard.
We don’t talk about the meeting. He doesn’t say he loves me, nor does he ask me to come back as I’d half hope he would, even though I know we’re well past that point. I don’t tell him I still love him but can’t live with him.
We sit in silence, except for that damned doorbell, eating bad pizza.
Jane Edey Wood was born in Boston and received her Masters degree in Arts from the University of Michigan. Her writing as appeared in newspapers including The Ottawa Citizen and The Globe and Mail, and through online literary journals such as Motherhood Stories, CommuterLit, and Catapult. She is the author of a non-fiction book about anorexia entitled Voluntary Starvation. She is on the editorial board for Prim International Magazine and is currently completing her Masters Degree in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia.