Waiting

A day at Family Court is a day of waiting.

Although the cases are calendared, there is no set time for your case to be called.  You wait until you are called, which could, and sometimes does, take all day.  This type of waiting requires Zen-like patience.

Most of the people in Family Court — poor, uneducated (or under-educated), lower-class — are not patient.  So Family Court is noisy and uncivilized. 

It is also not a place where people dress like they are in court.  Unlike the U.S. federal or New York State Supreme Courts, only the lawyers and court workers wear suits, skirts and dresses.  Women wear tight tees stretched over sagging bellies and explosive muffin tops, their thighs and hips sausaged into low-rise jeans.  Men wear baggy jeans.  Everyone is tattooed. 

Most overheard conversations include liberal doses of the “f” word.

I have to go to work after I leave court, so I am one of the few petitioners or respondents who is dressed properly for a court appearance.  My dress and heels feel wrong on the benches with the masses.  I feel a greater kinship with the lawyers and caseworkers than the people sitting on the benches with me, waiting like I am for my case to be called. 

I feel out of place.

For the last sixteen months, I have been coming to Family Court every other month for a hearings in connection with a visitation petition filed by my ex-husband.  As the case is still pending, I will not comment on the merits or any of the specifics, except to note that  in those sixteen months, there have been approximately three or four face-to-face visits between my  husband and our kids.

I comply with my legal, moral and ethical obligations to appear on time for each court appearance, and to come back, and back, and back, with no end in sight.

Family Court is the only time I see my ex-husband.  I strongly prefer it that way.

Seeing him incites no feelings of nostalgia for our moribund relationship, no stirrings of attraction towards the man with whom I shared a bed for eight long years of my life.  My memories of our relationship are generally unpleasant.  The few fond ones have nothing to do with romance. 

He looks at me with disgust, and I look at him with confusion, trying to figure out, once again, how I ever wound up with him.  It is plainly obvious to me now that we simply never should have been together.  The mismatch is so clear to me now.  I can’t help but wonder how I overlooked it for so long.

There was a time when I wouldn’t look at him at all, fearing that he wanted to intimidate me with his glare.  Now, I stare openly at him as I try, in vain, to figure out what I ever saw in him.  I do this not to understand the past, but to avoid making that same mistake in the future.  He’s the one who drops his eyes to avoid my gaze. 

I notice he is reading The Daily News and carrying a book as well.  For a minute, I think, “well, that’s it — he always did read a lot, and I always admired that.”  But I don’t think I was desperate or shallow enough to marry a man just because he was literate.

We wait.

One of the men on the benches walks up to him and speaks.  He rises and greets the man with the universal not-a-hug, not-a-handshake gesture that seems peculiar to black men.  Or at least, black men of a certain ilk; those who have been steeped in black culture.  My 8-year-old son has not yet learned that gesture from his father, and won’t learn it from me.  I am not OK with all the ways that I can’t teach my son how to be a black man, but since I wasn’t planning to be a single parent when he was conceived, I accept it.

The gentleman speaking to my ex is not anyone I ever met while we were together.  I guess that the man is the same age as my ex, although he looks much older and, in his baggy low-rise shorts, dresses much younger.   He is of a type that became familiar to me during the time I was with my ex.  My ex is a substance abuse counselor, and many of his friends are recovering addicts.  On the man’s weathered, limping legs are legions of scars.  Healed injection sites.

I am not sitting close enough to overhear their conversation, but my ex has made a few covert gestures in my direction.  I imagine he is categorizing all the different types of bitches I am, especially since I have dared to not just roll over in these proceedings.  He doesn’t introduce me to his friend, nor do I expect him to.  We are not friends; I’m not sure we ever were.

We wait.

We are both pro se in these proceedings, meaning we are each representing ourselves, without benefit of counsel.  Although I am a lawyer, I do not practice family law, and my legal training gives me no advantages here.  I have done nothing to prepare for this routine court appearance.  There is nothing to prepare.  At this point, I can anticipate — accurately — what will happen.  Hiring a lawyer for this would have been a complete waste of time.

Today there will be no surprises.

We wait.

I am writing in my journal when he approaches me, wordlessly, and hands me a cold bottle of Poland Springs from an unseen vending machine.  I accept it and say, “Thank you.”  He does not respond.  Perhaps he grunts a response I don’t expect, and so do not hear.

I make sure the seal is intact before I open it and take a sip.

It dawns on me that I haven’t yet seen the law guardian assigned to represent the children in our case, and I realize her absence is the reason we are still waiting.  I know she has been ill, and I hope she’s well enough to attend today’s session.   If she is not there, the case will be adjourned and re-calendared, and I would have missed a morning of work for nothing. 

Just as I complete that thought, I see her.  She looks well.  We chat briefly, and I look around for my ex, who is convinced that she and I are conspiring against him.  I know the sight of the two of us chatting fuels his conspiracy theories.  I don’t see him.

Finally, our case is called, and it goes exactly as I expect it to.  In sum — nothing happens.  We are scheduled to return in September.

The court officer hands me a slip of paper with the date and time of our next scheduled appearance.  I try to take my time leaving the courtroom, but when I reach the elevator lobby, he is still there, waiting for the next elevator down. 

I walk past him and duck into the ladies’ room.  I stand in the full-length mirror, adjust my dress and admire my calves until I figure enough time has passed for Elvis to have left the building.

He is gone when I return to the elevator lobby, but still I take my time to get downstairs.  He is not smoking a cigarette outside, not waiting to ambush me as he has done in the past, but still I wait. 

I take out my journal again, writing as I watch and listen to a man and woman arguing about how he treated their kid during his last visit.  It isn’t long before the argument settles into a tired, worn groove of arguments past:

“You spend all day at the beach instead of working,” she says. 

“You can’t hurt me anymore,” he says.

I put my head down and keep writing.  I no longer feel out of place.  I used to have these arguments with my ex in the hallways outside of the courtroom during my divorce proceedings.  My advanced degree didn’t shield me from this drama.  My ex and I don’t have these arguments anymore, because we simply don’t talk at all.  

However, I would never tell him he can’t hurt me anymore, because he can — by hurting my kids.  They are hurt most by the lack of a meaningful relationship with their father. That’s why I continue to participate in these proceedings, hearing after hearing — because I hope that this will somehow lead to some type of renewed relationship among my ex and the children.

But I am tired of waiting.

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