I’m frustrated and angry and completely nonplussed.
I’m sitting at the little window in front of a bright red phone, a landline in a world of wireless communication. It’s (ironically) incredibly fast to find service through its singular purpose: child support enforcement uses this red phone.
It’s been over three years since my ex-husband has attempted to communicate with his children. After his initial showing at court, his lawyer ended up dismissing him as a client and his signature was thereafter replaced with failure to appear. Certified mail was left uncollected and unsigned for; regular mail was thrown away unopened and in-person court-appointed knocks to his door were met with strange behavior, such as a returned knock and refusal to answer. I never pursued collecting child support owed because I found myself so grateful to just have my kids and be away from his abusive, demeaning, terrifying hold on our lives. Plus, I’m stubborn and I’ll be damned if I ask for help from that man. If he pays me, he’s alive. If he doesn’t, I can go on pretending the Earth is washed of him forever. That he can’t hurt me or my children anymore.
Our margins financially (and emotionally) are razor-thin. So when our car started slipping while shifting, I panicked a little. I took her in, and the mechanic who always hates to give me the terrible news tells me old Volvo doesn’t have long before her transmission falls out the bottom. My $29 in checking won’t cover a new car, or a transmission. I take substitute teaching jobs when I can nearby, and teach as many classes as possible at the university I’m incredibly lucky to work at. I write grants for a local nonprofit on 30-day contracts because I can do them while my kids argue about who has more milk, and it’s something. I get to be with my kids, and that is almost always enough. Until it isn’t. Until a mechanic tells you that you’re well and truly screwed because your only means of transportation is about to enter its grave.
My son is three and my daughter is five and we’ve adjusted to life because, really, they’ve only known life with me. My boy was maybe five months when we left, and my daughter doesn’t remember anything except a few scary moments that she’s grabbed hold of because it’s her only recollection of a different life. They both crave a dad–but it’s not on the menu, so they content themselves with mommy doing Hulk impersonations and reminding them that families are all unique in how they are made.
What is more difficult to adjust to is the knowledge that I’m not going to be miraculously saved. I don’t know if it was brewing in me for some time or not, but sitting next to that red phone as the support enforcement specialist spoke kindly and uselessly to me, I felt my entire stomach sink.
“I’m here to, um, to file this paperwork,” I say awkwardly. My kids are sitting next to another kid, watching Ice Age in the lobby, laughing with their new friend.
“What’s your case number?” She asks.
“I don’t have one,” I reply.
She looks closer at my papers. “Oh, right, this is a new case. Okay, so it looks like there hasn’t been any payment…ever. Okay…” she shuffles page after page, looking for spots to fill in, telling me about the process. I feel myself holding my own hands tightly and wonder if I look old, because I feel like a child internally but know the last five years have done nothing but mark up my eyes and face. My body has gone from lean to matronly, my hair has gone from tidy to managed, and my heart is still warm, but oh my god, so heavy. My words have gone from pleasing to succinct and honest in these situations.
“I’m nervous,” I say. “I’m nervous he will retaliate. I haven’t pursued this because it’s just, you know, poking a bear.”
She looks at the papers. “Did you mention that in here?”
“There was a box to mark about domestic violence or restraining orders. I marked it.”
She scanned the page. “Sorry, where? These are new forms to me,” she passes them to me.
I point to the tiny box, the one that you mark if you’ve had someone choke you, rape you, trap you in a doorway, pin you down. The little box with the tiny check mark that is supposed to somehow relate that someone screamed at your toddler for peeing her pants, scaring her so much she would poop on the floor before asking for help from him again. A checkmark, a singular checkmark, to indicate you think he’ll gun you down if you make him mad enough by standing up for your kids or yourself.
“Is there a restraining order?” I nod, and tell her it expired in November, over five months ago. “You should get that to us, with a written statement from you that you have concerns over safety of yourself or kids. That will change how we do things.”
“How will it change?” I ask. “Could there be protection?”
“Well, if he does threaten or react badly then we can back right off. We don’t want you or your kids in any danger.”
This is where the nonplussed feeling settled on my face. “So…if he is a big enough bully, he gets his way?”
“Essentially, yes. Your safety and your kids’ safety is more important.” She is speaking truth, but not seeing the injustice of it. Or maybe she is, but she’s as impotent as I am about it.
She tells me they will start with certified mail to let him respond and set up payments. I tell her it’s been three years and he doesn’t know how to write a check properly. He won’t do that.
She continues, saying it will likely be around six months before they can file contempt. “Even after three years of nonpayment following a court order?” I ask. She says, likely.
“Then we can pursue suspension of driver’s license, and see if that gets his attention. Where does he work?” She asks. I try not to laugh derisively.
“He probably doesn’t. At least, not officially,” I say. “He does have a trust fund that matured in October when he turned 35.” This is where I feel skeevy. The only way I would go after that unearned income of his would be if I had two kids, one dying car, and $29 in checking. So here we are.
“Okay. Well, we’ll start with certified mail, give him that six months to respond, then we can send a person to his address to serve papers.”
“He won’t answer. He won’t sign. He doesn’t open mail. He is suspicious of everyone and will punch a messenger before signing for anything.”
“Well, we have to legally give him the six months, then we can look into the trust fund by about a year’s time for backpay. Often the fathers will demand to see their kids and say the mother hasn’t let them see the kids, so we will need the parenting plan. When does he have the kids?”
Now I’m just done. Against my will, against my reserve to not look more foolish and pitiful and desperate, I feel my eyes well up with tears. “He doesn’t have the kids, ever. The judge ruled abandonment. He’s not allowed to see them, he has to have a psychological evaluation, everything.” She hands me a box of tissues.
“Have you been to the domestic violence resource center?” She asks quietly. I nod. They helped me get out of that house when I thought I’d die there. “Would you like to apply for TANF?” I shake my head. I don’t qualify, because I have three jobs that pay around $200 more a month than the cut off. “Well, I can file this, and you can call next week after Wednesday to talk to your social worker.”
I shake my head again. Now the tears are just rolling down my cheeks with reckless abandon. I tip my head up as though I can suck the moisture back in, yet another futile endeavor. “I…it’s not worth it. It’s not worth pressuring him. He’ll just take all the money out in cash so it’s unfindable, he’ll demand to see the kids, he’ll make our lives hell again. It’s not worth it. I’d like my papers back, please. I…I don’t want to file. I’m sorry. Thank you for your help.”
I stand up, and I know she looks at me and sees me precisely as I have been unwilling to see myself the last three years. Stuck.
My mother prays for a savior, some financial rescue through a fine gentleman ready to take up the mantle of caring for the dysfunctional wayward daughter and poor disheveled offspring. I think I still hope for it, too, but with a disgusted feminist self scoffing at the very sentiment. This isn’t the 1950s, mom. Or literally any time prior to this modern age. But then I stop, and I realize the incredible resolve the women who came before me had. However disheveled and tired, however unfairly treated or unceasingly demanded upon, I stand better than my forebears. Because of the women who walked through more, withstood more, fought for more, I stand.
There is resolve to be found in bondage. When there are no other materials at hand, you augment and fully use the tools found around you. When you have no margins, you squeeze tighter together to adjust to new margins. You make them wider through perception. That’s all truth is, anyway, isn’t it? Perception?
She slides the papers back to me, neatly bundled in the little black clip I dug out of a basket on the counter at home, next to random, mundane yet precious rocks and dead dandelions. She smiles that sad smile that says, Sorry there isn’t help for your kind of problem, and I reassure her with a crass joke that maybe my ex will get hit by a bus and all this trouble will go away. She offers a chuckle, but it’s 9 a.m. and it’s unlikely I’ll be last hard story today, or the most tragic.
I pull my kids from the screen, bid their newfound friend farewell, and we walk our little circus out to the car that I bless each time it gets us from one point to another. How I appreciate each trip, each ability to reach a destination free of breakdown, knowing that a breakdown looms large in the future. I wouldn’t have that gratitude if the threat were no longer there–or at least, it wouldn’t be as pervasive in my daily life.
My rearview mirror holds my daughter’s blue-paint speckled, tangled hair. She is gesticulating with her wide gestures and dramatic flair, and buckling herself in like such a good girl. Her brother is racing her without mentioning it, no doubt hoping to get the jump on her without her noticing. As they click in and settle for a trip to the second hand store to dig for Harry Potter books, I readjust my margins on what it means to have a beautiful life.
A beautiful life is about the refining, the perfecting, of all that makes it challenging and noteworthy. Just like how grateful I am to have my children, because I might have lost them. My car, because it might go at any second.
My life, because I wouldn’t notice these sweet, poignant, precious moments if they were muddled and softened with easy living.
What a gift I have, kicking my seat, arguing with each other, waking me up to talk about mean elves in my room, Mom. Wrapping their little arms around me, jumping out from behind doors to startle me, rolling their eyes and dissing my food. Without this, it would be far too quiet. Besides, a car is a car. We’ll live. We’ve been through worse–and look how far we’ve come.
Life is perfecting.