My First Divorce
I wasn’t one hundred percent confident in my ability to divorce Rodney without a lawyer, but I determined after crunching a few numbers that there was no way I could afford one. A couple days before my trek to the city-county building, I called to see what I needed to bring. That way they couldn’t deny my petition.
I drove up Delaware and down Alabama a half-dozen times trying to find a parking space before I finally gave up on finding a spot close and turned down New York. I parked at a meter about five city blocks from where I needed to be. It was a windy, hot day in mid-July. I clutched the papers tightly between my bicep and forearm while digging for quarters to appease the parking meter gods. “Hope 90 minutes is enough time,” I said to no one after twisting the handle a third time.
At the door a blast of cold air blew my hair away from face, but it was too little too late. My foundation was shiny and my hair was flat. I was surprised by the sight of guards and the X-ray equipment and the metal detector in the lobby. I don’t know why I was shocked exactly. Maybe because I had failed to imagine them when I played out the scenario in my mind the night before. I dropped my keys in a dog dish and placed my organizer and purse beside them on the conveyor. The guards were confiscating bottled water and nail clippers and tire gauges from middle-aged women at the head of the line. They let me keep all my things, so I head to the clerk’s office. Family court division.
“Can I help you?” the woman behind the counter asked me. I held up tons of paper. Waivers for this in triplicate. Petitions for that in quadruplicate. I didn’t have a stapler, so I just crisscrossed the collated forms.
“I’m not sure what order these need to be in for you.” I handed them over the counter to her. “But I think everything is there. I want to file for divorce.”
When she took the stack, I couldn’t help but notice the giant rock on her hand and the subtle scent of Calvin Klein’s Obsession that followed her wrist. She thumbed through the papers quickly, counting out loud as she went. Then she looked up smiling and leaned in to ask me a question. She seemed chummier than a woman with her position was supposed to be. “Can I ask you…did you use the online resources to file these yourself?”
“Yes.” Damn it. I knew I’d done something wrong. I totally misread her warm expression. I couldn’t stand the thought of going back to Rodney defeated. I picked my purse up off the counter, hung it over my right shoulder, and waited for her to tell me what I’d done wrong. I had worked in government before, so I knew better than think I’d get what I needed on the first try. I was upset, and I didn’t know how long it would take me to work up the nerve to come back downtown again.
“You’re the first person—well, you’ve got everything here. I keep telling folks it’s not that hard. You just follow the instructions.” What? I did it right? I puffed up. If four years of college taught me one thing, it was how to fill out paperwork and navigate bureaucracy.
“Well,” I said. “I guess it can be difficult to get through all the steps and fill out all those papers. I’m sure for some people it’s really an emotional time.”
“Oh yeah, she nodded. She leaned in close and lowered her voice. She had found a confidant. “Last week some girl came in here making herself sick with tears, heaving and sighing all over the place. Come to find out she hadn’t seen the guy in four years and didn’t know where he lived. No way to get the summons to him. I wanted to say—but didn’t, it’s not my place you know—that four years is plenty of time.”
She changed the last number on her self-inking stamp and marked the top of each page with the bureaucratic thud of semi-permanence. The thud that says: Oh, you can get out of this if you want to, but there’ll be lines and fees and maybe some drug dogs involved.
“Well, honey. Good luck to you. In Indiana you have to wait sixty days before the judge can sign. So call the number I’ve written here on day sixty-one to check the status of your case.”
“Don’t I need to pay some money?”
“Oh, yeah,” she said. “Take this ticket across the hall and one of the cashiers will take care of you.”
One hundred and fifty-six dollars. That’s how much it cost in 2008 to untie the uncontested knot in Indiana—without a lawyer.
So that was it. I left family court with a case number and the promise my divorce would be official September 9. The click of my heels on the tiled floor echoed my relief as I left, but for the most part the walk back to my Chevy Malibu was a let-down. I kept waiting for the big release, the Mary Tyler Moore, throw-a-hat-in-the-air-while-some-guy-sings-you-might-just-make-it-after-all kind of release.
At home I changed into my pajamas then called Mom while I unloaded the dishwasher. Neither of us cried. She was being strong for me, but I’d flipped the emotional switch. Sure, I would’ve still cried with Emma Thompson had I been watching Sense and Sensibility. But empathizing with someone else’s pain operated on a different circuit than acknowledging my own.
When I told Rodney that evening that I’d filed, he didn’t believe me. The fucking nerve. He was sitting at the dining room table eating dinner. I, refusing to share a table with him, was standing next to it.
“If you filed they’d have given you a receipt or a document number or something.” He was just shy of laughing. I walked into the office and brought back some papers, then dropped them on the table next to his Healthy Choice steamer. He looked them over for a long minute without picking them up, and then finally said, “Wow. I guess you do have the balls.”
“That’ll be one hundred and fifty-six dollars,” I said, holding out my palm.