We all sat with our arms across our chests. My ex pointed to my son sitting on the cracked vinyl seat directly across from us and mouthed because of you with the grimace that made me run for cover when we were married. On yellowed walls, pastoral scenes, the kind you can buy cheap at Wal-Mart, were framed and hanging indiscriminately. I read nearly every pamphlet on every form of abuse and addiction and had pity for those enmeshed in it.
We were finally ushered into the counselor’s office by an anorexic woman with dangly earrings and a forced look of sympathy. I wanted to punch her in the face. I hoped the seriousness of my business suit spoke for itself. My ex poked his finger into our son’s back and gave him a shove, which the counselor saw. I shook my head as if to say,Do you see what I have to put up with?
My ex and I had decided beforehand that, no matter what, we would put up a united front, something we hadn’t needed to do in a long time.
The overweight counselor appeared to be the nervous type. His corona of fuzzy hair was threaded with gray. He had the annoying habit of pushing his thick glasses up his sweating nose. He was the kind of man my ex liked to laugh at, give a hard time to. But I knew that all the degrees nailed on the walls, and the fact that these sessions were court- ordered, would make my ex heel like a whipped dog. We were at this man’s mercy, even though we wouldn’t dare, out loud, admit that to one another.
To put us at ease, the counselor showed us pictures of his little girls, cute things in sparkling pinks and purples. Our son had been fiddling with the laces on his enormous sneakers, but was curious enough to take a quick look, which the counselor noted with satisfaction. He joked about taking his Korean wife to meet his Jewish parents, who were disappointed, but not as bad as he thought they would be, since she had looks. Still, he told us, they managed to make it work, as if a testimony for what he might do for our own situation. Enough about me, he said, looking at my son who set his jaw.
He drew up an addiction tree, kind of like a family tree, he told us. Addiction just doesn’t come of out of the clouds, after all, he said, peering at us over his frames.
Drinking, my son corrected, the emphasis made with a razor’s edge.
Speak up son—what’s that? he said, tilting his head to the side.
I cleared my throat, We were ordered by the courts to attend the sessions because of my son’s underage drinking, not drugs. I smoothed my navy blue pinstripe skirt, and tilted my chin upward, the way my mother always did.
I’m well aware, he said addressing my husband, his eyes huge and magnified behind his aviator frames, though I was the one he should have been looking at.
He told us, like he was reading from a script, that family relationships are crucial to getting through the tough times. This made my son look up. My ex snorted, patted the pocket of his shirt for a smoke. He nodded in the direction of our son and said, We’re here because of him.
Inexplicably, the counselor turned to my son and asked, Do you have any idea, whatsoever, why your parents got divorced?
Hey there, pal, my ex warned.
Our son slowly shook his head, momentarily shifting the lank of hair that covered his eyes. He said, in a low voice, no fucking clue, as if the idea of us ever having been together in the first place hadn’t crossed his mind.
Might be a good place to start, the counselor said, as if he knew, that quickly, we were the kind who required the strongest weapons in his arsenal.
Months later our son sent us e-mails from the facility where he’d been placed after a downward spiral a blind man could have seen coming. They were long missives that he labeled “Part 1” and “Part 2.” In them, he asked questions that we found hard to answer. Some were formatted into multiple choices. Some required a simple yes or no. We fought over who would reply to him.
Somebody, please, he wrote.
The counselor had sent us an e-mail. He told us his girls were growing. Told us, too, how his wife was becoming more independent by the day, and that she’d opened up her own nail salon. He told us all of this even though we had never shown the slightest bit of interest in his family. He told us he really felt like we had what it would take as a family to get through the tough times. Said he knew it as much as anything else he could be absolutely sure of.
My ex said, He’s not as smart as I thought he was.
We decided that neither of us would respond to the e-mail. Some illusions were best left alone. Not for one second did we want to encourage him or anyone else for that matter. Not one way or the other.
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