Arbitration Day arrives: Monday. I don’t sleep much the night before, but it’s not the unpleasant kind of sleeplessness with tossing and turning and agonizing hope of sleep. I just lie there. The Siamese has gone crazy, racing around the house all night and chasing the sweet little black and white tuxedo cat we’ve been fostering and hope to adopt if we stay in the house. I finally get up and lock Siamese in the laundry room, thinking he can’t hurt anything in there and nor can I hear him.
When I get up Monday morning, I discover he’s clawed away several inches of linoleum flooring in his efforts to liberate himself. I should be mad – it’s not going to help me sell the house if I have to – but I’m not. I know how he felt: Desperate to be free.
I leave plenty of time for morning traffic, so my father and I arrive an hour early for the arbitration. We sit in Starbucks and I wait for nervous queasiness, but it never arrives. I wait for panicked, sleep-deprived thoughts of things I’ve forgotten to do or need to remind myself to tell the arbitrator, but they don’t arrive either.
Except for a near-constant need to go to the bathroom, I’m about as calm as I’ve ever been. The sensation is strange and mesmerizing: like looking at the sky the day after 9/11 and actually noticing that there were no planes. You would not have noticed that any other day.
We get to the arbitrator’s office and I think I must say goodbye to my father; I was under the impression that he would not be allowed to stay. But the lawyer arrives, with the paralegal, and then the arbitrator, and it’s quite the crowd in the conference room, and everyone agrees it’s fine if he stays. A good idea, even.
The Departed and his lawyer are in another room, and this is how it goes: we all remain separate, and the arbitrator bounces between the rooms trying to get an agreement that everyone will sign. We have four hours to accomplish this, and if there’s no agreement at the end of that time, the arbitrator will decide for us.
My father goes out to the restroom before the formal proceedings begin, and when he returns he says, I think I just saw The Departed’s Lawyer. She was on the verge of tears.
And then we begin. The Lawyer starts by saying that this whole thing should not have dragged on for a year, as this was a very simple divorce; he points out things like the health insurance cancellation, the refusal to answer interrogatory questions; and all the other things The Departed did to delay this proceeding.
The Arbitrator nods and listens, and then he turns to me. I’m not sure if I’m supposed to talk or The Lawyer but The Arbitrator starts asking questions and I just answer them. For a while, it’s just him and me talking. He asks about The Child’s college account; I pull out the papers showing that her own father, not The Departed, deposited the money in that account. I also have the checks – six thousand dollars worth – written from my own account to those of The Departed’s children. I hand him the documentation about my canceled health insurance and a thousand dollar medical bill for The Child that I received as a result of that, in addition to the extra premiums I had to pay – amounting to more thousands of dollars – when my own health insurance cost The Departed twenty dollars per paycheck.
I’m talking for quite a while and normally I’d feel kind of embarrassed about dominating a conversation in such a way, but at this moment it’s actually important that I do and it’s a relief to talk and have someone just listen, even if I am paying handsomely for the privilege.
There’s a pause and The Arbitrator seems to be done asking questions.
Can I say something? I ask.
Of course, he says. This is your proceeding.
Well, I tell him, we’ve talked a lot about money and I get that this is all about money. But I think it’s important to understand too, that I live in my house and there’s a child in the house too; not only that, but I work from that house. This has been a long and difficult year, and it’s had an effect on work; my coworkers have been understanding but they have limits. The Child has already been put through a lot, I say, and I’d like to keep things as stable as I can for her sake. In other words, I two people will sustain even more suffering – possibly a great deal more – if we are forced to move at the end of today’s proceeding.
And then I think to myself, it’s okay to ask for what you want. If there is any time when it is okay, this is that time.
I want to keep my house, I tell him.
It’s The Arbitrator’s job not just to help you come to an agreement, but to tell you what the law is and how it applies to you, but he hasn’t done that yet, and I’ve forgotten that part until he answers me.
Well, he says, we’ll have to see if that’s possible, because it looks like you may owe him quite a bit of money, in that case.