When Words Wander
Chapter 1

Nici's forward to "Something We Have to Talk About"

I'm going to try my hand at writing a cheating wife story. I've read some fairly nice stories. But, in too many cheating wife stories I have read, the female characters seemed to either have a full blown narcissistic personality disorder, a histrionic personality disorder or they're so weak and spineless that I can only wonder how they could ever exist in the real world. They can't. They can only exist in the fantasies of testosterone overdosed, teenaged minds.

Cheating is not that uncommon. I do not even closely believe that 99% of people who cheat are so wacko, so abnormal. Where are those stories, stories about real people dealing and coping with real problems, in real ways?

I'm writing this story, putting emphasis on creating a couple where each is as emotionally strong as the other is. A real-life couple, who interact with each other along logical lines of subjective chance. Cheating and adultery is about passion, love, anger and hate. Cheating and adultery is about conflict, conflict between partners where one is pushing for change and the other not. Events must happen where change is inevitable, conclusive and consequential.

Since I do love tragedies and this is not real life, so no one has to pick up the broken pieces, don't expect any happy endings. Not in this story, for sure.

Oh! And btw, no sex scenes in my story, so nothing here for you pudding pounders.

- Why do life-changing events happen when we least expect them, when we feel comfortable, when we feel relaxed, and when we feel most secure? Why do our plans never workout, as they should? Maybe successfully, but never exactly as we planned. Why does that which does happen always happen differently, against our expectations? Have you ever noticed this?-

Conclusion from "Between two lovers chapter 2":

... "Jonathan, there's something we have to talk about," she said again, but this time with a deep sadness, without hope.

In her hands she held a large manila envelope, which she slid over the table towards him. "I've filed for divorce."

Jonathan looked at the envelope, grunted, nodded, and headed back down to his lair in the basement. As he entered his room he locked the door behind him. With a sigh that was close to a sob, he sat on his bed. His shoulders slumped and his head drooped until he cradled it with his hands between his knees. He couldn't make sense of all the emotions roiling through him. An almost impenetrable curtain of fear smothered everything. He didn't fear the dissolution of the marriage... that had happened six months ago when she told him she'd been having a year-long affair, and it wasn't "just sex."

No, the fear that turned his bowels to water was how he could continue after losing his children. He'd thought his life was far better than most, like one of those paintings on the Norman Rockwell plates his mother collected. Now it seemed more like one of those pictures for kids where, when you looked carefully, you saw the outline of monsters hidden in the ordinary. Nothing resembled what he'd thought. Susan was like one of those people on TV who pull off a skin like face mask to reveal a different actor.

When Susan told him about her lover, his world had dissolved and all he could see were the monsters. Everything he'd thought he had was gone, except the kids. He'd always believed that if you worked hard, put your family above yourself and were honest and loyal you'd realize the American dream of a wife, two kids and a nice house with a white picket fence. He thought he'd had all that. Now Susan was going to take it all away.

He didn't mind losing the house. He wanted to lose Susan, but what would his life have meant if it weren't for the kids. They were the meaning of life. What happened to you didn't matter; you built for the future, you built for your kids. No, being shed of Susan was would be like getting rid of a bad debt. Losing the kids would make him like a new car without an electrical system. Pretty and even potentially powerful looking on the outside, but useless.

It was when she'd told him what would happen with the kids that his blood turned to stale piss. At one point he'd thought about getting DNA tests. A drunken "friend" had suggested, "Maybe if they aren't really your kids." For a heartbeat he had wondered if that would make it easier. Perhaps he could stand the pain of losing them, if they weren't "really" his. But in his gut he knew that the source of the sperm didn't matter: they were his kids and he would do nothing that might damage them or their relationship with him. If they weren't his, he never wanted them to go looking for their "real" father.

These last six months had been both the most painful and the most rewarding of his life. Seeing Susan, especially when she was leaving or returning from a bout with her asshole lover, was chewing him up inside rather like a turtle with a piranha trapped inside his shell. The assault on his manhood was a feather blow short of unbearable. He'd never understood the real meaning of hate, the kind of hate that lasted generations, until the last few months.

He'd also never understood the balm that spending time with his kids provided. Even though Jonathan constantly berated himself for being a wimp by allowing Susan and her lover to continue breathing, spending time with his children confirmed his core belief that a real man always put his duty to his family first.

That's what Jonathan had always done with his marriage. He was not an articulate man; he didn't have the pretty words that he'd come to understand were so important to Susan, words that her lawyer lover spewed like a sewer terminal. It was what a man did, not what he said, that had always been important to Jonathan. He'd practically killed himself working overtime to provide for his family. When the female attorney he'd visited told him that his overtime might make his alimony payments higher, she'd asked him to find out how long he'd been working so many hours.

Checking his pay history, he discovered that in the last six years, as far back as his boss could give him records, there were only three non-holiday weeks where he'd worked less than sixty hours. One was when he was in a car accident. The jerk had to talk on his cell phone, putting Jonathan in the hospital with two broken ribs and a deflated lung. It had hurt like hell, but he'd checked himself out "against medical advice" and had gone back to work because they were trying to close on the land to build this house, and needed the money to make the down payment.

The second time was one of the times he'd been sick. He'd usually never let a cold or flu keep him from earning a living. This time, his boss had caught him. He'd been working with a fever of around 101 for three days when his boss sent him home. He'd gotten a tongue lashing about trying to be macho and spreading flu to everyone in the shop.

The third time was when his father died. He remembered almost losing a finger that week when eye sweat blurred his vision. Still, he'd only taken off the minimum days necessary to fulfill his obligations as a son at the funeral.

Jonathan snorted as he remembered something Susan had yelled recently when she tried once again to explain her adultery. "You loved your job more than you love us. You used it to hide from your family and your duties."

What a joke. Jonathan had never loved his job. It was hot, sweaty and dirty in the summer, and cold, sweaty and grimy in the winter. It wasn't boring, but it wasn't fun. There was satisfaction in doing it well, and he was very good at it, but he didn't want to spend his free time working on cars either. It was something he did to support his family.

He knew he'd never been very good with books and school. He could have probably graduated from a third-rate college. But that sort of school, and the grades he would have made there, would never have equipped him to make the kind of money he made working in the un-air-conditioned heavy equipment shop in the sweltering heat of Austin summers. At one point he'd thought about sales. Salesmen frequently called him to use his know-how to close a sale. The salesmen made the flow of words seem so easy. Jonathan would stand there in mute admiration of their talent, and know that it was beyond him.

So, he always worked as much overtime as he could, and as a result he made more than many middle managers in the big corporations. Looking down at his hands and the hundreds of little scars that marked the gallons of blood he'd lost over the years fixing the big beasts, he sighed. No one said life was supposed to be easy, but a man did what he had to do for his family. That's what real love was, doing what you needed to do, not what you wanted to do.

Jonathan put his head in his hands and tried to keep from being unmanned again by sweating eyes. He'd only cried that once, but tears seemed to be his body's involuntary response to the hollow pain inside him. Unbidden, his mind once again replayed the putrid words Susan had used the night she'd destroyed his world:

"If you divorce me now Jonathan, I will be taking you to the cleaners. I will protect my children and me, first and foremost. Your welfare will not be a concern of mine. You would be paying me not only child support; you would be paying me alimony, the court costs, my car payment and this house. Not even with the amount of overtime you have been making lately would you be able to afford anything but a cardboard box to live in. You'd be sleeping in your car or at work and eating spam and macaroni and cheese for at least the next ten to twelve years."

If that had been all there was to it, he'd have divorced her that week, but it was what she told him about losing the kids. Even the attorney he'd talked to had told him, "... the children would remain under her, but joint guardianship. She could not and shouldn't want to restrict your visitation rights. It is to her and the children's advantage that you involve yourself as much as possible with them."

Jonathan had seen enough men with "joint custody" to know that it was an empty phrase. The wife would pay lip service, perhaps even mean it, but in her heart what she'd want was a complete home, with her new husband replacing her ex as the father as sure as if he'd died. No matter what the courts said or what she promised, within a few months she'd start making it harder and harder to see the kids... always for the best of reasons. It would go on until the kids believed that their father didn't really want to be with them.

He might have trusted the Susan he thought he'd married, but the monster beneath her skin would probably do everything she could the shut him out of his children's lives. She'd told him that her lawyer lover had broken up with her because he didn't want to "hurt her family," but once she was divorced she'd get him back. She was still a fine looking woman... didn't he read someplace that Satan was beautiful too? Hell, Susan could give old Beelzebub lessons.

Jonathan sighed again, he'd done everything he could to make this insane situation work. He'd tried to make himself his number one priority, but he couldn't. His kids' happiness was the most important thing in his life and he'd failed there too.

His thoughts flashed back to an article in a magazine that Susan had "accidentally" left open recently. It talked about how much better and easier it was on the children if one parent died instead of losing one to a divorce. Not even realizing what he was doing, Jonathan reached under his mattress and removed the pistol he kept hidden for home protection. On auto pilot, he removed the trigger lock and put the gun into his mouth. The barrel was cold and uncomfortable on the roof of his mouth.

The metallic click of the hammer hitting an empty chamber caused such a massive startle reflex, that he was flung back on the bed. Jonathan's brain felt like it had when he'd been in the hospital with all those pain killers. His thoughts felt slow, fuzzy somehow. It took a long time before he realized what he'd almost done. With a snort Jonathan thought, 'I'm even a failure at killing myself.' Someone had removed his bullets. Suddenly, his whole body began to tremble as adrenalin flooded every system. He'd almost killed himself! How could that have happened?

He'd tried to take the coward's way out! He flashed back to the last time his father had used a belt on him. He'd run away from a schoolyard fight because he'd been afraid of getting hurt. His father had said, "A man would be a bully to go looking for a fight. He'd be stupid to stick around in an unfair fight. But not only will he be a coward to run from a fair one, but a fool as well. Listening to your fear will hurt you more in the long run than any knocks or bruises you'd get on the schoolyard. Some men never learn that lesson, some have already ruined their lives by the time they learn it. You're going to learn it now. This is going to hurt you more than if you'd been beaten today. Next time think, count the cost, but don't listen to your coward inside." Jonathan had never gone looking for fights, but he also learned that if he didn't run from them, there were fewer he had to actually fight.

Looking at the gun in his hand, he couldn't understand why it wasn't loaded. The gun was for defense, and what good was an unloaded gun. As he loaded it, he thought, "It might be true that kids are better off with a dead parent than a divorced parent, but not with a dead coward. If anyone's going to take a bullet, it ought to be Susan or her boy toy! She's the one...

Right on cue the phone rang. "Daddy? Did you forget that you promised to help me with my pitches? I tried to tell mom that I needed your help today if I was going to make the softball travel team, but she said the two of you need to talk alone. Daddy, please come get me. This is important. If I don't make the club team this year, I'll never be able to make the high school team."

Jonathan's whole body was still trembling with the after effects of the adrenalin flush. Sitting silently, a distant part of his mind wondered if his words would be as jumbled as his thoughts. Could he manage a simple "hello?"

"Daddy, this is important! I've been calling your cell ever since Mom dropped us off here. I guess you forgot it again. Please, if you don't feel like coming to Grams, I'll get her to bring me home. Please Daddy, I need you, this is soooo important."

Jonathan's mind was a maelstrom of discordant thoughts swirling around a core conviction 'Someone needs to die!' If not him then... Susan or her asshole, but somebody! Only a tiny voice wailed that his kids still needed him; no matter how minor the role he'd be allowed to play, they needed him. Murdering someone else would take him from their lives as surely as if he'd just killed himself. 'If I'd killed myself what would have happened to the girls? What sort of example of a man would I be leaving them? What sort of man would they end up marrying?'

As he shook his head to try to clear his thoughts, something in Cindy's tone penetrated. Was it fear? Was she in danger? His daughter was in danger! What sort of man would wallow in his own muck when his daughter needed him? The voice, now thundering in his head proclaimed, "A man took care of his family, no matter what it cost him!" That was the bedrock of Jonathan's understanding of life. As Cindy continued to make sounds his mind slowly retreated from the brink of darkness.

Trying again to clear the chaos in his brain, he shook his head. He couldn't remember promising Cindy to work on her softball. It sounded like something he'd do, but softball hadn't seemed that important to her the last when they'd talked last night. Jonathan sighed again; not knowing how important a sport was to his fourteen-year-old daughter was just another sign of his incompetence as a father. Just another monument to his failure at everything that was important to him.

"Daddddddy! You're scaring me, talk to me please! Daddy, I need you daddy, please!"

Jonathan's eyes blinked and while his body continued to tremble and the darkness still beckoned, Cindy's voice held him like a mountain climber's safety line.

"I'm sorry baby, I was distracted for a second. I'll be there to take you to softball practice in just a few minutes. What time does it start?"

"Where are you, daddy? Are you home? Have you seen Mom? Did you talk? Did she tell you?"

The questions were too fast, too strange. All his kids had gotten Susan's brains instead of his, thank God. It made him proud, but sometimes it was hard to follow their nimble skipping from topic to topic. Unable to comprehend or deal with what she was asking he said, "I'm okay, I was just in my own little world for a bit. I'm heading for you now. I'll be there in less than a half hour, we can talk then. You know I hate to visit on these little phones."

It had taken more than a half hour get himself together to drive to his daughter. During that time he figured out that Cindy knew about the divorce. He'd felt a surge of renewed anger that Susan took it upon herself to tell the kids without including him.

Thus, he was surprised when Cindy told him she'd figured out what was happening when she'd seen a "do-it-yourself-divorce-kit" in her mother's room a few days ago. She'd been scared, but wasn't sure Susan was going to go through with it until today, when she announced she was going leave the girls at Grams' house for "at least the night."

As Cindy talked, he could see the pain this mess was causing her. The pain in her eyes spawned deadly icicles in his heart. Cindy's plea that he fight to stay in her life, were body blows to his manhood. In any sort of physical fight he knew how to protect his vulnerable parts, but he had no defense against the women in his life.

Finally Cindy had taken his face in her hands, and while looking into his eyes said, "Daddy, I know that the courts will probably give us to Mom, but there's another way. Since she doesn't have a lawyer, you can go to a mediator. The parent of a friend of mine at school did that and she said her parents actually get along better now than when they were married. It was so good that they still get together as a family on occasions. Please Daddy, I got the man's name. Please will you fight for us by taking Mom on about this? Please Daddy!"

So now, two weeks later, Jonathan found himself seated at a lush conference table with his new lawyer. The walls were covered with "trophies." The attorney saw Jonathan eyeing them and said, "Yeah, I've 'won' some big divorce cases. They use several of my cases for moot court at UT Law School.

"The reason I have those plastered all over the walls in here is to remind both of us what can happen if the cooperative process doesn't work. A few years ago I tried to sit down with a couple and serve as an arbitrator, but the Bar doesn't really like that approach. The danger of my getting sued for conflict of interest is too high, so now I do "Collaborative Law." Your wife will have to find an attorney who has experience in this process so you will both have advocates. You and your wife will have to sign an agreement never to take any of these issues to court. Then we'll sit down at a table across from each other and we'll hammer out an agreement that will be acceptable for both of you.

"Of course, either party can withdraw from the agreement not to go to court, but if they do, both lawyers will have to withdraw, and the party that drops out will probably be viewed with some prejudice by the court."

Mark, a big imposing figure, leaned back in his chair, "You have a pretty good case. I know the woman attorney you talked to, but she practices in Austin, and the judges in our county are much more conservative. Also, while she's good, her husband recently turned her in for a new model and I think she'd be better off representing only women for a while.

Even if you draw the worst judge in this county, the financial part wouldn't be as bad as she told you. With all the kids in school, your wife probably wouldn't get the maximum three years of spousal support Texas law allows. What's more, she's just flat wrong about the custody. I know at least two judges in this county who will always award full custody to the husband if the wife has committed adultery. It doesn't matter what the other circumstances are or even what might be best for the kids. Now, if you lived in Austin it might be a bit different. Some of the judges there aren't as concerned about adultery as are the judges in this county, but even in Austin, I can only think of one, perhaps two, that wouldn't give adultery some 'unofficial' consideration when deciding custody.

"Sill, even with those judges, "what everyone knows" about how men get screwed in a settlement isn't always true. The courts are very aware of all the new studies that show how important it is to keep the father in his kids' lives. The studies also show that when the dad doesn't have any physical custody, he generally doesn't continue to be involved. If the dad wants some sort of physical custody and isn't equally guilty of cheating, drinking, or abuse, our county courts will generally give him at least half. That also helps keep both parents physically close. Things can turn ugly when one parent moves to a different state.

"Since we're going to sign an agreement not to go to court, you might wonder why I'm talking about what a court would do. I want you to understand that any agreement we get will be within the range of the best and worst that might happen to you in court.

Jonathan took a deep breath and blurted, "I want to support my kids, but I don't want to give that cheating bitch a dime. Can we do that?"

"No! The only way that would happen is if she agrees to it. That's what 'collaborative' means. If you could prove that she'd abandon the marriage and the kids, you might stand a chance with some of the judges, but she's been a stay-at-home mother. Both you and the kids benefited from that, and it has real monetary value. You've told me how you sacrificed to make it possible for the household to be her 'job.' What sort of message are you sending to your daughters if you change that now? Do you want them to think that being a full-time mother doesn't have monetary value? That's the message you'll send if you try to make Susan suffer because she didn't get a good job outside the home. Is that really what you want to say?"

Jonathan sighed. Not putting the kids in daycare letting Susan make their house a home had been important to him. He wasn't sure when she started her affair-- she said a year-- but when he thought about it, the way the house was before the kids started school and after, it just seemed like she didn't create the same sort of safe place. He couldn't put his finger on it, but he'd thought it... well, he didn't know what he thought. It was just that it was clear that Susan didn't have the house or the family at her core once the kids started school. She'd started taking craft classes and getting involved in all sorts of civic project instead of focusing on her family's needs.

Jonathan had accepted it as part of life. Like everyone, Susan had grown as she got older. He'd hoped she might get a part-time job so that he wouldn't have to pull so much overtime, but he had to admit he felt a certain pride that she was able to get involved in society things like the wives of their rich neighbors.

Now, a bit shamed, Jonathan looked at Mark in his expensive suit. "I'm not too good with words. I think that's one thing that scares me about all this legal stuff. I'd bet on myself in a bare-knuckle brawl with money, marbles or chalk, but I'm not good with an argument. I don't even have a good answer days later. I'm the guy all those greeting card companies had in mind when they wrote that stuff. I've spent hours picking out a card for Susan or the girls on special occasions, or just when I wanted to tell her I loved her, because I could never find words like that in myself.

Jonathan's eyes locked with the lawyer for several long minutes as the two men took silent measure of each other. There wasn't any tension, just a lively non-verbal discussion. Finally Mark's mouth twitched, hinting at a smile. "I understand, words and phrases are easy for me, but if I had to fix my car I'd be using a horse. Like the Good Book says, we each have different gifts. A society needs all of them if we're going to be successful. If this divorce were to go exactly as you wanted, what would it look like?"

Jonathan hadn't given this a lot of thought. "I've been looking and I found a job on an offshore rig on the Gulf Coast. They work two weeks on the rig and then they give you two weeks off. Even with all that time off, I'd be making more than I am now. I could pick up part-time work here, but I'd only do things that would allow me to be home when the kids aren't in school. I know girls need their mother, so if we could split their time so they lived with me half the time and the rest with their, mother that would be fair? I don't need much to live on, especially if I'm on a rig half the time, so I think I could probably give the kids 75% of my take-home after taxes. The rest would be enough to get a little place, make my car payments and such... would that be fair? But I don't want a penny going to support Susan!"

Mark smiled, "Under Texas law, you'd max out at 30% of your assets, basically your salary, for child support, and three years spousal maintenance." Mark paused and steepled his fingers under his chin for a bit then said, "How long do you think you'd want to work offshore?"

Jonathan shrugged, "I hadn't really thought about it. I don't want to work out there at all. I like Central Texas, it's close to my family, but I didn't see any way that I could work here and still have any time for the girls. Especially if I have to work even more overtime to pay for an extra place. I'll be too tired to spend any time with them.

That's why I'm going to work off-shore. My understanding is that oil companies get more than a month's worth of work out of you in the two weeks on the rigs but you're free the rest of the time. The benefits look good and by working part time here, I can start to put something away for the girls to go to college."

After a few seconds thought Jonathan continued, "But I don't want the girls to think I love work more than them, and I want to see them grow up. You know? Susan is always saying I just sit around watching TV and drinking beer, but I listen to what's going on too. Susan was always telling me about what the girls were up to. Like as not, Cindy and Joey would come sit on the couch with me and talk too. They'd tell me all sorts of things about what was happening to them. Stuff I never talked about with my parents. I never said much, I'd just listen mostly. I mean I'd give them advice, and I never forgot that I was their dad and not their best friend. But it was just so neat to see how their minds worked and to watch them becoming smarter and more grown up. Cindy would talk about boys and what her friends were doing. I was part of their lives you know. I don't want to lose all that. I want to be able to spend time with them and not be a stranger who takes them to dinner."

In a very quiet voice Mark asked, "Where are the kids going to live if you don't want to help Susan live in your house, and you only have an efficiency? When you're on the rigs, they can't live at home without someone to take care of them."

Jonathan's forehead wrinkled in thought, "I don't want the kids to lose our house... I guess I hadn't thought about any of this. I just assumed that I'd lose everything and Susan would get it. I just don't want to pay her anything. I'll buy the kids gift cards for Luby's cafeteria or any good place to eat, but I don't want to buy so much as milk for Susan's coffee!

Jonathan's lips compressed, "I don't want to pay for her housing either! I want the kids to have the house. I don't mind paying for that, but I don't want her to live there!" He paused looked down at his hands, clenched in his lap. "This is really a mess, isn't it?"

"Some couples agree to share the family home. Sharing the family house sounds good, but in real life it almost never works out. However with you being gone every other two weeks, it might work short term."

Jonathan felt his stomach twist into knots. "It wouldn't be bad if she paid half for it but she can't make that kind of money, and I don't want her to bring that asshole there, or the other assholes she'll pick up. I don't understand that woman, but I don't want my kids to get the idea that it's okay to have two husbands at the same time."

Mark looked over the financials. Since they'd built the house two years ago, the market had declined slightly, and most of the twenty-thousand they'd paid down would be lost to the 5% realtor's commission. They didn't have any savings beyond his 401(k). Splitting the assets would mean selling the house, which would hurt the children. If this went to court there was a good chance that Susan would gain full control of the house until the kids were grown. Jonathan would then get half of the profit when it was sold.

Mark had seen something like this in most cases. It was especially tough when one spouse was a stay-at-home parent. "Once you're divorced, you won't have any say about how she lives her life. However, if it's your house, if you're covering all the costs, you can have a say about what can happen there.

"If we could figure out a way to get her cash for her share of your assets..." his voice trailed off in thought. "Would you consider letting her live in the house during the periods you're on the rigs for a time. The free rent might serve in lieu of some support, at least until she could find a job and begin supporting herself?

Choking off a bitter laugh Jonathan said, "Susan won't ever go to work, all she wants to do is to be a wife and mother. I wasn't enough for her so she had to go find someone else to be a wife to, she'll do the same thing again. I shouldn't have to support her while she shacks up with whatever number of men 'need' her as a part-time wife."

Jonathan paused, as he realized that he'd stumbled into a new understanding of Susan. "I don't understand that sort of thinking. I only want one woman. I'll give her everything I have, all of me. Isn't that what we promised each other at our wedding?

"I mean I don't smoke, I have a good job, before this happened I don't remember the last time I drank enough to have to worry about passing a DWI test. I don't gamble, I'll bet a few buck on a game, but never more than a five here or there. Hell, I don't even buy lottery tickets 'cause the odds suck. I don't chase other women, and I've sure as hell never raised a hand to any woman, much less Susan.

"I've thought real hard on this, but I've never thought about it this way. It wasn't just that she felt the need to have sex with another man; it was that I wasn't enough of a husband for her. She wants more than me...

'That's why she had to lie to me. I might not be enough man for her, but I'm too much of a man to settle for half a woman. It's like playing poker where I bet a hundred but she only puts fifty in the pot. She wanted us both, that means she's going to want more than that asshole can give her too. Why would any sane man... " Jonathan clamped his mouth shut and gritted his teeth. It went against his grain to bad mouth others who weren't there to defend themselves. As much as she deserved it, his daddy had taught him better.

Mark looked expectant and let the silence stretch. For most people, expectant silence becomes intolerable and eventually they'll let things slip out they hadn't intended, just to break the silence. When it was clear that Jonathan wouldn't say anything else, he asked, "What if we put into the agreement that you never have to see Susan, that she'd have to wait until you were boarding the plane before she could come to the house, and she'd have to leave before your plane landed here?"

There was a tiny light of interest in Jonathan's eyes and he asked, "Could I say that she'd have to live in the basement, where I've been living? Could we also say that she couldn't move the furniture or change things? She was always moving things around, buying new things and decorating the house. If it was my house I wouldn't want her messing with my stuff. She'd be like a guest there. Could I do that?"

Mark suppressed a sigh, his job was always hard, but this looked like one of the tougher ones. He had to keep reminding himself that he was only hearing one side, but his experience told him that Jonathan was being as open as he was capable of being. He knew scores of women who would give their right arm for a man who gave as unreservedly as Jonathan. A man whose integrity was such that what you saw is what you got. He was what the world used to call a "plain" man and it was meant as high praise. It was cases like this one where Mark's old competitive juices kicked in, he'd have to watch that.

Jonathan had been surprised that Susan had dragged her feet about the divorce. She was the one who filed, but she wouldn't start talking to lawyers on Mark's list for weeks. More weeks had passed before they were able to set up this face-to-face meeting. Jonathan had already worked several shifts on the offshore rigs. It was harder and even lonelier than he'd imagined. Until they settled on the property and custody questions, he'd rented a one-room efficiency in Austin. He would not live in the basement of his own house like some sort of troll. He'd come over to the house when the kids got home and would leave after they went to bed.

Still, Jonathan had an icy knot of fear in his gut, despite being relieved now that the process was getting started. He thought he'd known Susan, but now she was so unpredictable. Mark had worked hard to help him understand what would happen to him if he went to trial. No matter what Jonathan thought was just, the law thought she should get half of their net worth. The plan that Mark had helped him develop would allow him not to pay any spousal support. Instead Jonathan would pay for all the children's expenses-- all their food, clothing and medical needs. He would provide a generous allowance for each girl and would even pay for gifts that Susan would pick out, within price guidelines.

Jonathan would also pay for any athletic team fees, or pay for any kind of lessons that the children might try. Again there were guidelines so that the money wouldn't be wasted on lessons that weren't appreciated. If a girl took piano lessons for example, Jonathan wouldn't pay unless she was also spending the time practicing. He wouldn't buy a piano until the child had proven a commitment.

Jonathan would also give Susan a little of his 401(k) but would get full title to the house in return. Susan would also be the custodial parent, and would live in his house. The children would live in his house full time but he'd have unlimited access when he was on shore. For a maximum of three years, Susan could live in the house during the two weeks a month Jonathan was in town. She would live in the basement, which would be fixed up as an apartment with a separate entrance. After three years Susan would have to have her own place so that Jonathan could live in his house two weeks every month. In ten years when little Nancy graduated from high school Susan would no longer have access to his house.

It wasn't what he wanted, but Mark had convinced him it was fair and better than he might get in a court fight. Besides, although he hadn't said anything, he was pretty sure Susan would find someone to marry very soon. Under the agreement she wasn't allowed to have any man in any part of his house, even for dinner. Jonathan was sure she'd find someone soon who wanted a wife.

As Jonathan looked around the room Mark had specially designed for these meetings, he was struck by the quality of the furnishings. There were four very comfortable chairs around an elegant coffee table. Near each chair was a writing table on rollers that looked a little like those you see in hospitals to allow a patient to eat in bed. The room was decorated like a cozy living room; there was even a gas fireplace to make things mellow.

Mark's secretary had shown them in and was still explaining the amenities of the room when Mark and Susan's attorney, Laura, entered the room, each holding a sheaf of papers. Mark said, "Cindy emailed these to Laura and me this morning. I just need to confirm that you wrote a journal about what led to our being here."

Jonathan looked at Susan who looked smug, "I wrote those so I'd remember what was said and how I was feeling while all this was going on. I was trying to find a way to explain what Jonathan was doing to me. When Cindy saw me writing the other day, she said she was going to take it to Jonathan. I wasn't happy about Cindy knowing all the details, but I thought this might be a good way to make sure that Jonathan read it."

Laura snorted, "You actually encouraged Cindy to send this?"

Jonathan saw the anger flare in Susan's eyes, "Yes I did! I took all, well, almost all the reference to sex out. Just what I thought Jonathan needed to know to understand that this wasn't about sex."

Mark's voice was bland "You didn't write about your sex life, at least not much. But you wanted Jonathan to know that for the last four years you were running Rich's house. Doing all the cleaning, washing the dishes and cooking for him. That you would type papers for him and help him study for his law classes."

Susan shrugged, "Jonathan was never interested in anything about Rich and me except the sex. I thought if he knew the whole story he might come to his senses."

"Susan turned from Mark to look at Jonathan and then continued, "I know that if you would read what I've said and how I felt, it would help us get to where I wanted our marriage to be. I knew I made a mess of that first meeting and I thought if I could get you to read the whole thing we could work things out..."

Jonathan finally absorbed what had just been said about how long the affair had lasted. As it sank in he felt a cold fury begin to well up inside him. Turning to Susan, he said with a snarl, "You said it was only a year, not four years! You've been..." he started to say 'fucking' but the presence of Laura, another female, made him falter. "You've been with him for four years!"

Susan replied with eyes blazing, "Of course not! I'm not a liar, you know that! We only had sex for the last year. You were never interested in how or why Rich and I began to see each other. You were never interested in why I needed to help him, or how much he needed me. It was all about your male ego and some other man using your property."

Mark looked at Laura, then jumped in. "I think we'd better take a break. Just to be clear, you didn't have any objection to Jonathan or me reading your thoughts?"

"Of course not, I don't have anything to hide. It's what I've wanted all along. My hope has been that if Jonathan will take the time to understand how I feel and what I've been through that perhaps we can build a new and better marriage together. If he would just remember how much he loves me, we can get past all this, especially since Rich and I broke up."

Making eye contact with Laura, Mark said, "We had planned for a two-hour joint meeting, but I think we should plan to move it back until Laura and I have had a chance to talk about how this might affect the deal we had worked out."

Turning to Jonathan he continued, "You'll probably want to read this in private. It might be better if you stayed away from home for a day or two..."

Shaking his head, Jonathan said, "No, I need to be with my girls. I'm sure Susan can find someone to stay with tonight. If Cindy's already read it... no, I want to be in my own house tonight."

Susan's voice showed her excitement. Turning to the lawyers she said, "Sure, Jonathan's slow; it takes him a long time to get anything new. I'll let him read it privately." Turning to Jonathan, "Will you read it? Will you try to understand? It will make so much difference. I don't want a divorce. I still love you. You will always be my soul mate, the father of my girls, and the man I want to spend my old age with. The only reason I felt I had to file was because the way you were acting was affecting the girls. I have to put their needs above our future together."

Jonathan looked at her and tried again to understand this creature he'd married. Had she always held such a low opinion of him? Unable to compose words that might convey his feelings, he simply nodded. "I'll read it tonight."

Susan's face beamed as she smiled tenderly at Jonathan.

"Daddy, I made sure Mom sent it to Mr. Mark because I want to live with you. I thought you should see what Mom had been doing." She dropped her voice to a conspiratorial whisper, "I didn't tell anyone about the gun. I was so scared when I found it loaded again. I hid it and I've been so relieved that you've never asked about it. You can't tell anyone, they'll think you're unstable and use that to try to keep us from you."

Jonathan blinked so hard he was sure the neighbors could hear his eyelids snap back open. Little Cindy was the reason his gun hadn't worked? She'd known? How could she have known, when he'd had no idea that it might happen? Once he'd had a chance to think about what he'd almost done, it had shocked him to the very fiber of his soul. It was just that hopelessness, and the thought that his kids would be better off with him dead. He'd been overwhelmed and he'd had no one to turn to. Still, he couldn't let his daughter know how weak he'd been. The burden of what he'd almost done was his and his alone. His mind raced, he wouldn't lie, but what could he say.

"I wondered what happened to the bullets. The gun wouldn't do much good in a burglary if it wasn't loaded."

Cindy didn't say anything else but she looked reassured as she left the room.

Jonathan sat back on the bed and thought about what Susan had written. For the last sixteen years Susan had been where he stored his vulnerability, sure that she would protect his soft underbelly behind the shield he used to keep the world at bay, sure she'd protect him as he always tried to protect her. Having read Susan's story, he was dumbfounded. First, he'd had no idea that she had so much talent as a writer, and second, he couldn't understand how he'd ever thought that he knew her.

During their time getting ready for that first meeting, Mark had repeatedly talked about how important communication was for the collaborative process to work in a divorce. It had taken hours of skillful questioning by Mark to gather everything Jonathan wanted the lawyer to know. Yet Susan's words just seemed to flow off the page. Why hadn't she ever told him how she felt or what she wanted?

She must have known at some deep level how repugnant it would have been to him.

Jonathan looked around Mark's collaboration room, noting details that he'd missed the last time he'd been here. Mark had gone all out to make this room look like someone's private den. The whole room radiated understated good taste. It was the sort of place that practically required good manners... no, it demanded 'the-preacher's-coming-to-dinner' kind of manners. Jonathan decided that was intentional. People would be less inclined to scream at each other in a room like this. He could feel its atmosphere working on him as Susan entered with her lawyer. She looked radiant, a very fine looking woman. How looks could deceive.

The chairs were arranged differently today. He and Susan sat across from each other, the fireplace to his right. However, this time both lawyers sat at the head of the coffee table facing that fireplace. Jonathan looked expectantly for Mark to begin. He'd spent several additional hours with him preparing for this, their second joint meeting.

Mark nodded at Jonathan and then Susan. "Laura and I have spent over an hour together, going over how this situation has changed. As we've told you, one of the advantages of this collaborative process is that I don't have to look at Susan as someone I'll have to face in depositions or in court. Also, I can look upon Laura as a partner in trying to solve your problem and not an adversary to beat as badly as I can.

"In this process, our job isn't to get our client every knife or fork possible out of the settlement, but to try to find a solution both parties feel is fair and that will allow them to move forward with as little bitterness as possible.

"What I've found remarkable is that using this process most clients give up less than they were prepared to sacrifice, and receive more than they expected. I've found that I'm needed more often to keep my clients from accepting less than most courts would give them, than fighting to make sure they're fairly treated by their spouse." Mark nodded to Laura.

Laura said, "This has been my experience as well. I've also seen less custody problems down the road with this process than is the case in divorces that go to trial. If a couple can end their marriage in a collaborative way, they tend to continue to cooperate when custody problems crop up. Custody problems will happen no matter how tightly the custody agreement is written.

"Part of our job in this process is to work with our clients to get them into the proper frame of mind before the first negotiations begin. Using my experience, I know what is likely to happen in court, and I use that get my clients to be reasonable in their demands.

"Mark and I have been discussing your divorce settlement since the time you both signed the agreement to use this process. While the devil is in the details-- by that I mean partners sometimes fight over some prize possession, that has little market value, but that each 'must' have-- most couples will generally agree to the over-all settlement the two attorneys think is fair. In this case Susan's journal makes all our early work useless. Since Susan was determined to share it with Jonathan, it's going to be part of the divorce process, and it changes the equation."

Mark turned to Susan, "You need to understand that any competent lawyer could use this document to radically change what you could expect in a settlement. Laura and I agreed on what a court settlement would probably look like. Normally, we'd use that as a basis for the four of use to work out a compromise settlement. Because Laura has already said that she's going to withdraw, we're both recommending you accept what we've worked out without modifications. Laura will recommend another attorney in her firm to advise Susan if you want to make any major changes in what we've done. But, Susan you need to understand that the new lawyer would have to start from scratch and it will be very expensive. If you agree to what we've worked out, we can save you both significant legal costs. I think what...

Susan looked at Laura and interrupted. "But why are we still talking about settlements?" She turned to Jonathan, "Didn't you comprehend what I wrote? Didn't you see how much I love you? You said you loved me, didn't you love me? I know you loved me before Rich. Now that Rich isn't involved, can't we build on our love to create a new and better marriage? Didn't you see how upset I was that I said those hurtful things that first night? I'm really so sorry I lost my temper, but didn't you understand my explanations? Please Jonathan, for the sake of the girls, I'm willing to give you all the time you need to change, to grow into the man I know you can be, to understand what you need to do to keep this from hurting the girls any more."

Jonathan froze. How could he explain? They weren't even speaking the same language. How could two people have been married for so long not speak the same language? They used the same words, but they had different meanings. Jonathan knew what words like love meant to him, but he couldn't understand what those words meant to her.

Looking at Susan, Jonathan tried one more time, "I was happily married for fifteen years. I loved my wife and I knew that she loved me. I loved her completely and without reservation. I didn't hold any thing back from her, not my body, my soul or my deepest fears and weaknesses. I was the happiest man on this Earth to have a wife who I could love and support. Susan, you lived with me for fifteen years, but I was never your husband. I just didn't know it. You may possess the body of the person I thought was my wife, but you were never the person I loved. I don't hate you, but I hate that you made me waste all that time, because you pretended to be someone you're not. I don't hate you, but I sure don't like you, and seeing your body just reminds me of the wife I never had. I loved her, I always will, but as much as I love her, I dislike you for pretending to be her!"

Mark touched his arm. "Jonathan, why don't you go in my office? Jonathan looked at Susan, shook his head and walked quietly to Mark's office.

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Story tagged with:
Ma/Fa / Cheating /