My family had been friends with Laura’s family since I was in elementary school, but I am five years older, and so we didn’t have very much to do with each other as children. Laura and I sat at the same table at birthday parties and Seders, listening to our parents talk, then dispersed to backyards or bedrooms with friends and siblings closer to our own age. We could still hear the muffled voices of our fathers discoursing about their patients and clients, the occasional burst of laughter from our mothers. We both grew up eclipsed by parents with capacious personalities who saw our reticence and introversion as a chance to tell us who we were or what should matter to us. Our parents set Laura and me apart from our siblings: We were the “flaky” ones, a “real pair.” Laura and I resented–and partly accepted–these labels and we felt drawn together by them as we grew older.
I met Laura once during her freshman year of college at NYU when I was visiting a friend who lived in the city. We went out with her and her roommate Patricia, ending up at the club Sounds of Brazil where we all danced clumsily, surrounded by samba aficionados. For a brief moment, Laura pressed up close to me and smiled before backing away. Later, we stopped at an all night bakery and Laura sat on my side of the small booth. We each ordered a piece of cake and laughed about our dancing. When the waitress brought Laura what was obviously the wrong piece of cake, she insisted it didn’t matter and refused to send it back, even though the waitress offered to. “We call Laura ‘the accommodator,’” quipped Patricia.
Laura and I lost touch after that, and I only heard about her through my parents. They said that she had dropped out of NYU because of anxiety and moved back in with her parents in New Haven. A few months later they reported that Laura had met a medical intern while she was waitressing at a diner in New Haven, and they were getting married. The wedding would take place while I was back in Connecticut during my winter vacation from grad school in Wisconsin where I was a second-year PhD student in American literature.
I drove down with my sister to the wedding in DC where Art the intern was now a cardiology resident. We were there to represent the rest of our family, a pared-down delegation signalling how skeptical my parents felt about what was happening to their close friends’ daughter. Laura’s parents arrived at the synagogue at the very last minute looking grim and ashen. Right before the ceremony, Laura’s father turned to me and said in his lawerly baritone, “It’s like watching a train about to head off the tracks and you can’t stop it.”
The rabbi, who had met Art and Laura for the first time two weeks earlier, intoned about the “the obvious affection these two have for each other.” I was also startled to learn that Laura, whose mother was Presbyterian, had formally converted to orthodox Judaism. I always thought Laura had more of her own mind than this. She was quiet like me, reluctant to assert opinions, nervous around highly confident people. Or at least this is how she seemed to me. I also thought Laura was beautiful.
Art barely spoke to Laura after the wedding ceremony. After the ceremony, he performed card tricks in a shabby lobby of a Holiday Inn where we were all staying, while Laura and I sat by the bar talking about places we would like to travel someday. We had both recently read books about the Silk Road. Laura’s first choice was Samarkand; mine was Bukhara. Then she looked back out across the lobby at Art performing for the few guests and said to me, “I guess this means we’re through.” It was a joke that needed to be released, but it surprised me how sad it made me feel. Laura was only a few weeks away from her due date.
Two years later, Laura was caught in a custody war with a belligerent, manic, and manipulative narcissist who, who may or may not have completed a degree from a Caribbean medical school and who moved from one position to another just as questions about his credentials and behavior arose. Art made outrageous claims about Laura, and often acting as his own lawyer, berated her with absurd letters and concocted briefs. He was pursuing full, sole custody of their son Jake, arguing that Laura should only be allowed supervised visits under the guidance of a suitable mental health professional, as he said in one of his briefs.
I started visiting Laura during my breaks from grad school, after she and Jake had moved back in with her parents. I did this because I liked being with someone who had known me for a long time, even if we had never spent that much time together and also because of what she had said at the wedding. Laura helped me prepare for my foreign language proficiency exam while Jake napped. I was impatient with my German skills, but Laura got me to focus; she had been an outstanding German language student in high school. We sat holding warm mugs of tea with my textbook between us and worked on grammar exercises. When we heard Jake sniffling through the baby monitor, on the verge of crying, Laura sprang up, handing me her mug that I struggled to keep from spilling, and dashed up the stairs. A moment later, Laura brought Jake down clinging to her and rubbing his eyes. He sat on Laura’s lap, still somewhat stunned with sleep, as we completed the last few exercises on prepositions. After finishing a sippy cup of apple juice, Jake was now fully awake and ready to go outside. We went for a walk around the neighborhood, Jake trotting along on the sidewalk well in front of us, taking detours into driveways when he saw puddles he could step in, holding his right arm out like a tea kettle as he splashed. Jake was all circles–eyes, cheeks, nostrils and chin. Laura laughed that he had always stuck his arm that way when he jumped or ran and hoped he would never stop doing that. Jake couldn’t understand why he shouldn’t stand in other people’s driveways and, when I pointed out to him that the driveway was “someone else’s property,” he seemed amiably unconvinced.
The temporary custody order granted Art seven hours of visitation with Jake each Sunday, but he did not always show up and never let Laura know ahead of time whether he would or not. Laura explained that Jake said little about his visits with Art when he first got back, but then later would sometimes start murmuring new words and phrases like “bullshit” or “what the hell” while playing with his heavy plastic dinosaurs on the floor of her cluttered childhood bedroom. Sunday, the day she dreaded, pushed through the other days of the week accosting Laura with Art’s manic compulsion to punish her for leaving him.
They’d meet in front of the Stamford courthouse, halfway between Laura’s parents and Long Island where Art was now a neurology resident. On my next time back from grad school to visit my family, I asked Laura if I could go with her to Stamford. Although my question surprised Laura, she was receptive.
I tucked Jake into his car seat in Laura’s old Ford Escort full of wet wipe boxes, graham cracker crumbs, and children’s books. “My Dad and me are going to Disneyland,” he said as I readjusted the straps. I didn’t know how I should respond, so I just replied, “Oh.” It took me too long to get the buckle to snap properly, and I tried not to pinch his legs. Jake listened to his favorite Beatrix Potter cassette tape on the way down to Stamford, clutching his stuffed lobster, “Lobsturry.” Laura turned the sound to the back speakers so we could hear each other better and started telling me about a Stefan Zweig novel she was reading. Then she paused the tape and looked into the rear view mirror. “What’s that, sweet pea?”
“Why was the cat mean to Benjamin and Peter?” repeated Jake in a scratchy voice. He was still getting over a cold.
“What do you mean?”
“The cat sat on the basket for five hours and Peter and Benjamin were inside.”
“I’m not really sure, honey. You know how cats like to catch things.”
I hadn’t been listening to the tape carefully enough and couldn’t remember why Benjamin and Peter had ended up under the basket, so when Jake asked me what I thought, I said that his mom was right, adding needlessly that cats are hunters.
“My Gram has a new cat,” said Jake. “Critter.”
“Critter, huh? I like that name.”
“She sleeps in the basement,” added Jake.
“Well, maybe I can meet Critter some time. Can you introduce me to her?”
Jake didn’t say anything.
Laura handed me a box of raisins to give to him. I looked back a moment later to see Jake rubbing the tips of his fingers of his left hand across the glass of the window.
The drop-off went quickly. Jake hunched his shoulders slightly when Art took him from Laura’s arms. Art glanced at me briefly, looking irritated and maybe amused, then handed Laura a copy of another of his letters to the court. “How’s my precious boychik?” I heard Art say as he walked away with Jake down the street to his car.
I already knew so much about Art: He was fervently an orthodox Jew who ate a lot of unkosher fast food and smoked pot occasionally. His father had been abusive. He could do little for days and then stay up all night crafting fellowship applications, many of which were obviously successful. He moonlighted as a magician for bar mitzvahs and weddings. He claimed that Jake was everything to him.
For the next few hours, Laura did a week’s worth of homework for one of the community college courses she was taking as we sat together in a desolate Dunkin’ Donuts. “Art really snapped me into focus. I’ll give him that,” said Laura, looking up from a biology textbook, a yellow highlighter in her hand. Then we went for a walk around the block together looking in the windows of closed thrift stores. We were both feeling anxious, so we talked about things and people that created anxiety for us. We discussed group sizes that made us feel the most socially awkward, excuses made to leave parties early, and growing up wrongly believing your parents were right about everything. Although it was April, we also talked about winter weather in Connecticut, the slush after a soggy snow storm and the crunch of salt under your shoes after the air turned sharply colder again. We were stepping around the edges of something now. I knew that Laura wasn’t looking for a “boyfriend”; I got that without her needing to say it. I really couldn’t say at this point if I was hoping to be in a romantic relationship with Laura. I just knew I liked being with her, even on such a strange, fraught, tense day as this one.
As we walked back toward the courthouse, Laura turned to me and said, “Sometimes I imagine I’m holding Jake in the eye of a storm and the only thing I need to do is just hold on. It kind of simplifies everything and helps me cope with Art’s craziness.” Laura explained that before the initial custody hearing, Art trailed her around the New Haven courthouse whispering that he was going to take Jake with him to Colorado and that she would never see him. When Art disappeared for a few minutes, Laura hurriedly found a sympathetic clerk who helped her fill out the paperwork for an emergency temporary restraining order. “The clerk said she would hold Jake while I filled out the forms, but I wouldn’t let go,” recalled Laura. Carrying Jake in her arms, she ran up two floors and found a judge walking into his chambers who listened to her and signed the order, just as she heard Art coming up the stairwell. Stunned at first, Art then proceeded to lecture the judge about Laura’s mental issues. The judge told him he needed to leave the courthouse. “I have never had to act so quickly before,” said Laura. “It was terrifying, but I did it.”
In graduate school nothing happened that quickly or decisively. If you did well during your master’s year, you were granted a teaching assistantship renewable for three years, and there were other funding opportunities beyond that to keep you afloat in a small city of pleasant bike paths, a great farmer’s market, summer softball leagues, and warm coffee houses in the winter. Professors took months to return dissertation chapters, but it didn’t matter because there were few good jobs available for new PhDs. Most of my friends did not seem in a particular rush to get to the future. The job market was bleak and graduates often found themselves in a series of short-term or adjunct positions, if they were lucky enough to find a full-time teaching position at all. I slogged along on my dissertation, two pages a day. I wasn’t a brilliant student but at least I could be steady. One of my grad school friends called me “the hardest working teaching assistant in show business” which always felt slightly like a put down.
But I got just enough encouragement from my professors to keep me moving forward. In this way, I avoided hitting obstacles that might have led me to fully consider if being a professor one day actually suited me. I grew up with a strong sense, mostly from my father, that there were only a handful of professions that could be safely regarded as prestigious, and being a literature professor was in a grey area. The fact that I was enrolled in a good but not a first-tier program, therefore, further confirmed that I was “bright, but no genius,” as my father once told me. I didn’t feel a need for professional success particularly, but this was how I had been raised to value my life and to measure it.
At the pick up, Art held Jake close, dabbing his face with sloppy, showy kisses before lowering him to the ground abruptly about ten steps in front of us, like he was placing luggage on the floor. It was distressing how abruptly Art could turn off his guise of fatherly affection, but what was hardest to watch about the handoff was that it had become routine for Jake. As Laura scooped Jake up out of the demilitarized zone, I saw Art looking at me again. He had been quite friendly at the wedding, but now was obviously different.
When we got back to the Escort, Laura remembered that she’d promised to call her parents as soon as Jake was returned safely. Couldn’t this wait? Laura often said how she wanted to escape her parents’ drumbeat of criticism and panic, so why was it so urgent that she called them now?
“Let’s just get out of here,” I said. “There’s payphones on the way.” This was still a decade before cell phones were ubiquitous. I placed my hand on Laura’s forearm and when she pulled back, bristling, I felt the closely guarded space around her that still belonged only to her and her son.
“I’ll be back in two minutes,” said Laura. She got out of the car and walked toward the graffiti-covered phone booth on the corner. Jake had already fallen asleep.
That’s when Art approached the Escort from the other direction, hands in his pockets. Art was bigger than I was, probably by at least thirty pounds and four inches taller; balding, broad chested and flabbier than I remembered from the wedding. I locked the doors as he came closer, but that seemed weak and ridiculous, so I got out of the car and stood in front of Jake’s backseat window. I felt vaguely like I was playing defense in a game of basketball with my friends back in Madison.
“What’s going on, Dan? What’s the matter with Jake?”
“He’s fine.” I hoped that Jake wasn’t watching this, but I did not want to turn my back to Art.
“Then why did Laura look so upset?” Art took a small step forward to peer over my shoulders and, as he did, my hands rose up to his spongy chest.
When I pushed Art away from me, he lost his footing momentarily, his shoes scraping on some loose gravel. Then he regained his balance and glanced down at my hands, perhaps waiting to see if I was going to pull out some kind of weapon.
Art looked around to check if anyone was watching. He stepped closer again. “Go ahead, hit me,” he said, obviously taking pleasure in mimicking some movie he had watched on one of his sleepless nights. He smelled like peppermint. As I tried to slow down my breathing, Art pointed to his chin: “Free shot,” he added.
Of course, I didn’t hit him. I think the last time I had hit someone was in fourth grade and I ended up doubled over with the wind knocked out of me. Art and I just stared at each other for a few seconds, my heart pounding so loudly it seemed like Art would be able to hear it.
“Know what, Dan?” Art said, his face turning slightly red. “You’re fucked. You. Are. Fucked.” Three short pokes in the air in front of my face. Then he put his hands back in his pockets just as Laura returned.
“Get lost, Art. Your time’s up for today,” she said, speeding up as she passed by him, her eyes locked on Jake’s window.
Art stepped back as if Laura had bumped into him. “Just let me see that Jake is OK, Laura.”
“He’s fine, Art,” responded Laura flatly as she walked around the Escort and opened the driver’s side door. “Now go.”
As I got in the car too, Art sighed with patronizing disgust, then turned around and started walking urgently back to his car parked around the corner. Jake woke up for a moment when Laura started the car. I turned the Beatrix Potter cassette on low volume, and we began driving back to Laura’s parents. I wasn’t sure if Laura had seen me push Art, but I wasn’t yet ready to say anything about it. As she rather roughly shifted gears, an empty Dunkin Donuts’ cup rolled back and forth between my feet. When I reached down to pick it up, Laura whispered, “Shit, shit, shit.” I lifted my head up and saw a police car blocking the entrance to the highway. Then two more cars appeared behind us, blue and red lights flashing. Laura pounded her hand on the top of the steering wheel, and then we pulled into a strip mall parking lot. A young cop knocked on my window and signalled for me to get out.
“The father says he was attacked,” said the cop. “And that you kidnapped his son.“
At first I couldn’t find any words. I don’t think a cop had ever addressed me directly in my whole life. “We definitely were not kidnapping him,” I began. “Laura and I were just taking Jake home after his visit with Art, with his father. That’s all.”
“But did you hit the guy?”
“No?” He turned his head slightly.
“I pushed him.”
The cop pulled a small notebook out of his pocket. “OK. And why did you do that?”
“He got too close to Jake.”
He was writing. I turned my head back to the Escort for a moment and saw Laura lifting Jake out of his car seat, shaking her head at a paramedic and smiling nervously. Behind her, I could see customers in the strip mall pizza restaurant sipping on straws in styrofoam cups, watching the spectacle that mostly I had created.
An older cop walked over to us, his radio squawking. “The boyfriend?” The young cop nodded and patted my coat pockets, removing a juice box.
I had had a few, mostly alienating, short-term experiences with other grad students since moving to Madison, but I hadn’t truly been anyone’s boyfriend for years. Some grad students arrived as couples, but for most of us lasting relationships belonged to the future. And to me this future seemed so dim and unformed, even more so now.
At the station, my thumb was pressed onto sticky ink. Then I signed a paper stating that I understood my rights and was given a date to appear in court later in the week. I realized I would need to find a lawyer quickly, but I tried to reassure myself that everything would be OK. I could get another teaching assistant to cover my class for a lesson or two, if necessary, but surely the court wouldn’t waste its time and taxpayers’ money on my harmless push? The truth was I had no idea. As I waited to be released, a new cop came into the holding room, looked at me, and then asked his colleague who had taken my fingerprints, “What did this guy do? Beat his wife?”
Laura and Jake pulled up to the front of the police station as I came outside, feeling a little unsteady on my feet. “This is what he does,” whispered Laura, pulling back onto I-95 while Jake flipped through Cars and Trucks and Things that Go. Jake paused from his reading to point out dented cars that we passed or that passed us on the highway, but he didn’t say anything about what happened or much at all on the rest of the way back. I really wanted to know what Jake might be thinking. When we got back to Laura’s parents, Jake showed me where Critter slept in the basement while Laura called her lawyer.
I was lucky: A few days later, the prosecutor decided to “nolly” the charges against me, even though Art had hired a rough and tumble lawyer to represent his interests at my hearing.
I returned to Madison, relieved and also disoriented. There were more Friday night drinks at the Pink Flamingo, gossip about the thirty-six year old adjunct lecturer who was dating an undergraduate, watching the fishermen sitting by small huts on Lake Mendota from inside of a coffee shop scattered with scruffy, listless graduate students. When I told a few of my friends about what happened in Connecticut, they listened sympathetically but did not resist letting the conversation soon drift back to more familiar grad school banter.
A few weeks later, Laura’s lawyer received a letter outlining Art’s injuries including the claim that his right arm had begun to “atrophy.” Attached was a two-page report from a neurologist that never mentioned Art by name. Art announced that he would continue to “allow” Laura to share custody with him, when primary legal custody had always been hers. Next, Art filed a motion explaining that he was now unemployed as a result of his incapacitating injuries caused by my push, or in his words “unprovoked vicious assault,” and requested that his child support be reduced to $50 per week.
Laura, Jake and I continued to spend time together in Connecticut on my vacations throughout the rest of the year. “You keep showing up,” Laura said to me, on one of my visits, handing over some letters that she had not yet mailed to me. The following February Laura came out to visit me in Wisconsin, leaving Jake with her parents. We hadn’t talked about what this meant, only how good it would be to have some time with each other away from Art and our parents. Our relationship was already memorialized in police records, court documents, and psychologists’ reports, but we hadn’t communicated directly very much about what was happening between us. Still, it wasn’t lost on me that Laura had never been away from Jake for more than seven hours.
On her first day in Madison, we went ice skating and later I invited some of my friends over to my well-insulated, overheated apartment for pizza and beers. Later, we all went bowling together. There were far more gutter balls than strikes and lots of ironic joking. I thought maybe Laura found my friends to be slightly ridiculous, suspended in perpetual adolescence, but she said she envied them. “At least they’re on track to something,” she said. “I stepped off.”
One of my friends offered us his car for the weekend and the next day Laura and I drove out of Madison past corn stubble poking through the snow all the way to the Mississippi where we stayed at a bed and breakfast full of doilies and family photographs. There wasn’t really enough time to do anything before dark other than take a chilly walk by the river. We never seemed to have enough time.
At breakfast the next morning, a young guy who gave off the air of being on the run from the law, introduced his companion, as the laconic middle-aged guests and us sat around a single large dining room table waiting for omelettes or french toast: “This is my wife,” he said squeezing the shoulder of his uncomfortable looking teenage bride. “We just got married yesterday.” There were a few murmured “congratulations” and then it was up to Laura and me to try to keep the conversation moving forward. Normally, we both waited for more talkative people to carry group conversations, but now there seemed to be none. We somehow managed enough small talk to avoid too much painful silence. By the time we finished eating, it had started to snow heavily and we had to leave right away in order to get back to Madison in time for Laura’s flight. After we packed up our things, Laura said she wanted to neaten the bed before we left, which I tried to explain wasn’t necessary. Laura gasped and then laughed when she noticed the corner of a condom wrapper hadn’t made it into the garbage can. “I don’t know why I should feel like I have done something wrong. It’s kind of ridiculous,” she said. “I mean, I have a child.” Then she put her arms around me.
That spring, I was offered a visiting professor position in Pocatello, Idaho starting in August. I thought this could be Laura and my chance to break away and start our own life. I remember staring at the wide dark green spaces of southeastern Idaho in my father’s massive atlas, mesmerized by my own ignorance of this part of America. Laura was nervous about the idea but ready to do it. By now, we knew we wanted to spend our lives together, to be a family. I didn’t want to do anything reckless, but I was sick of being held back, sick of being shadowed by Art, the case, our parents. We both were. Laura’s father was convinced that the court wouldn’t permit us to leave Connecticut before the final custody decision and probably not after that. He was wrong: the judge did allow us to move prior to the final custody decision, as long as we were married.
Neither Laura nor I ever had much room or time to reflect on what we were doing as a couple or to experience what would normally be considered romance or family building. There were no neverending early dates or talks with our best friends that we may have found “the one”; we have no photos of us on a beach somewhere. Our relationship had always been and would continue to be a kind of promissory note. But really, we had been all in from almost the very beginning. There was too much at stake for it to be otherwise.
The day after our wedding, I flew to Pocatello, Idaho to begin teaching. Laura and Jake wouldn’t be able to leave for another month because of the inevitable depositions and already agreed upon visitations with Art. When Laura finally pulled out of her parents’ driveway, the Escort packed with clothes, toys and wedding gifts, her mother stood on the front porch sobbing as her father consoled her. He waved goodbye only to Jake. They were both convinced that their now twenty-five year old daughter was about to drive off the rails yet again.
Pocatello, a small city surrounded by sagebrush and juniper high desert, suited us almost immediately. Our accommodating natures and clean-cut appearance gave us a kind of welcome anonymity in a community of friendly Mormons and non judgemental libertarians. Too much of our lives up to this point had felt like standing outside of a circle of misinformed people who were having a conversation about us. In Idaho no one had any preconceived ideas about who we were. We rented a small bungalow-style house just a few blocks from the university and around the corner from Jake’s pre-school. We went hiking almost every weekend, through the fall and into the winter, venturing along snowy trails with Jake wedged into the child carrier backpack on my shoulders that he was quickly outgrowing. Later we would sometimes soak in the steamy water at Lava Hot springs while snow fell down on us and then eat cheeseburgers and fries at the Wagon Wheel restaurant.
We finally received the final custody decision in February: Laura had been granted sole legal custody and Art’s visitations would require supervision. Art called a few times demanding that Laura fly back with Jake for a visit. When Laura explained that he was legally required to pay for Jake’s ticket and hers, he stopped calling.
Ten years after we first moved to Pocatello, when we were living in a small college town in Georgia, our neighbor came over and told us that a friendly, well-dressed man had knocked on their door while we were away, claiming he was Jake’s father and looking for him. By this time I had been “Dad” for years. There were moments, though, when I still felt that protected space surrounding Laura and Jake, and sometimes I was too aloof. I wanted Jake to become his own person, not to be overshadowed by parents as we had been, but I took the point too far sometimes. It was not good for any of us, especially Jake, and we probably should have gotten help earlier on.
Jake, who was out at a friend’s house when the neighbor stopped by, had not said a word about Art since he was five years old, and we weren’t sure he even remembered him. When we nervously pulled down an overstuffed box of court documents from the top of our bedroom closet, a few pieces of paper fluttered to the floor. The custody ruling would have been our failsafe if Art were to show up in Pocatello and pull some kind of stunt, but as time went on the twenty-eight page document seemed more like a dusty artifact. We also called the police, but there was nothing that could be done. No law had been broken, and Art had always had certain lines he wouldn’t cross. He was too self-protective to be that foolish.
That would be the last time we would ever hear from Art. Maybe he was just hoping to find evidence that Laura was still chaotic and irresponsible as he had argued so vehemently before the court years earlier, or perhaps he was seeking to confirm that Jake was now a miserable, neglected and rootless teenager, shunted around the county by unstable parents. When Jake got home, he played badminton with his sister in the backyard before dinner. Jake could be a little impatient and bossy with her, but she loved the attention from her big brother. We could hear them counting off their shots, trying to break ten in a row. Laura and I stood together at the kitchen window, our shoulders touching, watching them play together.
I am a high school English teacher at the International School of Hamburg. My creative work has appeared or is forthcoming in Hobart, Literary Orphans, the Chariton Review, Abstract Magazine, X-Ray Literary Magazine and elsewhere. I also recently published College Bound: The Pursuit of Education in American-Jewish Literature (SUNY Press).