The answering machine indicator is blinking when you get home from work. The boys are downstairs in the basement, one in the studio on the computer, the other playing a video game in the playroom. You rarely get messages at home; most people call you at work. You put your things down and head downstairs to say hello and make sure homework is done. Your younger son is on the computer, putting together a book report due tomorrow. He always does his homework. Your older son, now nearly 16, is too medicated, agitated and anxious to be able to do his with any regularity. He’s brilliant, but he has a host of “issues,” and quite frankly, ever since that awful day in 1993, you wonder, as you drive the two miles home from work, whether this will be the day he actually “does it.” You cannot bring yourself to use the “s” word, suicide. You don’t know this now, but later, you will learn that he is much less fragile at his core than you ever imagined possible.
Years ago, when they were still in elementary school, you established the 15 minute rule. Each boy was given 15 minutes of your undivided attention to unload about whatever was on his mind. As the timer ticked closer to the end, they talked faster, playing beat the clock. That half hour was just enough time for you to switch gears, to move from Mom-the-worker bee mode into Mom-the-cook mode. Complaints were generally petty, how they had too much homework, how someone was mean to them, how stupid their teachers were, and occasionally, how angry they were about Dad disappearing like that last year. It was still new enough in their minds that they held onto the notion that sooner or later, he would be back.
When they are finished, it’s time to go up and start dinner. Your second husband, part owner of a produce market, works late every day, so you cook meals that can be easily reheated when he gets home at 9:00 or 10:00 pm. He works long days, going in at 6:00 am. You’ve been married five years now, and things are complicated ever since your ex blew town. The boys are there every weekend, when you used to have time alone together on Saturday afternoons and Sunday mornings. Your husband, who is 19 years your senior, learned everything he knows about child-rearing from watching TV sitcoms, despite the fact that he has four children of his own with his late wife. He does not get along well with your kids and he has no understanding, nor tolerance, for mental illness. And oh, by the way, he no longer drinks; he is a dry drunk. You wonder how you could possibly have missed that.
Each time you go to the refrigerator to get something, you notice the blinking red light in the hallway. You are stalling and you know it. Dinner is on. You look through the mail the boys brought in when they got home. Your older son has signed for a registered letter. Between the letter and the blinking red light, your anxiety level ratchets up five notches. Should spoil your dinner and open it now? You look again at the return address printed in the corner, Chevy Chase Bank. What could they want with you? You haven’t had an account with them since you cancelled everything back in 1988 after your divorce. You open the flap, remove the letter inside and read through it. WHAT????? A demand for payment? For what? Now you really don’t want to listen to the message, but like a moth drawn to a flame, you pick up and press the button. Chevy Chase Bank has left you and urgent message to call as soon as possible. You do not return the call.
On your lunch break the next day, you stop by your lawyer’s office with the letter and tell him about the phone call. Jack rolls his eyes and tells you he will find out what’s going on. Later in the day, he calls you. Apparently, your ex has filed for bankruptcy on a total of $86,000 in personal debt, and the creditor, Chevy Chase Bank, says you are still on the account you closed out in 1988, right along with your ex and his new wife. How can that possibly be? You sent them a letter, along with a copy of the divorce decree. You paid off the existing balance on the card within a year of the divorce. Unless you call them and give them permission to speak with your attorney, he cannot intervene for you. You make the call, but instead of saying thank you and calling your attorney, they begin a campaign of harassment. They want their money: $2500 for an engagement ring, $5000 for a Williamsburg, VA, vacation and a few other things. Every day, they call with the same spiel. Every day you explain that you should have been removed from that account years ago, and that you have already sent them Xerox copies of the letter and divorce decree to prove it. And that you’ll be damned if you’ll pay for HER engagement ring and honeymoon. They just step up the harassment. Now, not only are they giving you grief, they make the mistake of calling and swearing at your children, in addition to sending almost daily collection letters. You are beyond simply angry. You have graduated to furious.
You can’t afford any more legal fees and you absolutely, categorically refuse to pay for your ex-husband’s new wife’s engagement ring and honeymoon. You. Will. Not. Your husband is sick of the calls and nasty messages and he’s sick of hearing you rant about them. He tells you to turn off the answering machine and just not answer the phone. The very first time he calls and you don’t pick up when he knows you are there, he gives gives you hell when he gets home. You call Jack and ask him what you can do on your own to stop this. At his suggestion, you call the state’s attorney general, where you are referred to another number. The woman who answers the phone is way too cheerful so early in the morning. She listens to your story, asks a few questions, and then gives you the address for the Office of Thrift Supervision in Peachtree, Georgia. You are instructed to write to them, explain the situation providing as much detail as possible, including copies of any correspondence and they will get back to you. “Now y’all have a nice day.”
You write the letter and mail it the same day.
The calls continue. You and your kids hang up as soon as you know it’s them. Meanwhile, your attorney has received a letter from your ex’s attorney, informing him/you that his client has filed for bankruptcy and moved out of state, leaving no forwarding address. Jack calls him, does the old boy network thing and manages to find out that your ex and his new wife, who much prefers horses to children, have relocated to the Phoenix area. You are frustrated, but surprised. He hated the desert when you lived there for a year after you were married. He complained daily and swore he would never return. Actually, you weren’t all that fond of it, either. Even the green is brown most of the time. You hope he gets stranded and dies of thirst in the damned desert.
Within a week or so, the Office of Thrift Supervision sends you a postcard. You are now a case number, they are investigating, and you will hear from them soon. The calls keep coming, all day from early morning until after 11:00pm. Your husband removed the phone from the bedroom. He needs his sleep. More paperwork comes from the lawyer; your ex wants you to agree to reduce the child support. When your lawyer calls to discuss this latest demand, you tell him that you would be delighted to acquiesce…over your dead body. He has already responded indicating your position; he is just confirming.
Three weeks after your initial letter asking for help, you receive a letter from Chevy Chase Bank. They have decided that the money is unrecoverable and that no further attempts will be made to collect. The calls, nasty messages and collection letters stop. You are off the hook. Your ex’s attorney sends another letter, demanding that you reduce the child support, now that his client is bankrupt and has no resources. You. Will. Not. It’s not your problem. You still have no idea where all the money went and you really don’t care. You have been served no official legal papers, no legal motions have been filed. All you have is two-paragraph letter from a two-bit lawyer. You tell Jack not to bother to respond. Sometimes no answer is all the answer you need.