The mediator had a pleasant voice over the phone. I cut right to the chase—my husband and I needed help dividing our assets, I said, because we wanted to get divorced—and braced myself for the shock and horror I’d gotten from everyone else. But the mediator was utterly blasé. She began to ask questions in a soothing tone, and I obediently answered. (Had I known this was all it took—a couple hundred bucks up front, and no one gives you a hard time—I’d gladly have paid everyone before breaking the news.)
Emboldened, I kept going. Yes, we had been separated for several months. No, our relationship was not particularly contentious. Yes, we agreed about the children, and were committed to putting their needs first. I even lapsed into divorce-speak—finally, those hours spent hiding self-help books inside larger, more innocent volumes (thanks, Bazooka Joe!) while cringing in the bookstore paid off. Why, yes, I said, the divorce was a joint decision. We certainly wanted to do what was best for our family—because we would still be a family, even after the divorce. Oh, I laid it on with a trowel. The mediator murmured supportively. I cradled the phone with my shoulder and wiped my palms on my skirt. I was, I felt, on a rather impressive roll.
So, the mediator finally said. How long have the two of you been in marriage counseling?
Oh, dear. Down we went in flames. In direct defiance of every divorce book I’d read, my husband and I had never gone to counseling. Nor, under any circumstances, would we. I decided to make a clean breast of it. As a matter of fact, I said, brightly, both my husband and I would rather be boiled in oil than attend a single session of marriage counseling. But hey! At least we agree! I’ll bet you don’t get this kind of cooperation between divorcing spouses every day, do you? To her immense credit, the mediator laughed. Look, I know that sounds terrible, I said. Marriage counseling is de rigueur. These days, you simply can’t get divorced without it! But trust me. We are the exception to the rule. Counseling won’t help our particular situation at all. It might, I said, lowering my voice ominously, even make things worse.
Well, it’s not for everyone, the mediator said softly. But then again, neither is mediation.
I ignored her, and made an appointment anyway. By now I’d decided I needed the mediator, with her soothing voice and bland counsel. She’s a professional, I told my husband later that day. She sees this sort of thing all the time.
He shrugged, agreed to the appointment, and left for work. Fact was, things were rapidly going to hell. Our birdnesting arrangement, after four months, was collapsing. My husband wanted to break the lease on the apartment and find a house of his own somewhere across town. My desperate pleas—we couldn’t afford it, the apartment was lovely, did he want me to put a lock on his door as well?—did nothing to dissuade him. He hated the apartment, hated going back and forth, said he felt exiled when he was out of the house and miserably lonely when he was in it. He wanted his own place, untouched by me, unsullied by the marriage or by memories. As for me, I’d simply run out of ideas. I desperately craved a benevolent adviser, one who’d step up, take each of us firmly by the hand, and tell us exactly what to do next.