“Is there anyone here who needs a new restraining order?” asked the portly lady from behind the counter. The sign dangling just above her head read “Family Law”.
A tall, black woman with exotic eyes painted up like a super model, timidly raised her hand. “I am,” she said softly. Her baby fussed in his stroller as she shuffled towards the counter.
Mayli looked over at me with her big blue eyes and shook her head in amazement. I knew what she was thinking, the way women who have been friends for twenty years just know.
My chest ached.
The man in front of us was tattooed from his elbows down to his wrists, and smelled of fresh cigarettes. His pants hung so low that they revealed his brown plaid boxers in their entirety. He stepped up to the counter, “Yeah I’m here about a divorce.”
I raised my eyebrows at Mayli.
A tired woman with bleach-fried hair opened up the partition at the end of the counter, pressed her palms up on the desk and leaned her body towards the line-up, her sagging breasts spilling out of her blouse. “What are you here for?” She asked the last woman in line.
The woman cleared her throat, “Um, a divorce…”
“K, you can stay in that line…what about you?” She asked as she pointed her bitten-down fingernail towards the Hispanic lady who was next in line.
The lady replied, “How you say…?” Her eyes darted towards the rest of us in the line.
I smiled back at her wanting to say, “It’s okay, you’re alright…this is cruel and unusual punishment.”
“How you say…” She bit her lip and shook her hand in front of her mouth, “Como se dice…uh…cusdideo… bambino?”
“Child custody dispute?” Bleach-fried asked.
“Si, si,” the woman nodded.
“Yeah all right, you need to get in that other line.”
“Okay, what about you?”
“Yeah, a divorce also,” the next man up answered. He was short and balding with thick glasses and yellowing teeth. He carried stacks of folders and loose papers under each arm.
“Alright, stay there…and you?”
“Yeah, uh…paternity.” A man in his mid-forties with a tattered baseball hat chomped on his gum and said, “She could never prove the kid was mine.”
Mayli’s eyes widened even more. “She’s gonna ask everybody in the line, she’s gonna ask me!” She turned her back towards the woman and faced the wall.
And like a shotgun, one by one, Bleach –fried fired her way up the line…divorce, restraining order, custody battle…the kid’s not mine. She sorted each of the torn-up lives into the correct lines.
“You…excuse me, Mam? I’m talking to you…”
Mayli slowly turned around. She didn’t lift her head, “Yeah, a divorce.”
I wanted to throw something. I wanted to throw something at Bleach-fried.
“Hey Lady,” I said under my breath, “how much time do ya got?”
Mayli smiled and shushed me.
“No seriously,” I continued. “You really want to know why she’s here? It all started about twenty years ago, she met this guy, she fell in love, she had dreams…”
The man behind us laughed. “Yeah, seriously!” He said.
And Mayli laughed too.
We stood there shaking our heads at the absurdity of it all.
“They better give you a sticker with a smiley face on it when you leave here,” I told Mayli, “like when you give blood… and a chocolate chip cookie too.”
Bleach –fried hollered out to Como Se Dice Lady, “Yeah, uh, now you’re gonna have to get back in that other line again!”
Como Se Dice fumbled around like someone had just smacked her in the head with a baseball bat. Then she settled back in the line, cutting, just in front of me and Mayli. She pressed the palm of her hand into her forehead and smoothed her wiry black hair from her face.
She spoke to Mayli, “How you say, muy difficult-a?” She stuttered for a minute, muttering words in Spanish.
I have heard Mayli talk to her gardener in hurried Spanish for years.
“She speaks Spanish,” I told Como Se Dice. “She comprehendo…”
Como se Dice smiled brightly. “Oh, bueno, bueno…” and off she launched into a series of blended words. I picked out dios and amiga and ninos. Como se Dice waved her arms and pointed to the sky and to her heart. Her eyes sparkled as she spoke.
Mayli nodded her head and said, “Si, si, oh, si…”
Both women wiped water from their eyes.
“What did she say? What did she say?” I asked.
“She said she got divorced a year ago and it was very difficult, now she’s back to fight for full custody because her X went loco.”
Como se Dice smiled at me and nodded for Mayli to continue.
“But she said if you have God you can get through it, if you have God you can get through anything and God will give you a friend too, to be your angel.”
And then Como se Dice pointed to me. “An-hell,” she said.
I smiled at Como se Dice wishing I knew her real name.
The line shuffled forward, Como Se Dice waved her papers in the air and scurried up to the counter squalling in broken English.
Mayli was next. I watched my dear friend, her hands tightly gripping a red folder. She has beautiful hands, long and slender. I always thought she could be a hand model.
When it was her turn, she took a deep breath and said, “Here we go.”
The portly lady behind the counter had gray eyes and gray skin. She didn’t smile. She sat beneath a blinking fluorescent light and a sign that read, “Please Don’t Leave Your Children Unattended.” There was a basket of candy on her desk just beyond our reach.
When Mayli and I were young moms we went for a girl’s night out. We walked around the mall and drank peppermint tea. We went into this one store that sold rubber stamps and rainbows of ink pads. It was wall to wall unicorn stamps, teddy bear stamps, flower stamps and stamps with little phrases on them like “I Love You” and “Thank-you”. We thought it terribly funny. I love you, but not enough to write it all the way out myself. Our favorite was one that read, “Praying For You.” We’ve laughed about it for years. I don’t actually have the time or energy to write it, but let me just use this handy-dandy stamp and I’ll be sure to remember to pray for you.
Mayli motioned me towards the pile of stamps on the counter. Divorce, Fee Waved, In Process, Sign Here.
“Praying For You,” she whispered to me with a weary smile.
Then she turned to the woman behind the counter and asked, “Now, I was told I could have the $350 waived if I don’t have a job, is that true?”
The woman huffed and rolled her eyes. “Well, did you fill out the Fee Waiver forms?”
“Well, Mam, that’s a different line, see down at the end of the room where that counter is? You’ve got to get in that line to get the forms and then you’ll have to get back in this line to process them.”
“Do I have to get back at the end of this line?”
“Yeah, and you better hurry cause there’s about six pages to fill out and if you’re not back in line by 3:00, you’ll have to come back another day… Next!”
Yeah, yeah I know there’s always two sides to the story, but I’m on Mayli’s side. Truth be told, everyone who knows their story is on Mayli’s side.
Alex went loco. He said being married was too hard.
My ass Alex! Standing in this line all day is what’s hard. Dividing up pennies and debt and weekends with the kids, (if they’ll even go with you) that’s what’s hard. Emma so distraught by her daddy leaving that she cries until she throws up, that’s hard. The suffering you’re causing your wife and your daughters because you can't man up and get through the “hard” times, well that’s just nasty, mean, selfish hard!
Jon and I met Alex and Mayli on a weekend marriage retreat twenty years ago. They had a minivan and a job with health benefits, which to us, back then, were the moon and the stars. Mayli and I were both pregnant. We giggled as we ran to the bathroom to throw up our pancakes.
The Monday after the retreat my baby died inside my belly. Mayli came to my side and that’s where she’s stayed ever since. She knew all too well the ugly pain of losing a child.
I got back in the line we had just spent the better part of the afternoon in, while Mayli ran to get in the line for the Fee Waiver forms.
“I need that three hundred and fifty bucks,” she said apologetically.
As I watched her move through the crowded room, I remembered her. I remembered her in her cut off Levi’s and peasant blouse, pregnant and in love.