Though she’d been through a dry-run the day before, culling through every item in her closet, pulling on outfit after outfit and peering at every possible angle in the full-length mirror hung on the back of the bathroom door before choosing what she’d wear, Maggie Harrison was taking no chances. She rolled out of bed before her alarm went off in order to allow herself plenty of time to get dressed. Getting out of bed in the first place had never been her favorite thing to do, coming as it did first thing in the morning, but this morning was particularly unpleasant: she’d dare not drink coffee for fear it’d swell her ankles (never her best feature in the first place) and cause her to need more bathroom breaks than were likely to be allowed – and she didn’t want to show any sign of weakness on this of all days. She struggled into the dress she’d chosen, realizing too late that she must have absent-mindedly picked it because it was her soon-to-be ex-husband Jack’s favorite color, and not because it camouflaged any of her body flaws, of which there were plenty. It wasn’t until she buttoned it that she realized the buttons strained over her very ample bust, but since he’d always seemed to appreciate that part of her anatomy she could only hope it might remind him of what he was missing.
It wasn’t just the laws of nature (like gravity – and the fact that Spanx really only work on skinny women) that Maggie was fighting, but the other monsters and booby-traps that lurked in every corner, too. There were the private investigators hired by her husband who peered in her windows at night, hoping to snap a photo of her having sex with a man so that it might be argued she had a live-in boyfriend; or rummaging through her trash in search of grocery receipts showing that she spent extra money on high priced items she didn’t need. It wasn’t that she couldn’t get a date – or cared so much about the prospect of having her husband and his cronies catch her in the middle of steamy sex with a handsome young stud, she’d not even considered dating anyone so as to avoid having to put them through such humiliation. That the best the private investigators would find in her garbage cans were empty cartons of store-brand ice cream and dozens of boxes drained of white zinfandel wasn’t because she turned to those items to bury her feelings, they were merely evidence of her efforts to remind her husband of their humble beginnings.
That she was continually subject to such demoralizing tactics by her husband, and how hard she had to work to keep herself from being pulled asunder was no secret. She’d signed declarations stating that her car had been rigged with a GPS device showing her whereabouts at all times, but that her mechanic had been bribed by her husband to say he’d found nothing. She’d warned her friends that her house and cell phones were wire tapped and couldn’t blame them when they stopped taking her calls. That many of them urged her to get professional help and told her that they were tired of her droning on and on about her husband’s affair and the way he’d rigged the justice system to work against her was only proof of his power. Even her friends of thirty years couldn’t risk sounding disloyal to him. Since her computer had been rigged so that every tap on the keyboard was transmitted to someone monitoring her, she’d taken to writing notes to her lawyer in long hand and because she knew better than to trust the U.S. Postal service (her husband had friends there, too – she discovered this when her letters to Governor Schwarzenegger and Senators Boxer and Feinstein went unanswered) hand delivered them to his office herself.
She’d gathered her enormous three-ring binders full of the notes she’d made since the day she discovered Jack had a girlfriend and organized them into six file storage boxes the day before, but had kept them at her bedside so that she could keep them out of the hands of her enemies. She’d factored in the time it would take her to carry them to her car when she’d set her alarm, but hadn’t considered that the effort would leave her breathless and sweaty, so the extra turn in the shower and the unexpected need for a dress change had bumped her up against the clock. She remembered the runner-up to the dress she’d chosen the day before and ran to her closet for the flowered affair that she’d worn on their honeymoon. It caught and pulled on her damp skin and when it became obvious that she wasn’t going to be able to squeeze into it she realized that it looked too much like a mu-mu in the first place. She had no choice but to go with the original dress, and tugged it on, hoping it would dry before she got to the courtroom.
Maggie glanced at her reflection in the mirror as she wriggled her feet into the sexiest of her sensible shoes; low-heeled black pumps designed by an orthopedic surgeon that she realized – too late – needed polishing. The only image that really pleased her was her hair. She’d grown it long and dyed it blonde in an effort to replicate the look of the notorious socialite who had murdered her ex-husband and his new young wife as they slept in their bed a few years earlier. The resemblance was astonishing, really, and her long blonde locks had the added bonus of looking just like the hair worn by her husband’s girlfriend. It was a shame Jack hadn’t made known his preference for blondes years earlier, as she might easily have saved their marriage.
As she pulled out of the driveway she checked her mirrors for signs of a car idling nearby, ready to tail her. Though it seemed ridiculous to have her followed when everyone already knew where she was headed, she fully expected it and when she didn’t see any suspicious-looking cars lurking about, it worried her. Maggie stopped in the street and opened her trunk, rearranging the storage boxes so that she could get to the mirror she’d strapped to one of her husband’s old golf clubs. It was only after her search of the undercarriage of the car found nothing out of the ordinary that she was able to climb back into the driver’s seat and take off.
Since the day she first realized her every move was being monitored, Maggie rarely ventured out beyond her neighborhood Vons and her lawyer’s office – both located within blocks of her house. She’d let her membership at the gym lapse, not only so that she couldn’t be accused of spending her support money frivolously, but because she’d noticed a giant uptick in the number of older men working out with their fit, young girlfriends. Since her friends had been warned to steer clear of her she rarely at the Starbucks she’d frequented with them nearly every weekday morning for years, though the last time she did they were nowhere to be seen and the place was instead overrun by scantily clad high school girls engaged in an apparent contest to see whose voice was shrillest. Maggie’d only bothered to stop when she thought she recognized her friends’ line of Mercedes Benzes and BMWs parked at the curb. She was appalled when she realized those cars belonged to teenagers. Didn’t parents realize what they were doing to the next generation?
It wasn’t until she nearly rear-ended the car at the end of the long line inching down the freeway entrance ramp that Maggie realized that in all her planning for this day she’d forgotten the morning rush hour traffic. Beyond the ramp a snake of brake lights shone as far as she could see. She considered backing up and taking the series of side streets that would eventually dump her farther down the freeway, but now cars were lined up behind her and it was impossible. She’d been generous in allowing half an hour for traveling and padding an extra ten minutes into finding parking, but it was clear that she was going to be late. Her heart raced in her chest and her breathing became labored and shallow. Wouldn’t it be the perfect ending for Jack if she had a heart attack and died right then and there? There was no way that she was going to give him the satisfaction. It took over an hour for Maggie to make her way downtown, and when she finally pulled into the parking lot she’d scoped out ahead of time, it was full. She circled around the courthouse on a series of confusing one-way streets several times, her head spinning, before she decided she had no choice but to park in the handicapped spot across the street from the entrance.
As Maggie dragged the first of the storage boxes up the courthouse steps it became clear that her husband had purposefully set the hearing for the middle of August in order to make the experience as miserable as possible. Even the sun was stationed perfectly to blaze straight down the middle of the street, heating the concrete so that it felt soft under her shoes. The hair at the back of her neck curled in sweaty ringlets and rivulets of perspiration accumulated in tiny pools at the underwire of her bra. When she’d finally struggled all six cartons to the top of the stairs and opened the glass doors, a blast of frigid air took her breath away. The armed guard stationed in front of the x-ray detector told her that all of the cartons would have to be placed on the belt for screening. He was impervious to her pleas that she was late for her hearing and told her that it was against the rules for him to help her lift the boxes. Maggie shook off the impending paralysis that threatened to hand an easy victory to her husband and decided to make her way with the most important box, saving the rest for later. The guard would not allow her to leave the others unattended, so she dragged them outside one-by-on and assembled them near the entrance. As she stacked the last box, an effort that nearly killed her, she saw the guard shaking his head and wagging a finger at her. Maggie pulled the boxes down the steps, nearly collapsing with exhaustion, and set them against the building out of the line of vision of the guard. It was probable that a member of Jack’s team was at the ready to swoop in and steal them, but there was nothing she could do now. She’d make her way to the courtroom, explain the situation and surely her lawyer would ask the judge for a short recess so that she could retrieve her evidence.
When Maggie and the box finally made it through the x-ray detector, she was unable to squish her swollen feet back into her pumps. She set them on top of the carton and ran down the hallway in her bare feet. The courtrooms were numbered in a confusing fashion and there was no one around to ask for help. As she skidded around a corner one of the shoes clanked to the floor and when she bent to retrieve it the lid of the box opened and her notebooks crashed haphazardly to the floor. She half expected a crew from “You’re on Candid Camera” to stick a microphone in her face, but there was no way anyone could have scripted such a scene. She stuffed the notebooks in the box and resumed her barefoot run to the end of the corridor, spotting the dreaded courtroom just as she realized she’d left her shoes behind.
Maggie peeked into the courtroom from the small window on the door and saw that the room was empty. The judge’s fancy leather chair was turned sideways, facing a desk littered with papers. The chair for that desk was also empty, as was the chair in the witness stand. The lawyer’s table in front of the gallery was spotless, devoid of briefs or legal pads or even a sign of life. “They decided the case without me,” Maggie said aloud, “they’ve given him everything.” She dropped the carton with a thud and slumped against the wall. She slowly sank down and sat on the box. Her arms became lead with weight and gravity tugged them to her side so that her fingertips brushed the floor. Her head sank forward, her chin bobbing inches away from her bosom. She felt a wave of intense heat rush to her face as her energy melted away. She’d been poised for battle, but the enemy had managed to out smart her before she could lob her first volley. But out smart was even too light a phrase. He’d tricked her somehow; probably telling the judge that she was a lazy sloth and couldn’t even be bothered to attend the hearing. He must have drawn her lawyer into his game and together his team and hers conspired against her. After all she’d been through these last months, the private investigators and phone tapping, the eyes peering in her windows and watching her keystrokes, the rummaging through her trashcans and her mail, how could she be surprised? “Okay, you got me,” Maggie said, “You finally got me.” Her body felt heavier than ever and she wondered if she might just melt into a big puddle of defeat right there. She sank back against the wall and closed her eyes.
The noise in the hallway broke through her reverie. She must have dozed off, she thought. When she lifted her head the air conditioning cooled her face, like a welcome breeze on an otherwise stifling day. It was noon and the courtrooms were emptying for the lunch hour. Maggie straightened her shoulders and ran her fingers through her tangled hair. People spilled out of the courtroom beside her and she heard the door creak open from the one across the hall, too. The hallway echoed with voices and footsteps and it wasn’t until then that she realized how quiet it had been when she’d first arrived. A woman wearing an expensive suit and carrying a briefcase strode past staring at Maggie’s bare feet. Their eyes met for a moment and Maggie felt a dim connection between the two of them. The carton groaned beneath her as she shifted her weight and turned her attention back to the people filling the corridor. She watched as masses of humanity strolled past her in pairs and small groups. She overheard snippets of conversations: two lawyers joking about “Juror Three’s” tattoo; a group of five or six jurors enthusiastically discussing lunch possibilities; a young man and woman, twenty years old at best, busily punching thumbs on cell phones held through interlocked arms while whispering suggestively to each other.
Cheers erupted yards away and Maggie craned her neck around the hallway strollers to see the source: a dozen or so people carrying flowers and holding colorful balloons emblazoned with “Congratulations!” A man and woman burst from the courtroom carrying a toddler. “She’s ours!” the man shouted, “She’s finally ours!” The crowd shrieked in reply, descending upon the trio and burying them in hugs. Maggie swallowed. She’d almost forgotten the bonds forged by people bound together by circumstance or happenstance. So much time had passed and she’d not bothered to see the life teeming around her, to notice smiles and friendly gestures or hear small talk or good tidings. If camaraderie could exist in these halls, in this place known for battles and conflict, it must blossom elsewhere – in the coffee shop she’d been neglecting, in the school playground she’d sped past on her daily trek to her lawyer’s office, in the living rooms of the friends she’d alienated. For the first time in a very long time Maggie felt ashamed.
The celebrating crowd moved down the hall still hugging the couple and their child. The footsteps softened and the tones hushed. Maggie heard a door shut softly and saw a young couple emerge from a courtroom. The man was carrying a boy way too old to be carried, cradling him in his arms horizontally as if holding a sleeping baby. The weight of the child was obvious – the man was bent over and struggling. The woman stroked the boy’s head and as they got closer Maggie could see that the dark-haired boy was dressed in a tuxedo. It wasn’t until they were very close that Maggie noticed the boy’s hands, bound in contortions and held tight to his chest, and saw his face, his eyes rolling around as though loose in the sockets, his mouth slack, exposing a few crooked teeth, drool escaping and flowing down his cheeks. As they slowly passed by, the mother continuing to stroke his hair, Maggie heard his moans and watched his head lolling about. His father spoke softly to him, reassuringly, and his mother bent to his ear and told him she loved him. “I love you, Rudy,” she said over and over again. Maggie swore the little boy grinned his response. What a cross to bear, she thought. “And I felt sorry for myself?” she whispered. She was astounded at what she’d witnessed. She felt as if this family had been made to cross her path. To show her how self-possessed she’d been.
Footsteps clacked nearby and Maggie looked up to see the women lawyer she’d noticed earlier. She spoke to the couple carrying the boy and they nodded their acknowledgment. She slowed as she approached, a look of concern drawn across her face, Maggie’s shoes dangling from her fingers.
“I thought these might belong to you,” she said.
“Oh my God, how embarrassing. I was late for my hearing.” Maggie said.
“Did you make it?”
“No, but I’m sure I’ll be able to straighten things out.”
“I’ve got a roller cart – I left it in the courtroom – I can get it and help you with the box if you’d like.”
Maggie realized that had this stranger made such a gesture to her even this morning she would have attributed it to some part of the vast conspiracy against her. She felt shame rise like a lump in her throat. She realized that the family she’d been watching was waiting for this woman.
“Why are they here?” Maggie asked.
“Bad baby case.”
“Cerebral palsy. The doctor and nurses didn’t monitor the baby’s heartbeat. He was in distress and deprived of oxygen. He’d have been perfectly fine . . . . ” Her voice trailed off as they both turned and watched the couple coo over their drooling, groaning boy. These parents adored their “bad baby”. Maggie tried to convey empathy and concern through her eyes and gentle smile, realizing as she did that she was out of practice. She’d neglected that gesture for far too long.
Maggie felt a hand on her shoulder and turned to see her lawyer standing beside her, his head cocked to the cell phone perched on his shoulder.
“Guess who I just found,” he said into the phone, “Call off the search party. I’ll be back in a few.”
“Maggie! Where in the world have you been? I was so worried about you.” He looked Maggie over and seemed not to notice her disheveled dress – or the fact that she was shoeless. “So worried, in fact, that I forgot my briefcase and had to come back to get it. Thank God I did – I found you! You’re not going to believe this, Maggie. They gave us everything we asked for, Maggie. Everything and more. You got it all – and they’re paying my fees, too.”
His words echoed through the hallway and pulsed in waves in her ears. Everything. Everything and more. How could that be? Maggie had devoted hours and days and weeks and months to compiling evidence to prove her husband’s illicit affair and expose his shady business practices, sure, but even though he’d had her tailed and recorded her every word, and in spite of the fact that her attorney had told her that none of it mattered in a no-fault community property state, neither Jack nor his impressive legal team had actually seen the fruits of her efforts. They couldn’t have known how compelling her argument would have been.
“But I don’t understand,” Maggie mumbled.
“You got the house, the cars, the vacation house, the bank account, the retirement accounts – you even got the Net Jet credits! He’s agreed to pay far more in spousal support than we’d have gotten had we proved he was on the Forbes 500 List. It’s unbelievable, Maggie. I’ve never seen anything like this in my career. The judge had us read the settlement into the record and because it was so obviously in your favor, she didn’t even care that you weren’t there to endorse it. You’re a lucky lady, Maggie.” Her lawyer patted her on the back, reaching for the door to the courtroom just as his phone rang. He was halfway to the counsel table when he turned back to her. He reached into the breast pocket of his suit jacket and handed her an envelope. He cupped his hand over the speaker on his phone and whispered: “Jack asked me to give you this. Call my office next week and we’ll finalize everything.”
Scrawled across the envelope in Jack’s handwriting was “Maggie Moo” – the nickname he’d coined for her decades earlier. He hadn’t called her that in ages. Maggie realized that the corridor had grown quiet again and that the woman and the family had disappeared. She looked forlornly at the now damp and misshapen storage box that had served little purpose other than as a seat for her for the past few hours. But then again, she thought, had it not she might have missed the lessons she’d just learned in that hallway. That box was crammed full of meaningless garbage, but it had supported her as the weight of the world had slowly lifted off her shoulders. It had served a far higher purpose than she’d ever intended or could have imagined. She stuffed the envelope into her bra and bent to pick up the box just as the lawyer stepped up behind her with the roller cart she’d promised.
As she wheeled the box past the security guard posted at the building entrance Maggie saw the other boxes she’d brought stacked up beside him. He smiled at her. “I kept an eye on them for you. No worries. Oh, and I told the meter maid not to ticket you, either.”
He stacked two of the boxes on the one she was pulling, grabbed another roller cart from behind the x-ray detector and loaded the rest on it. She didn’t protest when he took the handle from her hand and pulled both carts across the street to her car. He insisted on loading them into her trunk and gave her a small salute before heading back to his post. She sat in the front seat and watched as he crossed the street. She remembered the envelope tucked in her bosom and tugged the now limp paper from her bra. The damp flap curled and it opened with ease. Folded neatly in half was a piece of stationary, engraved simply with Jack Harrison’s name at the top. Before her eyes momentarily blurred out of focus she gazed at his near perfect handwriting and saw that it had been signed “Love, Jack”. She rubbed her eyes and started at the top.
I am very sorry that our life took the turn that it did. I want you to know that I’ve chosen to hold on to our happy memories, of which there are so many. Now that we’ve closed this chapter I wish you well and hope for you nothing but a happy and full life. You’re financially set forever more and can now devote your
energy to finding and claiming your happiness. You deserve nothing less, and I’m confident you’ll find it.
I want to be the one to tell you that by the time you read this Cara and I will be on a flight bound for Bali where we’re to be married. We’re expecting a child in a few months. May you find as much joy in life as I have.
Kathi Hansen is a recovering lawyer, happily, joyfully, gloriously, skeptically pursuing the avocation that she should have been doing instead of knocking heads with egomaniacal insurance defense lawyers for nearly thirty years. She lives, happily, joyfully, gloriously in Coronado, California and occasionally (supremely happily, joyfully, gloriously) in Manhattan.
© 2010, Kathi Hansen