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The Mediation

By James P Hanley


“Don’t hang up on me, Emily.”

“Why are you calling, Roger?”

Remember, the judge ruling on our divorce recommended we employ a mediator to determine how we’ll divide everything rather than hiring more lawyers.”

“How do we divide the furniture, cut them in half? How do you split the bed, the one we slept in and fucked in for five years?”

“This is not the way to resolve this. Neither of us can afford more legal fees. The judge gave me the names of three mediators, and I checked out all of them. Bernard Holbright is the best choice. He’s a well-recommended, retired judge. I took the liberty of setting up an appointment for next Wednesday.”

She snickered. “You took a lot of liberties with our marriage.”

“If we meet with the mediator and rehash all we’ve discussed with the marriage counselor and briefly with the judge who can grant the divorce, we will get nowhere except to deeper debt.”

Her voice was barely audible. “What’s the appointment time and address.”

The mediator’s third-floor office was in a building near the courthouse, sandwiched between a bakery and a weight loss center. The elevator was not working, and the dirt-streaked carpet gave off a stale odor. Roger was the first to arrive and enter the small rented space. Holbright was seated behind a low desk, and his protruding stomach pushed against the edge, He was a short man dressed in a three-piece suit, frayed-collar shirt, and blue tie. When he stood to shake hands, the crease of his pants was barely visible.

“Is your wife coming soon?” the mediator asked.

“She said she would, and I hope your meter doesn’t start before she gets here.”

Holbright guffawed, revealing his stained front teeth. “I’m not a cab driver, Mr. Simonson, and won’t take you for a ride.”

Emily arrived a few minutes later and looked around the cramped space before acknowledging her husband and the retired judge with a brief nod, moving her chair to increase the separation from her husband.

“I want to explain the process,” the mediator said. “As you know, the purpose of this meeting is to determine how you want to divide your assets. I understand you have no children, so there are no custody matters to resolve.”

“We do have a dog to decide.”

Holbright said, “Won’t be the first time. That’s not on the list you gave me, Mr. Simonson, but certainly, we will include a discussion on dog ownership.”

Emily reached into her purse, pulled out two similar sheets, and handed one to each. “These are things left out of the list Roger gave you, including my dog. I guess he assumed these items were indisputably his."

Roger noticed the first item on her revision. “I bought that painting before we married. They were in my house before you moved in, how could you think you have any rights to it.”

“Humph,” the mediator puffed. “I suggest you decide on all assets without considering prior ownership. Let’s get back to the mediation process. I will be the moderator of sorts, making no decisions—that's your shared responsibility. I may ask questions but will mostly listen to ensure we stay focused. I’ll write down the agreed points, and at the end of our session, read the details and ask you to sign. A typed copy will be mailed to you both with a letter asking that you return it, hopefully without changes, within thirty days. Of course, you may have your attorney review the summary if you'd like. The process may seem straightforward to you, but it seldom occurs without distractions, even discord. I encourage calmness and openness.

“I’ve never considered what’s yours and what’s mine. It was ours. I guess you never thought that way.”

“For god’s sake, Emily, we have to decide on these things.” He was looking at the Holbright.

Emily lowered her head. “Go on,” she said.

“Which list are we working with?” the mediator asked.

“Mine,” both said in unison.

“Not a very auspicious start. Emily, why do you feel your listing is best?” Roger said, but before she could answer, he added, “We’ll use her inventory. I’m used to giving in.”

Emily glared at him and settled back in the chair, her arms folded.

The mediator held a copy of each list, his eyes moving between the sheets. Taking a sip from a water glass on the corner of his desk, he said, "Let's start with items of agreement and then to the differences.”

"There are no differences, which implies comparison. There is no comparison, just her additions."

Emily leaned forward and looked at the mediator. “Do you see what he does? He seems to agree, then uses sarcasm to undermine his acquiescence. That's typical; he never fully apologizes, never recognizes total blame, but has no problem accusing me.”

“That’s bullshit, I…”

“Mr. Simonson, please,” Holbright pleaded. "Both of you, please remember the intent of the meeting." He read the first common item: a colorful chair in the living room.

“That’s hers; I wouldn’t want it.”

"Do you remember when we bought that flowered chair? You just nodded and paid the bill. You seldom sat in that seat as a mild protest, an expression of displeasure. What a metaphor."

“We’ve always had different tastes; why does that surprise you?”

The mediator interrupted. “The chair goes to Mrs. Simonson.”

Holbright read the next item on the list, and Roger raised his hand like a schoolchild. The retired judge looked at Emily, and she put both hands out in a push motion.

“Roger, when did you stop loving me? Was there a point that you looked at me and felt nothing?”

“Maybe when you became distant, and you weren’t there for me.”

Emily chuckled sardonically. “Are you talking about sex?” She looked toward Holbright. “You’re making our mediator uncomfortable. What else?”

“Your unfiltered honesty. You say words that are perhaps valid but expressed hurtfully, tactlessly.”

“I’m faulted because I’m candid and truthful? Isn’t that the way couples should be?”

Holbright took a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his brow. “Can we move on to the next items?”

The mediator continued, “Mr. Simonson, I appreciate how you drew up the list with the headings of the rooms where the items are located. Most of the things listed next are from the kitchen.”

Roger said, “I can save time. I don’t need pots and pans, a toaster, a microwave, silverware, all that can go to her. I want the wine opener. My best man gave it to me."

“So, the only utensil you want is a corkscrew. How fitting. Your best man. Do you know Ronnie hit on me more than once?”

“Trying to drive a wedge between me and my friend.”

The mediator said, "There is agreement that all kitchen items will go to Mrs. Simonson, except for the wine opener?" He was looking at her. She nodded. “Mr. Simonson, there is one item on your list Mrs. Simonson crossed off: an engagement ring.”

“You gave that ring to me without conditions or a time limit.”

“It was my grandmother’s, a family heirloom.”

“Your father put you up to that. He never liked me, never wanted our marriage.” She paused to pull the rings from her finger and dropped her engagement ring and wedding band on the table. “take both; the marriage is over; you can melt the fucking band for the gold.”

Holbright interjected. “I suggest we take a ten-minute break, and perhaps when we reconvene, we can move more aggressively.”

The mediator left them in the conference room while he stepped outside. Clouds had moved in, leaving slivers of sunshine to pass through the weakest sections of the cumulus. Across the concrete was a building of similar design with windows clouded by layers of dust and grime. Holbright tapped on the bottom of a cigarette pack, and a filtered end slid out. He fumbled through his pockets for matches and realized they were in his desk. He crumbled the cigarette and threw it to the ground. 

Emily left the room to the bathroom in the hallway; Roger checked the messages on his phone. When she came back, they looked at each other. “Is it really too late?” she asked.

Roger didn’t answer.

The retired judge returned to the room. “I’m sorry; I shouldn’t have left. Another shared item was vehicles, although you used the singular, Mrs. Simonson, and you the plural, Mr. Simonson.”

"That's just wording. Naturally, she'll keep her car, and I'll have mine—the same with clothes. I'm not a crossdresser," he added, smiling awkwardly.

Holbright continued, “Mrs. Simonson, you added wedding albums to your list of revisions.”

Roger squinted. “I never thought about the pictures. I recall we paid a lot for those photos. Do you want them?” he asked, looking at Emily.

“Of course, what would you do with them? Throw them away? That was such a happy time, and we were in love.”

Holbright asked, “Mrs. Simonson, those albums mean a lot to you?”

“Of course. That was the happiest time in our lives.”

“I wouldn’t want the past to get in the way of the future. You always bring up memories; that’s not my way,” Roger said.

“Right now, they are the only certainty in my life.”

“You must have read that somewhere. If you want the albums, fine.”

“Doesn’t the marriage ceremony and the honeymoon mean anything to you? Have you forgotten about those early years?”

“Of course not, I…”

“You see things that happen in your life as disconnected events. No carryover.”

“Emily, we’ve discussed all this multiple times. We are different people in ways that we ignored at first.”

Holbright wrote on his pad as he spoke. “The wedding albums go to Mrs. Simonson.”

“Please call me Emily. He can have his name back; I’ll use my maiden name now.”

“Fine, Emily. I see there are no appliances listed.”

“We rent the apartment, which came with a refrigerator, microwave, and stove.” Looking at Emily, Roger said, “I spoke to the landlord, and when he returns the deposit, I’ll send you half.”

Holbright stared at the lists. “There is a reference to a collection of music CDs and a player, which you mention is expensive. I assume there were many CDs.”

Emily laughed, “There were many, all his purchases. I didn’t like his choice of music; he can have them.”

Grinning, Roger responded, “I know you hated my choices; sometimes, when we argued, I would play some afterward to bug you.” His tone flattened. “Not all the CDs were mine.”

“There were some soft music CDs we played when we…. If you don’t want those, get rid of them.”

“Books and a bookcase are mentioned on your list, Mr. Simonson.”

“We would each buy books, read them, and give them to each other, later comparing thoughts and impressions. I guess we didn’t read the right books,” Emily said.

“I don’t care what happens to the books, but there are a few first editions worth something I want.”

“Give them to Roger. Most were gifts from me, anyway”

They agreed to close out their checking and savings accounts and equally the amounts. “The investments are his,” Emily said, “I never added to them.”

The discussion returned to the lists, including Emily’s additions. There was little disagreement on the division of the remaining items. Holbright asked; “I noticed somewhere that you had a two-bedroom apartment, but nothing is indicated as coming from a spare room. Is that correct?”

Emily and Roger looked at each other. She answered. “We kept that room empty or used it for temporary storage. We had an eventual use for it. But you never wanted children, did you, Roger?”

He jumped from his chair, nearly knocking it over. “For god’s sake. I thought this would be easy. Split the furniture and stuff, and we’d be done. But you won’t let go of the bitterness.” Looking at Holbright, he continued, “Aren’t you supposed to keep us on track, keep us focused? This shouldn’t be so hard.”

The mediator ignored the comment. “Camera and associated equipment; who gets that?”

Emily answered, “That’s his hobby. I have no interest.” Looking at Roger, she said, “You have to get rid of those pictures of me. You know which ones I mean.”

Squinting, Roger said, “What do you think I would do with them? Don’t worry. I’ll destroy the photos.”

Holbright asked, “Emily, you have a trunk listed, do you want to talk about that?”

The divorcing couple looked at each other, neither speaking. Emily bit into her lower lip, leaving a line across the soft flesh.

Roger said, "I forgot about the small trunk; it’s covered by a quilt and easy to overlook. Emily bought the trunk shortly after we started dating and stored the letters and emails we sent each other. I traveled a lot. Mementos went into the box: desiccated flowers, menus, cards with personal notes, the top of our wedding cake…."

Emily flinched with each mention.

“What do you want to do with it?” the mediator asked.

Roger looked toward Emily. “Em, do you want to keep the trunk?”

She shook her head, her shoulders shaking with the response.

“I'll ask my sister to take it," Roger offered. “She's into craft stuff and would repaint it. I can ask her to destroy the contents without curiosity."

They finished the lists, including Emily’s additions. Holbright said he would complete the handwritten list.

“Where are you going to put the furniture you’ll take?” Emily asked.

“I have a place further uptown.”

“By yourself?”

He didn’t answer. After a pause, he asked, “How about you?”

“I found a small apartment close to work; it’ll save on commuting costs.”

She leaned forward, took the pen from the mediator’s hand, and squinted to find the signature line. Looking up at the mediator, she said, “Supposedly, the final stage of the divorce is to go before the judge again, but this is really the final step: tearing apart those things we shared and matter little now.”

While Roger signed, she looked out the window. It was night; clouds had muffled the evening stars, and the moon had disappeared. The darkness seemed endless.

After Roger signed the handwritten agreement, Emily stood to go. He stood at the same time; the mediator put a hand on Roger’s arm. He sat down and watched her leave the room.  

The end


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