Sarah nervously picked the paint off her nails. There wasn’t much of it left. She’d painted them two days ago, the first day of the hearing. Now only small spots of paint were left on a few of her fingers.
The lawyer in the grey suit and red tie sitting across from Sarah sighed. “I know this isn’t easy, but the judge has left it up to you. You need to decide.”
Sarah thought about how the judge’s face had turned red as he’d lectured her parents. “You’re both a disgrace and if the law would let me, I’d take everything you have and leave you both sitting in the gutter,” he said in a booming voice. The angrier he got, the more the vein in his temple throbbed. Sarah thought it might burst when he stood, wagged his finger at them, and yelled, “You’re the most selfish, self-centered, arrogant, ignorant, contemptible people I’ve ever had in my courtroom.”
The lawyer leaned forward, resting his elbows on the wooden table that sat between them. “Try to think about it this way. Most kids don’t get a choice. They are just told where they have to go. Really, the judge has given you something really cool. The court is going to do whatever you want.”
Sarah could tell when the lawyer was using small words so she’d understand him, and she didn’t like it. She didn’t like being talked to like she was little. She was thirteen. She’d just started high school. She was taking Advanced Placement Biology. She wasn’t a little kid.
She looked down at the black grains in the wooden table. “I want us all to live together. In the same house.”
The lawyer nodded sympathetically. “I know,” he said. “But that’s the one thing the judge can’t force your parents to do.”
“Why not?” Sarah asked, still looking down.
“That’s just not how divorce works,” he said.
Sarah could feel tears in her eyes again. She swept them away with the back of her hand. She was tired of crying. She felt like she’d done nothing but cry since the hearing started. “I don’t care how it works,” she said to herself.
The lawyer sighed again. “Maybe try weighing the pros and cons,” he said. Bending down to his briefcase next to the table, he pulled out a pen and a yellow pad. “This helps me sometimes,” he said as he drew a line down the middle of the page. He wrote “Mom” on one side of the paper and “Dad” on the other. “Let’s make a list of good things and bad things about living with both parents, and then we can compare them.”
Sarah felt a knot building in her throat. She started picking at her nails again.
“Your mom has a huge house,” the lawyer said as he wrote “big house in the suburbs” under the mom column. “But your dad has that cool new place in the city,” he said as he wrote “penthouse downtown” under dad.
“Yeah,” Sarah said, wiping away more tears.
“And your mom has that huge pool,” he said as he wrote “pool” under the mom column. “Your dad doesn’t have a pool.”
“That’s true,” Sarah said. She remembered last summer, swimming with her mom. They’d floated next to each other on big inner tubes, soaking in the sun, sometimes splashing each other. She loved hearing her mom’s laugh. The tears were building faster now. It was harder for her to hold them back.
“But your dad has Knicks tickets, and I heard in court how much you love basketball,” he said as he wrote basketball under the dad column.
“We like to go together,” Sarah said, still looking at the table. Sarah thought about the last game they’d been at. They sat together, just the two of them. He’d put his arm around her and she’d leaned into him. She liked how his cologne smelled. It made her feel safe.
“Neither of them are really close to your school,” the lawyer said, thinking.
Sarah thought back to the last day of school. There’d been so much yelling that morning. That was the morning her mother had smashed all the bowls on the floor and then cried the whole way to school, mumbling over and over again, “You’re such an asshole. Why are you such an asshole?”
“It’s about the same drive,” she said, quietly.
“And they’re both about the same distance from your ballet studio,” the lawyer said, chewing on the end of his pen.
Sarah remembered coming out of her last practice and seeing her dad, sitting in the car alone, crying. She’d never seen him cry before. She hadn’t known what to do. She just stood there, on the sidewalk, watching the tears roll down his cheeks.
She gave up and let the tears drip from her eyes. “I don’t know if I want to do that anymore,” she said.
“Sure, sure,” the lawyer said, still looking at the pad in deep thought. “Can you think of anything you’d want to add to either side?” he asked.
Sarah thought back to two years ago when they’d all gone to the movies together. They all held hands, her mom on one side and her dad on the other.
But then she remembered the night she woke up to her mother screaming. “Get out! Get the fuck out of my house!” she’d yelled at the top of her lungs. Sarah had come running down the stairs to see if she was okay. She found her mom in the garage, throwing things at her dad’s car as he pulled away.
But then she thought about the time they’d taken a walk in the park together. Her dad had helped her climb a tree while her mom laid in the grass. Then once Sarah had gotten higher than he could reach, he’d gone and joined her mom. They’d laid in the grass together, smiling and watching her.
More tears came and a heaviness formed in her chest. “I just want us all to be back together again,” Sarah said. “Why can’t we just be together?”
The lawyer put the pad down on the table and squeezed her arm. “I know,” he said. “That’s what every kid wants when their parents get divorced.”
Sarah didn’t know how to answer that. She wiped away her tears again and went back to picking at her nails.
“Maybe we’re going about this the wrong way,” the lawyer said. “Let’s think about your brother. Who do you think he would want to live with?”
Sarah looked at Andy. He was seated on her left, his head resting on the table, his face hidden in his arm. The hearing had been hard for him. He was only six and didn’t understand a lot of what was being said. He’d spent most of the trial sitting in her lap crying. When the judge yelled at mom and dad, he’d hidden his face. At the end of the first day, he’d asked, “Why are mommy and daddy so mad?”
“I don’t know,” she’d said, resting her chin on his forehead.
“Did I do something?” he’d asked.
“No, baby,” she’d said as she hugged him. “You didn’t do anything wrong.”
“So what do you think?” the lawyer asked. “Would your brother have a preference?”
Sarah stroked her brother’s hair. “I don’t know,” she said.
“It’s not like you won’t see the other one,” the lawyer said. “You just need to pick the one you most want to be with. The judge will probably split it up sixty-forty or something.”
Sarah took a deep breath and wiped her eyes again. She sat up straight in her chair and look the lawyer in the eyes. “I think that … I mean …”
“It’s okay. Whatever you decide is going to be okay,” the lawyer said with a comforting tone.
She looked at her brother again and then back at the lawyer. She swallowed and said, “I want you to tell the judge that I’ll be living with both mom and dad. That they’re going to move back in together. I don’t care if they’re married or not.”
The lawyer shook his head in defeat. “You know what? Why not?” He packed his yellow pad into his briefcase.
Sarah put her head down on the table like her brother and watched him breathe. She couldn’t tell if he was really asleep or not.
Standing, the lawyer said, “Anything you want me to tell him if he says no?”
“Tell him it’s both of them or neither of them,” she said. Looking at her nails, she began to pick at the last bit of polish.