I didn’t answer Claire’s call in the middle of the purchasing office space, where I couldn’t talk freely. The call went to voicemail. But as was typical of my ex-wife, Claire didn’t leave a message.
I could have—maybe I should have—waited until later to return the call. But Claire had called me less and less since our divorce, to the point where a call from her was now a minor event.
As a father, of course, my first thought was: an emergency related to our daughter. But if there had been something wrong with Olivia, I felt sure that Clair would have left a message.
It was something else.
Why didn’t I wait to call her back? Maybe because there was some part of me that was still holding out hope of an eventual reconciliation. It wasn’t impossible, right?
Wrong, I was kidding myself. It was impossible.
Nevertheless, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to concentrate on work-related matters until I called her back.
I didn’t want to have a potentially sensitive conversation with my ex-wife back at my desk. Bethany, Donnie, and Ellen might overhear me. Anything they overheard, they readily would use against me. I hated the thought of making myself even more vulnerable to my dysfunctional, scheming coworkers.
I therefore made a U-turn, and headed for the elevators instead.
I pushed the button for the fifth floor. This was the top level of the headquarters building. It wasn’t exactly deserted; but the fifth floor was the least populated of all.
Once on the fifth floor, I walked to an area near the restrooms, by the window. This was probably the most private location inside the entire building.
I faced a window that looked out on the adjacent interstate highway, the I-275 loop that encircled the entire Cincinnati metro area. There were low gray clouds and snow on the ground from a recent accumulation of three inches. A typical Ohio landscape in January.
I pulled my cell phone from my pocket and pushed the button for Claire’s number. Claire answered on the second ring.
“Hey, Frank,” Claire said.
“Hey, Claire,” I said. “You called.”
I had lived with Claire for three years. Now, however, I often myself standoffish and tongue-tied when I communicated with her. Weird.
She proceeded to run through some routine talk about our four-year-old daughter. Olivia was enrolled in a Montessori program in Dayton. Olivia was doing great, she told me. Her teachers said that she was already reading at a first grade level.
I was happy to hear that, needless to say. But my suspicions were aroused. Claire hadn’t called me to give me an update on our daughter’s education. She had another purpose in mind.
Finally she came to the crux of the matter. Ryan—the man whom Claire had been dating for the better part of a year—was talking about moving in.
With my ex-wife. And with my daughter.
I had been aware of Ryan. Claire had met Ryan through work. When pictures of her and Ryan started to appear with increasing frequency on Claire’s Facebook profile, I should have known that things were getting serious. Instead, I had chosen to believe that Ryan was just a fling, a phase that she would grow out of.
I had been in denial, obviously.
“Well,” I interjected, “if you’re looking for me to give my approval, you don’t have it.”
“Frank,” Claire said icily, “I don’t need your approval. “We’re not married anymore.”
Did she have to remind me of that? Remind us both?
“Maybe so,” I allowed. “You’re forgetting something, though. I may not be your husband anymore, but I’m still Olivia’s father. I don’t want her living under the same roof with some fly-by-night character who could be capable of anything.”
I could hear Claire suck in her breath on the other end of the call. My implied accusation, vague though it was, had certainly hit below the belt.
Well, that had been my intention. I was in no mood to be big about this.
“Frank, I’ve been dating Ryan for a year. He has a good job at my company. If you’re really that concerned, you could do a background check on him. But I assure you, you won’t come up with anything.”
She had called my bluff, hadn’t she?
“I still don’t approve. Olivia is my daughter.”
“Frank, divorced people with kids get remarried all the time. Their exes don’t have veto power. That’s not the way this works.”
“You’re not talking about getting married,” I said. “You’re talking about shacking up.”
I realized that I was being petty and preachy now. Not to mention hypocritical. Claire and I had lived together the year before our wedding. Her parents, traditional Catholics, had objected. I had prevailed on them, citing the relaxed, more liberal mores of the twenty-first century.
“I’m letting you know in advance as a courtesy,” Claire said. “But the bottom line is that you don’t have any say in the matter.”
“We’ll see about that,” I said. I was attempting to be cryptic, but I probably sounded desperate. She was right. Barring some glaring skeleton in Ryan’s past, there was really nothing I could do.
And I wasn’t going to hold out hope on that possibility. I knew my ex-wife, and she had probably run a background check on Ryan early in their courtship. She was the one who had just now thought of the background check, after all.
Following that unpleasant matter, we exchanged a few more details about my next court-scheduled visit with Olivia. The conversation returned to a less confrontational tone, but the chasm between us had been widened a bit more.
I was relieved to end the call, lest any more damage be done.