This wasn’t the first time Julie saw bickering parents fighting over the custody of their child, although it might have been the first time she saw such dedication to a counselling session that was going nowhere. By now, most couples would have given up and hired lawyers. Yet, both Harry and Carrie were still sitting there in front of her, their arms crossed, young Steven sandwiched between the two of them.
The silence must have settled fifteen minutes ago by now, and it had no end in sight. As perfectly feng shui as her office was, there was not enough harmonizing energy in the room to dissipate the dark thunderous clouds hovering over the parents’ heads.
“So,” began Julie, daring to break the silence. “Enough with the fighting. We might want to circle back to the reason why we’re here. Steven’s wellbeing.”
Both mother and father remained completely stoic.
“Tell me Steven,” she continued. “What do you want?”
“I want my parents to be together,” the eight-year-old boy answered in a heartbeat. “Forever.”
“They will always be your parents together,” Julie said. “They just won’t be boyfriend and girlfriend anymore. That doesn’t mean they won’t be mom and dad.”
Both parents remained mum. Julie directed heavy looks towards them both, urging them to participate. Harry reluctantly unfolded his arms.
“That’s right,” he said through gritted teeth. “We’ll always be mom and dad.”
“Always,” added Carrie, who also sat straight and uncrossed her limbs. “The only thing is, you can only live with one of us. You can see the other one on the weekends, but it’s important for you to have a stable life, Steven. I can give you stability.”
Harry giggled, his laugh cold and devoid of joy.
“You can never give him that,” he objected. “All you do is travel, constantly.”
“I gave him all the stability he needed for the past eight years,” she replied, her voice suddenly menacing, bitter. “Who prepared his lunched? Who helped him with homework? Who picked him up from school every day?”
“I did all of those things while you were away,” he insisted. “Who will take care of him now when you fly to Beijing? Mark perhaps? I don’t see why we should delegate our son’s wellbeing to your secret lover instead of me.”
“Enough,” said Julie firmly, scandalized that Harry would say such a thing in front of Steven. “You both came here because you were committed to honouring your son’s choice, because you wanted to spare him a difficult custody battle in court. How about we listen to him without interfering?”
“We did listen,” affirmed Harry. “He doesn’t want to make a choice. If he did, wouldn’t he have spoken a long time ago?”
“I think it’s time we try the exercise we discussed in the last session,” declared Julie. “It’s difficult for him to make a choice between people. Choosing between toys will be easier.”
The parents exchanged hesitant looks. Harry brought his briefcase closer to him, while Carrie fetched her purse. There was a mix of shame and excitement in what they were about to do. They had only ever known each other as adults. Now, they had to be children again for the sake of their son, and show a vulnerable side they hadn’t showed in a long time.
Harry went first. He pulled out a golden nautical spyglass and kneeled at his son’s level, handing it over to him.
“Do you know what this is, Steve?”
“Kind of. It’s a spyglass. A kind of little telescope.”
He stopped short. There was something painful in talking about his childhood. Twenty-five years ago, all he knew was a world of adventure filled with wonder and fun. Today, all he knew were offices, coffee machines, and divorce paperwork. Looking into his son’s eyes was like looking into the past, a distant past that burned his soul with the dangerous power of nostalgia. Julie nodded encouragingly, and he knew he had to keep going.
“When I was a young boy just like you, I wanted to be a pirate. So I would take my spyglass, and pretend I was exploring a lost island in search of a treasure. It was the best toy I had. Would you like to do some exploring with me? You can keep it if you want.”
“Exploring sounds fun,” said Steven excitedly. “It would be so cool.”
Carrie cleared her throat. Harry dialled down his enthusiasm and went back to his seat, letting his ex-wife take place before their son. At first, it felt as though she was embarrassed. To Harry’s surprise, she pulled out a toy microscope and put it on the ground before the young boy.
“I guess dad and I complement each other,” she grinned. “He likes the big adventures. I like the small ones.”
“What is it?” asked Steven, trying to take a look down the eyepiece.
“It’s a microscope,” she said. “Scientists use these to see the really tiny things. When I was your age, I was also very curious. Other girls played with dolls, but I wanted to understand what the world was made of. That’s what I do now, it’s why I travel honey. I go around the world to find samples to put under the microscope. Now it’s your turn to investigate the world.”
“Woah, that’s epic!”
Steven’s head started moving left and right, from the microscope to the spyglass, then back to the microscope. Carrie regained her seat.
“I’ll have to ask you to make a choice now Steven,” said Julie, touched by both speeches. “You will always have both of these toys in your life. For now though, you can only have one of them with you at home during the week. You’ll still be able to have lots of fun with the other one on the weekends.”
A shadow passed over Steven’s face. He pondered both objects in silence for what seemed to his parents like an eternity.
“Pick one honey,” said Carrie, her voice betraying impatience.
“I think it would be better if mom and dad waited outside the office,” declared Julie, her patience by the adults rather than the kid. “It will alleviate the pressure a little bit.”
Harry and Carrie were unconvinced by the therapist’s strategy, but they sensed how torn their child was. They could throw knives at each other all they wanted, but the one thing they agreed on from day one was that their child’s wellbeing came first, and so they complied and left.
“I didn’t know you wanted to be a pirate,” joked Carrie, leaning against the waiting room window as Harry paced to and fro.
“I had almost forgotten myself,” he said, half-smiling. “You know, for a second there, I kind of expected you to pull out a plastic doll.”
“Is that what you think of me? A plastic doll kind of girl? Not that there’s something bad about plastic dolls.”
“There certainly isn’t, but it was nice to hear you talk about your job like that. For the longest time, I just thought of your job as the thing that took you away from me for a week every two months. Now I can think of it as a childhood dream you’re fulfilling every day.”
Tears were starting to form at the corners of Carrie’s eyes. She had waited to have an earnest conversation like that with him for so long. Even after all the fights and the arguments, she realized there was a reason they had fallen in love in the first place. For a moment, they both forgot they were in a couple counselling waiting room. Their adult lives faded to a distant background noise. They were just kids on a playground, laughing, playing with each other.
“You’re a great dad Harry,” she said with a somber smile. “Whoever he chooses is almost irrelevant. It could be any of us. This all comes down to a rooftop, a school district, a group of friends. Not to a parent. Can you promise me whatever happens, we won’t be resentful of each other?”
“It’s hard to promise,” he replied, forming a hook with his left hand. “I am a pirate after all. ARGH.”
They giggled in unison, this time with a laugh filled with warmth. At this very instant, Julie opened the door.
“I think we have chosen a toy,” she announced.
Steven walked out of the office. He was holding the microscope. Harry’s heart fell. He was disappointed, for sure, but not resentful. There was a part of him that was happy for Carrie, and he grinned as Steven ran for her, hugging her tightly. Julie walked towards him and handed over the spyglass.
“Make sure you bring it for your next visit.”
“I will,” he said confidently.
He watched as Steven and Carrie entered the elevator together and waved them goodbye as the doors closed. It was all good. There was always the weekend.