Monday, July 23 , 2018, 3:37 am | Fair 68º


Brian Burke: About Your Divorce (Letter 61) — Nick and Nora Meet for Dinner

Dear Nick and Nora:

Nora arrived to the restaurant five minutes early and was greeted by Liz, one of the owners. They acted as though they knew — or at least remembered — each other, but neither was likely; Nora had lost interest in fine dining years ago.

No one can forget Nora entirely and, however weak and fragmentary Liz’s recollection might have been, an earlier phone call ensured that Nora wouldn’t go unnoticed that evening. Immediately upon entering the restaurant, Nora said, “I’m looking for a single man.”

Liz, playing it straight-faced, replied, “Right now, I’ve only got one. Do you want to check him out, or shall I just seat you and see what happens?”

Nora spotted Nick at a rear table sitting so that he didn’t have a direct line of sight to the front door. Nora said softly, “This is nasty.”

“What?” Liz asked, hearing only the word “nasty,” and thinking that Nora said something about the restaurant.

“Oh, he knows I like to arrive first whenever I’m supposed to meet someone. Believe me, he had to start getting ready at noon to get here before me.”

“He’s been here for at least 15 minutes. He said he’d wait for you before he ordered anything to drink. He’s happily writing in his Moleskin journal — I’ve never seen one that big. Let me take you to the table.”

Nora explained to Liz’s back, “He calls those books his ‘permanent record.’ He’s got dozens of them filled with his juvenile penmanship and drawings. Sometimes, when I was trying to help him get something right, he’d tell me that I was being an intermeddler and he’d write a note about it in his Permanent Record. I think he wants our kids to do a post mortem review of his Permanent Record so they can see what a shrew their mother was. He better hope to outlive me, because if he doesn’t, those suckers will never see the light of day.”

When they reached the table, Nick stood to greet Nora. He smiled, but he didn’t say anything. He left his pen in the gutter of his Permanent Record. He walked behind the other chair and drew it away from the table to seat Nora. Then he returned to his own place.


He raised his hand and said, “Just one minute, Nora.”

“Nick, if you don’t take those ear buds out and turn your iPod off, I’ll turn this table over into your lap.”

Nick looked away from Nora and obediently removed the ear buds, deliberately wrapped the wire around his iPod, put the iPod into his jacket’s ticket pocket and picked up his pen. He looked at Nora squarely, then he looked down at his journal and said while he was writing, “You threatened to turn the table over into my lap. Is that correct? Just for the record.”



“Don’t be such a dope.”

The server heard this sentence when she was too close to the table to veer away to give them privacy. They were a couple who either needed something to drink immediately, or they were a couple who should be stopped before they started. “May I bring you something to drink?”

Neither responded, waiting for the other to speak. Nick finally said, “Just iced tea will be fine for me.”

Nora was surprised, and she didn’t like being surprised by anyone — especially Nick. She wanted a glass of wine, but Nick just made that impossible. It was probably intentional — just to foil her.

“I’d like a Shirley Temple, please.”

The server replied, “No problem.”

Nora’s reply was automatic. “I should think not.” Nick had heard Nora say this dozens of times, and it never failed to embarrass him.

Before Nick could open the book and make an entry to record the remark, Nora added, “Please put the Shirley Temple in the largest glass you have, and I’d like some extra cherries.”

The server kept the reply short, “Yes,” and left the table.

Nick asked, “Since when have you been drinking Shirley Temples with extra cherries? You don’t even like Maraschino cherries.”

“The cherries are for you, Nick, and since when have you been drinking just iced tea?”

Nick didn’t reply, so their conversation was stymied until the beverages were served. Then he asked, “Why did you want to change our meeting from lunch at the Biltmore to dinner at Downey’s?”

“I found out that the Biltmore doesn’t use tablecloths at lunch and that Downey’s is open only for dinner.”

“Oh. That makes perfect sense.”

Nora continued, “I just got back from helping with the baby in San Francisco. David said that you were there last weekend, but he didn’t say how long you stayed, and it felt like I’d be prying if I asked any questions.”

Nick said nothing.

“So, how long did you stay?”

“I got there at noon on Friday and left at noon on Saturday.”

“Isn’t the baby beautiful?”

“Very beautiful,” Nick agreed.

“You’re lying. You think she’s red, wrinkled, ugly and sub-human. I hope you didn’t tell our daughter that.”

“I told our daughter that she was a beautiful mother with a beautiful child. She called me a liar. I wonder where she got that idea.”

“So what did you say?”

“I said that the baby seemed to have the correct number of fingers and toes.”

“Did you stay with them?”

“There’s only one bathroom; of course not.”

Nora had been about to mention that she had been with their daughter to help with the baby for five days, and of course she stayed at the house. She hesitated. Nick stayed for one night. She would establish herself as the more caring parent if she had stayed for three nights. But maybe five nights were too many. It should sound like she cared about their granddaughter five times as much as Nick. But she could be setting herself up to sound like a hovering, intrusive mother whose future visits were dreaded by her own daughter and whose departures were anxiously awaited by her son-in-law. Instead she said, “She was in the hospital for only one night.”

“So I heard. It sounds primitive to me. I asked Dave if they threw her out with the baby because they had lousy health insurance. I started to tell him that if it had been just a matter of money, I would have paid. Then I remembered those recent articles I’ve read about how the only people who pay full hospital charges — which are outrageously high and completely arbitrary — are those without insurance and who happen to pay their bills. That would have been me, so I asked instead, ‘Why such a short stay?’ Do you know what he said?”

“No, Nick, I don’t know what he said.”

“He said, ‘Germs.’”

Nora thought about hospitals and germs for a second or two and said, “Well, there is that.”

Nick agreed, “I know, there is that. Germs. Who would have thought?”

Agreement. They finally reached agreement on at least one thing. Maybe Nick should write that in his Permanent Record.

They ordered and ate their dinners and kept the conversation focused on the food, which was as excellent as it had always been. While chewing, Nora reflected on the situation and how it was different from what she expected. She knew that a carefully considered battle plan worked until the first shot was fired and from then on it had to be continually adjusted to deal with the increasing complexities unfolding until the battle was over. Her tactical plan was in shatters.

Nora didn’t lose control over meetings or any other kind of interpersonal contact. Her gynecologist — someone who was accustomed to complete control — had to brace herself when she saw that Nora was on her patient list for the day.

But Nick had changed his game. Nora could direct a conversation to wherever she wanted it to go. She knew how to ask devilishly clever questions that would move the subject to where she wanted it to be. The first question would evoke an answer that would be a set-up for her next question. Nora conversed like Minnesota Fats shot pool. A ball going into a pocket was like getting the desired answer to a question. And every time a ball went into a pocket, the cue ball was in the correct position for another success shot.

Nick wasn’t filling in silences. One of her favorite moves was to remain silent when he asked her a question. To fill the silence, he’d usually answer himself. Then, he would rightly feel stupid. Why be in a conversation with someone else if you have to answer your own questions?

Nora had set up this dinner expecting and confident that Nick would make the first move toward ending the divorce. But, when the dessert dishes had been cleared, there was a protracted silence that Nick didn’t seem to notice.

Nora had no choice, “Nick, about this divorce of ours ...”

No response.

She continued, “I’m ready for it to be over with.”

He was looking directly at her. She had his full attention, and it was his turn to say something.

He didn’t. He was expecting her to keep talking, and he didn’t make a sound.

This was not the way this encounter was supposed to go.

Your friend,

— Brian H. Burke is a certified family law specialist practicing family law and mediation in Santa Barbara. A researcher and educator in the field of divorce and family conflicts, he is also the creator of the Legal Road Map™. Click here for more information, call 805.965.2888 or e-mail .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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