People fall in love. They make that leap of faith with easy confidence. Surrendering freedom, they hurl themselves into life's riskiest venture, making it seem completely natural.
Not me. It's trickier when the woman I call "Mom" is a divorce lawyer - someone who makes her living tidying up other people's worst messes. A hired gun who shoots down deeply- held dreams and then turns out the lights.
Gathered around the dinner table, my older sister and I would listen to my dad ask Mom how her day went. As far back as sippycup days, Mom would pour our milk while regaling us with horror stories from the courthouse involving men and women a long way's gone from I'll - cherish-you-forever days.
Accounts of emotional brutality were as everyday ordinary as our table condiments. We never heard names but many startling stories: a parent fleeing abroad with a child, a spouse's sexual misadventures, peculiar fetishes - and all this in our conservative Midwestern city. And I couldn't stop thinking about all the precious dogs caught up in shared custody! It was a never- ending litany of emotional torture, all served along with our mashed potatoes.
My poor father, bearing the brunt of every man's misdeeds, listened patiently to these tales of betrayal and outrageous behavior. He would valiantly try to comfort his stressed-out wife, even with the nagging recognition that my mom could hand him divorce documents with the morning newspaper, leaving him penniless and homeless by nightfall. Perhaps he was grateful that other men's malfeasance lowered the standards for him. As long as he wasn't throwing wild pool parties with co-ed girls, he was golden.
My early take-away: relationships are scary business. I often was warned about the Internet and how the World Wide Web had drastically altered the playing field. Not only had it become so much easier to meet someone new, but to also get back in touch with old flames from high school. According to the expertise of my mother, there is no more dangerous person
in the world than your spouse's old lover. No matter what they say, they are never "just friends," when Facebook brings them back into each other's lives.
I was a confirmed bachelor at the age of six, scoffing at the neighborhood girls with their pillowcase veils and lollipop rings. They would prance around in their DIY wedding attire, jumping with joy that they had found their long-time partner in their 6-year-old neighbor BFF. As I got older, my disgust became overwhelming for the Hollywood and Hallmark-infused glorification of "true love." I knew the real world and its lurking dangers. I frequently would repeat the lyrics from voice-of-our-generation, Rihanna, bemoaning, "How do I find love in a hopeless place?"
Before I finished elementary school, my mom realized she'd have to tone down her responses to "How was your day?" The principal angrily explained that my classmates' parents were complaining. They didn't take kindly to their innocents being included in my playground chatter about pornography addictions, vibrating sex toys, and men wearing lingerie under their suits. While I thought I was merely doing my due diligence in preparing my classmates for the messy world of love, waiting outside the playground walls, administrators did not see it this way.
One time, Mother was in a heated case involving a Christian Grey-sort of husband. He had an affinity for kinky foreplay and owned a large, diverse sex toy collection. As my friends swung ring-to-ring on the monkey bars, I tried to explain all the items the shocked wife found in his super-secret closet (which she apparently had never thought to question) and how they always had to be careful. My penance began when I was immediately called into the principal's office after one of the supervising adults at recess overheard my socially responsible story.
Mom soon began to better childproof her tales, but my mind was set. I entered puberty and Mom and Dad didn't understand why I wasn't asking out girls, even my junior high crush. "She's so cute!" or "Why don't you invite her over for Shabbat dinner?" they'd say. After hearing endless tales of love-gone-very-wrong, the aching pain of terminating a relationship, and how
the one person you trusted more than anyone can become your torturer, could they really expect me to set sail on the turbulent seas of romance?
Mom watched all my friends begin dating, and she tried harder to reverse the years of influence she held over me. She insisted I had it all wrong. Marriage is "beautiful" and "sacred" and romance is "noble" and "something to be cherished always." She would reference her own marriage with Dad and how happy she was to have found someone who took the garbage out every Sunday and massaged her feet in front of the TV. That's something to be valued!
I would retort, "What about that one couple from last week, though? They had been together for 45 years and then the wife said she was moving in with their son's best friend?" She didn't have an answer to that, so I'd continue singing Rihanna in my head. Mom
took it a step further, in an effort to assuage my anxieties over romance. She instructed me to incorporate rigorous lawsuit "discovery" tactics to early-phase courtship rituals. Mom's hard-core lawyer techniques included:
First: Ask for a sworn affidavit with backup documentation of their assets and debts. (Making sure to date within your socioeconomic class is crucial for a relationship's long-term success).
Second: Interview all past partners about infidelity, dishonesty and abuse. If possible, insist this be under oath and in the presence of a stenographer. (Note: The high school guidance counselor's office may be a nice, nurturing environment).
Third: Meet their parents for questioning regarding values and child-rearing practices. (Where do they stand on the "helicopter parent" scale?).
Fourth: Collect hair follicle and urine samples at unexpected times. (Approach this as casually as possible).
Fifth: Always be looking at their text messages. (The best time to review is when they are preoccupied in the bathroom).
Sixth: Discreetly obtain the login password for their laptop. If that fails, consider getting geek help. (Craigslist is full of living-in-their-mother's-basement nerds ready for easy money).
Seventh: Look in every drawer, bag, and sock for sex toys, which you know have never been used with you. (Confront as needed).
Eighth: Obtain written authorization for all treating physicians to release medical records for the past 10 years. (Reassure them this is simply a health precaution).
Armed with Mom's cautionary counsel of what it takes to be secure in a relationship, I felt ready, and maybe even a little excited, to open my heart (and legal pad), and to let my hormones out to play.
I went to college - traded in girls for guys - and explored the world of romance. Once or twice, I even found someone I really liked and had a connection with. I began to wonder, maybe I didn't need that sworn affidavit after all.
The thick, iron-wrought shield I had built up around my heart began to deteriorate - only a little - and I questioned whether I could allow myself to test the waters and actually, just maybe, begin to create a meaningful romantic connection with someone I truly cared for.
But as it turned out, I wasn't ever able to get through the first three tips on Mom's list. Either my new love interest ran away when the notary popped up during appetizers, or they found it peculiar when I asked for a urine sample. (One guy actually liked the idea, too much; I ditched him).
Apparently, the dating advice my mother bestowed upon me did not fall within any of Cosmo's many tips, let alone the mainstream notions of courtship. The rules, which I had always envisioned to be printed on one of those brightly colored motivational posters, hanging in elementary school classrooms, is really just material for lawyer sexting.
Now that I'm 21 and world-weary, Mom reminds me of her romance litigation tools when I call with news of a recent breakup. After the guy I've been seeing (and actually really liked)
turns out to be sleeping with a 36-year-old married man named Dill, my mother insists I must have skipped over one of her necessary requirements.
"Didn't you question his past partners? Maybe he has a history of doing this and you could have avoided all of this trouble!"
"All of them blocked me on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and Tumblr after my tenth time messaging them."
"Well, what about his phone? It really isn't that difficult to take a quick look at his texts." "His contacts are just emoticons instead of actual names."
"And you hadn't overheard him saying anything about Dill before?"
"I thought he was talking about pickles."
And at the end of the phone call, she reminds me once again that grandchildren in her future are an absolute must.