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For Better or for Worse
Before her husband left, she thought she had a beautiful marriage. Now, if anything surprises her, it is how fast a family's life can change.

By David Finkel
Sunday, June 11, 1995

Everyone has had something to say.

Her mother said: Get your hair cut. It'll make you feel better.

Her father said: Monitor the joint bank accounts. He might empty them.

Her sister said: Take your time. See a counselor.

Her counselor said: Have faith. It will work out.

Her friends said: Get even. Nail him in the settlement.

Even he had something to say, delivered in a seven-page letter a few weeks after he left.

"Val:" he'd written, "Let me begin this by stating that I am truly sorry that all of this is a painful experience for all involved, and that it comes with difficult issues and situations. I'm confident that in the future all of this will be worked out, feelings will recover, and our lives will return to something that is normal and acceptable. This, unfortunately, is a step toward that future . . ."

And so, trying to gain some control, she has come to a lawyer to see about getting a divorce. Her name is Valerie. Her maiden name is Perrino. Her married name is something she doesn't want published because she has two young children, and because she has no idea what is about to happen to their lives. She is 34, lives in Northern Virginia, has lost 17 pounds since the day her husband left, and now finds herself in Vienna, across from a lawyer named Mark Barondess, who is sitting beneath a large photograph of a snarling Doberman pinscher. "Okay," he is saying, pushing some papers he has prepared across the desk for her to sign. "Here it is." It is the moment she has been dreading. Earlier in the day, thinking about it, she nearly canceled the appointment. She had woken up with a headache. She had driven to Vienna wondering if she would be physically sick. She had come into Barondess's office, noticed the photograph of the Doberman and almost panicked. Up to this point, though, she'd surprised herself with how well she'd maintained her composure, even when Barondess was going over what he'd written, which was a reduction of her marriage to 12 cold paragraphs of type.

"Paragraph 4," he'd read. "The parties hereto were lawfully married on or about the 23rd day of May, 1981 in Alexandria . . ."

"Paragraph 8. That on the 1st day of January, 1995, the Defendant did intentionally and willfully desert the parties' marital relationship . . ."

"Paragraph 12. There is no hope or possibility of a reconciliation between the parties . . ."

"It all makes him sound so awful," she'd said when he was done, and he'd said, "It really doesn't," and she'd asked, "Is all of this pretty standard?" and he'd said, "You bet," and she'd said, "Should I tell him anything about these papers before he gets them?" and he'd said, "No, it would destroy the effect," and through all of that she had been fine. The only sign of her nervousness was the way she'd been kneading one of her fingers, fourth finger, left hand, the one where there was no longer a ring. But now Barondess gives her the papers, and now he hands her a pen, and just like that it becomes clear that she isn't doing well at all because she takes the pen and begins staring at it, so noticeably, so intently, that Barondess feels compelled to say something.

"It's a Uni-Ball," he says.

She knows. It happens to be her husband's favorite type of pen. It's the one he uses all the time, same model, same color, something she is aware of because for nearly 14 years she tried to know everything about him, and then, on a day she thought she knew him better than ever, he walked out, and now her 7-year-old can't get to sleep, and her 5-year-old is constantly angry, and she is waking up every morning with a headache, alone in a big bed that she no longer wants. She doesn't want the bed. She doesn't want to cut her hair. She doesn't want to be monitoring the bank account. She doesn't want to be at the lawyer's. Most of all, she doesn't want to sign her name with that pen. She knows she should say something to Barondess, explain this, but she's not sure at the moment that her voice will even come out, and when, after a few seconds, it does, all she can manage to say is, "I don't like those pens," and then, "Can I have a different one?" and Barondess searches around until he finds a ballpoint, and she says, "I like those much better," and laughs a little, knowing how silly she must sound.

"Okay," she says.

She looks once more at the papers.

She breathes in and out.

"It is hard," she says after a while, "to actually put the pen down."

"If you don't want to do this, you don't have to," Barondess says.

She doesn't want to.

But she does.

SO THERE WILL BE a divorce. Another divorce.

As a statistic, this is scarcely noteworthy. In America, roughly 40 percent of first marriages end in failure. For the past 20 years, the number of divorces has exceeded a million every year. Now comes one more, one that, on its face, seems as typical as they get. Filled with dreams, Valerie got married. Empty of love, her husband walked out. Now Valerie is pursuing a divorce. It happens all the time. There will be a period of adjustment. There will be some pain. There will be some bitterness. Eventually, though, it will all work out. Better to be apart than unhappily together. That, at least, has been the conventional thinking about divorce. It's temporarily unpleasant but ultimately beneficial, and not just to a particular family but to society in general.

Such thinking, however, is starting to change, which is why Valerie's divorce is something to consider. Instead of an asset to society, divorce is now, more and more, being regarded as a contributor to its decline. Instead of short-term, its effects are now being seen as lengthy. And instead of liberating, it is now being seen as something that hurts families psychologically and economically, so much so that even people who have come to despise each other, or are fighting a lot, or have simply become bored, are regularly told that, absent abuse, they should do whatever it takes to remain together.

This, at least, is the emerging thinking, encapsulated in a report released earlier this year titled "Marriage in America: A Report to the Nation." Two years in the making, it was published by a group composed mostly of academicians and social scientists, who concluded that the decline of marriage and the increases in juvenile crime, child abuse, teenage suicide and drug abuse can't be dismissed as unrelated. "The divorce revolution -- the steady displacement of a marriage culture by a culture of divorce and unwed parenthood -- has failed," the report says. "It has created terrible hardships for children, incurred unsupportable social costs, and failed to deliver on its promise of greater adult happiness. The time has come to shift the focus of national attention from divorce to marriage and to rebuild a family culture based on enduring marital relationships."

The report hasn't been universally embraced. It has been called advocacy rather than science. Some of its recommendations -- such as advising religious leaders to "reclaim moral ground from the culture of divorce" and admonishing entertainment industry executives not to "glamorize unwed motherhood, marital infidelity, alternative lifestyles, and sexual promiscuity" -- have been criticized as political rather than fact-based.

Nonetheless, some of its conclusions are supported at least in part by two other studies of divorce's effects, both of which are regarded as more scientific and objective.

One, by Nicholas Zill and published in 1993 in the Journal of Family Psychology, was based on data from a government-sponsored survey that tracked more than 1,000 children born between 1965 and 1970 until they were adults. The other, by Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur and based on several detailed studies of children, was published last year in a book called Growing Up With a Single Parent.

Among Zill's conclusions: "18- to 22-year-olds from disrupted families were twice as likely as other youths to have poor relationships with their fathers and mothers, to show high levels of emotional distress or problem behavior, to have received psychological help, and to have dropped out of high school at some point."

Among McLanahan's and Sandefur's: "We have been studying this question for 10 years, and in our opinion the evidence is quite clear: Children who grow up in a household with only one biological parent are worse off, on average, than children who grow up in a household with both of their biological parents, regardless of the parents' race or educational background, regardless of whether the parents are married when the child is born, and regardless of whether the resident parent remarries . . . They are less likely to graduate from high school and college, they are more likely to become teen mothers, and they are somewhat more likely to be idle in young adulthood."

There have been other studies as well, all more or less supporting what Zill, McLanahan and Sandefur say. None, however, has gotten the attention that David Blankenhorn, project director for "Marriage in America," got earlier this year when he was on TV, on radio, in newspapers and magazines, insisting that the fatherless family, above everything else, is at the heart of America's problems.

"It's not even debatable," he says one day, while on a promotional tour for a book he has written called Fatherless America. "Children want two things. They want the unconditional love of their parents, and they want their parents to stay together, and if you take that away from them you're doing something that is non-compensable. You're hurting them and wounding them and diminishing their chances to become happy and competent adults.

"Whether or not you believe this depends on whether you think fathers are essential," he goes on. "And I think they are."

This, then, is the center of what the thinking about divorce is becoming, at least for the moment, and meanwhile, out on the edge, is Valerie, aware of it all as her marriage heads toward its final moments.

One day, she turns on the radio, and there's Blankenhorn, talking about his book.

Another day, she goes to the dentist's office, and there among the magazines is Time, with a cover story about "the growing movement to strengthen marriage and prevent divorce."

Another day, she opens the Sunday paper, and there's Parade magazine, with an article that says, "Our soaring divorce rate has had alarming consequences for families and children."

Another day. She's at home. Lindsey, her 7-year-old, is in school. Laura, her 5-year-old, is at preschool. It's the day after her husband was supposed to have been served with the divorce papers, and she is sitting at the kitchen table, talking about the day they met in college, and the day he proposed by giving her a Cracker Jack box with an engagement ring inside, and the day Lindsey was born, and the day Laura was born, and the day he said he was leaving because "he was just too comfortable," when the phone rings.

"Hello?" she says.

Her face tightens.

"Well, that's very flattering," she says.

She takes the phone into another room, comes back after perhaps a minute, sits back down.

"Apparently, he did get served," she says. She is trying to sound matter-of-fact, but she is also wiping her eyes. "He was obviously not pleased. He doesn't want to go to court. He doesn't want a lawyer to do this. God, I'm shaking. I'd really like to stop shaking when I go through these things."

THIS IS HOW a marriage comes to an end:

It is December 28. The kids are downstairs watching cartoons. Valerie (whose version of events this is) is in bed, and her husband (who declined to be interviewed) is sitting at the foot of the bed in a chair. He has just showered and dressed. He has a flat expression on his face. Valerie asks him if anything is wrong. "You don't seem to be smiling much anymore," she says, and he says, "We don't have to do this now," and she says, suddenly filled with a prickly sensation, "Yes we do."

She has no idea what is about to happen. At this moment, as far as she's concerned, she has a wonderful marriage. Her husband, a computer specialist, earns enough for her to stay home with the children. He goes to work, and she runs the kids to school in the minivan, straightens the house, goes to the Giant, goes to Price Club, picks the kids up, helps with homework, watches them as they play outside, chats with the other mothers in the neighborhood, goes in, starts dinner, and listens for the rumble of their old sports car coming up the street. It's a sound she looks forward to every night. She feels very much in love, so much so that she will later say, "I would have stayed married to him for the rest of my life." Now, however, as she sits up in bed and the sounds of the children filter up the stairs, he says that he has become involved with someone and is unsure what to do, and now she is in the shower for a long, long time, and now she steps out of the shower and he is still sitting in the chair. She dresses. She goes downstairs. She says good morning to the kids. They have no idea. No voices have been raised. When she cries, she hides her face. Somehow, the day passes, and at bedtime, she lies down next to her husband, and remains there frozen and awake until she is sure the house is asleep, and only then does she go downstairs to the couch.

The next day, December 29, is Laura's fifth birthday. Valerie brings her breakfast in bed. It is a tradition they have, something Valerie wants for her family because of the traditions she had growing up, particularly one involving the year's first snowfall, when her father would lead everyone into the park behind their house for a cookout. Bundled up, they would cook eggs and bacon, and the kids would have juice, and the adults would have whiskey, and it was the same year after year. This day, though, it is nothing so elaborate. It is a chocolate doughnut she finds in the kitchen, a glass of milk, and a quick, tired rendition of "Happy Birthday," and then, once again starting to cry, this time unable to hide it, Valerie tells the girls she's not feeling well and excuses herself. Later, at some point, her husband says he's going to meet some friends to play volleyball and leaves for a while. That night, after dinner, they try to talk, but it's a tense conversation in a tense house that lasts a short time and goes nowhere in particular.

On December 30, he tells her that he is going to McDonald's to talk things over with the woman. "He was gone for probably three hours," she says later. "When he came back, I asked him point-blank what they talked about. He said he had things to think about." Just as they did the day before, he goes his way and Valerie goes hers. "A lot of tension," is how she describes the house. "After the girls were in bed, it became, I don't know, just terribly quiet."

On December 31, two things happen. First, in the evening, the phone rings. "It's for Daddy," Laura says, and Valerie takes the portable phone upstairs to him, not thinking about who it might be until, back downstairs, Laura says, "It was a girl." Second, after midnight, on his way to bed, he kisses her, leaving her, if not encouraged, at least confused.

On January 1, she is in the kitchen when Lindsey comes in and says, "Daddy wants to talk to you."

She goes upstairs. He is sitting on the edge of the bed. He's in jeans and a rugby shirt. His hands are folded in his lap. She tells him she's about to take the girls to church, and he says he's going to pack some things and go to a hotel, and she leans against the dresser. She doesn't cry, doesn't yell, doesn't try to talk him out of it. For four days she has, for the most part, tried to leave him alone. Several times she suggested counseling. Once she said her sister would watch the kids for a few days so they could go away. This morning, for reasons she was not entirely sure of, she brought him breakfast in bed, but that's as far as she's willing to go, except, now, to ask him, "Are you really sure it's worth it?" He says he isn't sure. But he's going to leave. "I think you're a coward," she says.

Downstairs, the girls are waiting in new dresses. Valerie gathers them up and takes them to church, and when they come back, they go with their father into the living room. Because he wants to do this on his own, Valerie goes down the hallway to the kitchen. She sits at the table. Now she gets up. Now she realizes that if she stands pressed against the wall next to the refrigerator and peeks around the corner, she can look along the hallway, into the glass of a picture frame, and see their reflections. She does this. She is as quiet as she can be. She barely moves. She sees a reflection of Lindsey, still in her new dress, crying. She is trying to see how Laura is doing when the phone rings, and then the girls come back to the kitchen and say they want to make goodbye cards, and that's what they do. They sit at the table with markers and construction paper, and Valerie sits with them, watching them write, "I love you," and, "I miss you," telling them how much their father will like such beautiful cards while, down the hall, their father continues to pack. They finish the cards. They give them to him. Now both of the girls are crying, and Valerie takes them into the family room and sits with them on the couch and tells them again and again that things will be okay, and at some point she becomes aware that they are alone, and she is flooded with, of all emotions, relief.

After four bad days of not knowing what would happen, now she does. He's gone. They can move on. And do.

The rest of the day goes quickly. Valerie's mother comes over. Her sister flies in from Chicago. They go out for ice cream. Valerie tells the kids they can stay up late. They go running and jumping around the family room, and at one point, Lindsey, a little wild, goes crashing into Valerie's left arm. It is hard enough to hurt, and Valerie says so, and Lindsey apologizes, and Valerie forgets about it, and they all resume running around, having so much fun that Valerie allows herself to think the worst may be over. But then, a little later, Lindsey hands her a note that says, "I'm sorry I smacked you. Are you gonna go away like daddy did?" -- and she realizes that isn't so.

Lindsey, that night, asks to fall asleep in her mother's bed.

Two months later, it's still the only way she can get to sleep.

EVERY NIGHT, Valerie rubs Lindsey's back until she's asleep and then picks her up and carries her to her own bed.

Laura, meanwhile, can usually fall asleep on her own, but sometimes she wakes up, and Valerie goes into her room to comfort her, and lies down next to her, and shuts her eyes and stays the night.

Then comes the morning.

"Can we get a present?" Laura asks one day in a store, seeing some gift wrap.

"For who?" Valerie asks.

"For Daddy," she says. "We miss him." Another day, out of the blue, she says, "Let's see if Daddy wants to come over and spend the night."

Another day, after the girls have been told by their father that he has moved from the hotel into the home of a woman who he is sure the kids will like a lot, Lindsey asks why he is doing this, and Valerie has to tell her that he has fallen in love with someone else.

"How come he doesn't love you?" Lindsey, of course, asks.

"I don't know," Valerie says.

She tries to sound honest when she says this, without sounding wounded. The point, she knows, is to make them feel as if their world is still a secure place, that things will happen but life is nonetheless good. So it is only when they are out of earshot that she will say how difficult this is becoming. "I had to explain they weren't just friends, and that was very hard," she says. "It's very strange. It's important for them to have a relationship with him, so I'm in the position of defending his actions so that they can maintain that relationship."

Every day seems to bring more questions: Is he coming back? Is it our fault? Can he come over for dinner? Are you going to marry someone else? But the three of them also fall into their own routine, and, bit by bit, six weeks after the separation, a sense of steadiness seems to be returning. Just as they did before, they go to school, they go to the Giant, they go to Price Club, they come home, and on warm afternoons, the children play along the street while Valerie chats with the neighborhood mothers, especially Diane, who lives across the cul-de-sac. She has a tree in her front yard that Laura likes to climb. She also has a 10-year-old daughter named Shannon whom Lindsey plays with from time to time, so when they see Shannon walking home from school one day, they pick her up and give her a ride, and she goes into her house, and they go into theirs, and that would be that, except a couple hours later Valerie and the girls are back outside when they hear an odd sound for their neighborhood, the sound of a helicopter. Someone comes up and says there's been an accident on a nearby street. Someone else comes up and says someone has been hit by a car. Someone else comes up and says it's a child. Someone else says it's Shannon. They hear the helicopter leave. That night, they don't know how serious it is. By the next morning, however, Valerie does know because Diane called her from the hospital.

"How's Shannon?" Lindsey asks as soon as she gets up.

"Well, she died last night," Valerie says. It is the only way she can think to say it.

"I want to be honest with them," she says later. "I have to be. They have to be able to depend on me. I don't want to do anything to violate that trust."

So it is that in a matter of weeks, the children have learned two things, that a father can leave and a child can die, and now, whenever Lindsey tries to go to sleep on her own, she invariably comes downstairs, and if she doesn't say she misses her father she says she misses Shannon, or, one night, simply, "I have too much to think about."

Laura, meanwhile, goes across the cul-de-sac one afternoon, and climbs the tree in front of Shannon's house, and straddles a branch, and pulls off some leaves, and tells about the time she first tried to climb the tree last year and got stuck and her father came and got her. She says, "I can climb higher." She does. She says, "Nobody can reach me." She lies along a branch and shuts her eyes.

Valerie, meanwhile, is in front of the house, gardening. She is trying to get the house in shape to sell, in case it comes to that. She has already replaced the hot water heater, and painted, and now she's trying to grow some flowers around the mailbox.

The days go by.

Lindsey is having a hard time in school.

Laura has begun pulling out her hair.

A letter arrives in the mail.

"Val:"

This one is one page.

"Let me begin by saying once again that I think you've made a very big mistake . . ."

This time, Valerie takes the letter to a store down the street.

"A deal' could have been worked out between us without having to give up a portion of our estate to the legal system . . ."

Where she pays to have it faxed to Mark Barondess.

"Vengeance and spite are my only explanations for your recent choices . . ."

Who reads it.

"Also, for your information, I have separated our automobile insurances . . . You will also soon receive notice that you are being removed from my health insurance . . . I'm sorry that it has come to this, however, I tried to be both fair and civil."

And faxes a response to the lawyer Valerie's husband has retained.

"Dear David,

"Once again, {your client} has made unilateral determinations which further cloud any possibility for an amicable resolution of this matter. I anxiously await {his} testimony regarding his decision to terminate the health care coverage of his wife.

"Please ask {him} to terminate his condescending communications to his wife. Furthermore, please accept this letter as our demand that he immediately restore both the automobile and health insurance at once . . ."

IT IS AN EASY LETTER for Barondess to write.

This is what he does. All day long, he's either in court, or in his Mercedes, or in his very nicely appointed office with the photograph of the Doberman, dealing with the messiness that is another marriage's demise. Bitterness. Grief. Despair. Hate. Revenge. These are the emotions of his day. What he gets for dealing with this is $275 an hour, and what his clients get is someone who is sympathy and sarcasm and expensive shirts, who goes into court one afternoon and, in the process of crossexamining a particular client's wife about her expenses, zeroes in on the costs she has listed for chemotherapy. He asks, because he thinks it is in the best interest of his client: Are all the charges essential? He asks: Is the chemotherapy for preventative purposes? He asks: Is it absolutely necessary? She looks at him. "How can you be so cruel?" she says. "Have you no heart? I'm not trying to fake this." And with that she reaches up and removes her hat and shows him her bald head, and there is nothing for him to do but turn to her lawyer and say, very quietly, "Nice move."

Such are the nuances of divorce law, whose practitioners have traditionally been assigned a reputation that one of them, Shiel Edlin, of Atlanta, in Washington one week for a convention of several hundred divorce lawyers, describes this way: "That we're all cheesy, sleazy gougers. That we're warriors. That we're not ethical."

The convention itself is an indication this isn't so; among the sessions is one by Lynne Gold-Bikin, who chairs the American Bar Association's family law section, drumming up support for a project to slow the divorce rate by teaching young people, especially those in high school, to get married responsibly rather than dreamily. "We're the ones who know more about what causes the breakup of marriages than anyone else in the country. We're the ones who preside over it. We're the ones who hear someone go from, I'd do anything for him,' to, If he steps in front of my car I'll run over him,' " GoldBikin says of her motivations for starting the program. "We may be divorce lawyers who make money, but we're also citizens of a country that is going down the tubes." Even the name divorce law goes by these days -- family law -- suggests how complicated all of this has become. There are never-ending custody issues to deal with. There are parental kidnappings. There is physical abuse of children. There is sexual abuse of children. There are paternity suits. There are so many deadbeat parents that private collection agencies have begun trying to track them down because state agencies have become too overwhelmed to keep up. Once, perhaps, divorce law may have been nothing more than private detectives and compromising photographs, but now it has become something in which the only constant is the unhappiness, and that's what Barondess sees every day.

In comes a woman one day to discuss a settlement proposal.

"He's become a real jerk lately," she says of her husband, and, before Barondess can ask why, she is off and running. "Don't they all? Isn't that what happens? He doesn't come to see our daughter during the week, and when he does on the weekend, he brings her back with two ear infections, a sore throat, conjunctivitis, a fever, diarrhea, and he hadn't taken her to the doctor . . ." She pauses to catch her breath. "I guess what I'm saying is, I want as much as I can get."

Now comes a phone call from a woman who says, "Mark?"

"Yes?"

"Can I run something by you that's extremely irritating?"

"Of course." "He just got a new Volvo."

"Big deal." "A new Volvo!" "Big deal."

"I knew he had money . . ." Now comes another phone call, from another client who wants "the most I can get," and then into the office comes a weepy client, and then comes a livid one, and then comes a woman who enters with a sigh.

"Have a seat, Suzanne," Barondess says.

She does, but first she brings in her 7-year-old daughter, whose name is Jacqueline, who turns out to be the daughter of Washington Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke, the daughter Cooke never really saw until a few months before, near Christmas, when he sent a limo for her one day and had her transported to his estate. The topic today is supposed to be Suzanne's seven-year-long battle to get an increase in Jacqueline's child support of $29,000 a year, but soon it becomes clear she has something else on her mind. Jacqueline, it seems, has announced she no longer wants to go to the estate. She had been going every Saturday since December. She had been loving it. Her father had given her a pony for her birthday. He had gotten down on the floor with her to play a game of Monopoly. A bond was developing. But recently, after a brief estrangement, Cooke's companion Marlene returned to the scene, and now Jacqueline has declared that she doesn't want to go back, and that's what Suzanne wants, for Barondess to talk to Jacqueline, to hear all of this for himself.

Barondess looks at her. He doesn't know what to say.

"She knows you're the lawyer," Suzanne tells him. "I told her to be honest."

"Yeah, but, but . . ." He starts to rub his forehead.

"That's my daughter," Suzanne says. "I love her. I don't want to see her hurt. She told me, I want to go once more to say goodbye to my pony and all the worker people.' "

He keeps rubbing his forehead.

"I want it resolved," Suzanne says. "I'm trying to be calm. I want the truth to come out. I don't want my daughter hurt."

"I don't usually talk to 6-year-olds," Barondess says.

"Seven years old," Suzanne says.

"Seven," Barondess says.

"She told the doctor she doesn't want to go back," Suzanne says. "It's because of Marlene. And she let it slip -- she's jealous."

From all the rubbing, Barondess's forehead is starting to look a little red.

"You know I've been saying for years, I want Jacqueline to have a relationship with her father," Suzanne continues. "I just saw a documentary on TV last week about how important it is for a child to have a relationship with a biological father. There's a book out on this, too . . ."

On this goes, past 5 o'clock, past 6, until finally, near 6:30, after Barondess has spent a few minutes talking privately to Jacqueline and then a few minutes more advising Suzanne to have Jacqueline talk about her feelings not with a lawyer, but with her father, Suzanne exits and Barondess's day is done.

"This is what it's like every day," he says. "Every day."

He spends a moment straightening his desk. He comes across a credit card bill from his wife. It's her card, but he's paying it as part of their settlement. It turns out he, too, is getting divorced, and the way he spends his days, he thinks, is part of the reason why. "It has desensitized me tremendously," he says. He looks at the bill. There are a few charges for restaurants. His wife, it seems, has begun going out. He is surprised to realize he's feeling a little angry about this. He puts the bill aside and picks up an old photograph he keeps of her. "She's five times prettier now," he says.

Somewhere during all of this, Valerie has stopped by. It was a quick visit to give Barondess some financial papers he wants in order to figure out what kind of settlement to seek. There were no demands, no accusations, no tears, no insults, no sighs. She dropped off the papers, talked for a few minutes, said she was doing well enough and went on her way.

"She's a sweet lady," Barondess says. "I don't think the reality of it has hit her. Not yet."

BUT IT HAS. She steps on the scale. She's now lost 20 pounds. She looks in the refrigerator. She's simply not hungry. She sets the alarm for 7, wakes up at 5:30, lies in the dark and thinks of all she has to do. After eight years of not working, she has to find a job. Her insurance wasn't canceled after all, so she doesn't have to worry about that, but she does have to establish credit. She has to box up everything her husband left behind. She has to make Rice Krispies treats for the children. And because it's Wednesday, she has to go see Frank Shumaker, her counselor.

She sees him once a week in the pastor's office at her church. Shumaker does what he describes as spiritual counseling, which involves hearing Valerie out and then looking for particular answers in the Bible that support the notion of forgiveness. It is an aggressive kind of counseling. He pushes her toward thinking that none of this is arbitrary, that it is part of God's plan, and that God cares about her, even though this has happened, and about Lindsey, even though she seems angrier and angrier, and about Laura, even though she came home the other day with a deep bite mark on her arm, a mark that, it turned out, she put there herself.

He also tells her more pragmatic things -- that, for instance, if the children are acting out around her it's a sign of how comfortable they are, and she should take it as a kind of compliment -- but it's hard, she tells him one night, because they are acting out, they are angry, they are fighting with each other a lot and it wasn't that way before. So he gives her an exercise to do with them: have a "heavy-heart talk" in which she should explain that hearts get full, and when they're full they get heavy, and when they get heavy they need to be emptied, and the way to do that is to talk.

Do this three times a week, he says, and Valerie says she'll try, and she goes home, and now it is the next day, and she hasn't had time.

She is, at the moment, making dinner. The kids are at the kitchen table drawing. Everything seems calm, and then, just like that, it isn't.

Laura sits in Lindsey's chair.

Lindsey pushes her out.

Laura falls to the floor, gets up, pushes Lindsey back, tries to run away, and Lindsey pushes her so hard she goes skidding and falls again.

"Don't push her," Valerie says, running over to pick up Laura, who has begun crying.

"I didn't," Lindsey says.

"I saw you. You did," Valerie says.

She sends Lindsey to a chair in the playroom for a timeout. She takes Laura to the couch in the family room, hugs her and says, "You can't push. She'll push back." Laura continues to cry. Lindsey says, "Can I get out now?" Valerie says, "Not yet." Lindsey starts humming the theme song from "Jeopardy!" Laura says, "Mom, tell her to stop making that noise. It makes me nervous." Lindsey stops humming, and Laura stops crying, and they come back to the table, and everything's quiet for perhaps 10 seconds until Laura reaches for a crayon and can't get it and begins crying again, and Lindsey, smiling sweetly, says, "Temper, temper," and Laura cries louder, and Valerie sighs. Time for dinner.

Valerie cuts up the chicken.

She gets out the salad dressings.

She opens the bacon bits.

She asks Laura which dressing she wants.

She tells Laura to stop sticking her fork in the bacon bits.

She tells Laura to stop throwing lettuce at Lindsey's plate.

She tells Laura to stop throwing bacon bits at Lindsey's plate.

She tells Lindsey, "Lindsey, I can take care of it," when Lindsey says, "Laura!"

"Oops," Lindsey says, dropping a hard-boiled egg on the floor. "Sorrrrry."

"Laura!" Valerie says when Laura starts throwing croutons in the air.

"Lindsey!" she says when Lindsey does it, too.

"Please start eating," she tells Laura.

"Stop burping."

"You have cheese in your hair."

"Your arm is in your plate."

It's now 7 p.m.

"We've got a lot to do," Valerie says, and she gets them dessert, starts the dishes, sweeps the floor, picks up bits of boiled egg and asks them what book they want to her to read. "The Quails," Lindsey says. "Dan Quayle?" Valerie says. "Dan Quayle?" Lindsey says. "Never mind," Valerie says, and she reads them the book, goes upstairs and starts the bath.

She has a surprise, too: a bubble bath.

Except the bubbles make Laura itch, so Valerie empties the tub, and refills it, and vacuums, and dusts, and tells the girls to stop fighting over some toys they are playing with, and puts Laura in bed, and rubs Lindsey's back, and tells them both "I love you," and looks at how beautiful they are, and thinks that she doesn't know what she would do without them, and goes downstairs, where, in the sudden quiet that is her house just past 9 p.m., she decides to read a book. She reads for a while, and then she gets in bed. She sets the alarm for 7 and wakes up at 5:30. She goes to sleep with a headache, and when she wakes up it's still there.

FOURTEEN YEARS AGO: That was the year the number of divorces in America was the highest it's ever been. It was also the year Valerie got married. "See? Don't they look happy?" Barbara Perrino, Valerie's mother, is saying one day. She is sitting at her dining room table, looking at wedding photographs that were taken in this very house. This is where Valerie grew up. It is the house with the park beyond the back yard where she so fondly remembers her father cooking out in the snow, the house where in truth he rarely was because he worked so much, and when he was around, Barbara says, thinking back, "he'd come home, have a couple of drinks and go to sleep, usually in front of the TV." Now she is thinking about the night before Valerie's wedding. "Everything was quiet," she says. "I went in and told Valerie good night, and I was almost asleep, and I heard this crying. So I went in and said, What's wrong?' And she said, I don't know if I should get married.' And I said, Do you love him?' And she said, Yes.' And I said, Do you want to share the rest of your life with him?' And she said, Yes.' Can you imagine being without him?' No.' Then why are you upset?' I don't know. I guess I'm just nervous.' And it wasn't until a long time later that I found out the reason was she knew that once she was married, that my marriage was going to come to an end."

Which is what happened. At that point, Barbara had been married 27 years. Not so many months later, on a Sunday, she came home from church to a note from her husband waiting just inside the front door. A few years after that, finally divorced, she realized the last decade of her marriage was what she now describes as "quiet desperation," and 10 years after that, on another Sunday, still alone, used to it, doing fine, really, she gave Valerie a call.

"Happy New Year," she said, not knowing that the children, at that moment, were in the living room with their father.

"Not very," said Valerie, who, of course, had been peering around the corner, and now, hearing her mother's voice, began to cry.

"Why not? . . . Are you kidding? . . . I'm on my way," she said, and two months later, after telling Valerie to change the locks on her house, and get a lawyer, and get an AIDS test, and not be surprised if her friends' husbands begin making passes, she finds herself thinking about something Valerie has since said, that watching the last years of her parents' marriage taught her everything about what she never wanted her own marriage to be. "I wanted to feel like I was always in love," is how Valerie explained it, and now Barbara says, "It's funny she says that, because I didn't want a marriage like my parents had. It was so dull. They didn't do anything. They never really went anywhere. He was, I guess, a romantic. He brought her a flower every day. One time he brought home a bouquet of lilacs and filled the bath and put them in the water, and when she came home that's what was waiting for her." In telling this, Barbara knows how nice it must sound, but there were other moments as well, she says, and in those her father was a drunk, and her mother wasn't, and her mother wanted to travel, and her father didn't, and her father wanted his dinner on the table at the same time every night, and that, ultimately is what defined their relationship. She made him his dinner. In return, he brought her her daily flower. In return, she never went anywhere except where she went in her mind, and maybe she thought of leaving, but instead she stayed home and raised Barbara, who didn't want to end up trapped like her, and Barbara in turn raised Valerie, who didn't want to end up trapped like her.

"I don't know," Barbara says. "Maybe people should take lessons in being married, because not very many people are good at it."

She puts the wedding photos aside. She gets up. She looks out the window, and in doing so she sees an old, yellowing, outdoor thermometer and is reminded once again how difficult all of this had been. It turns out that her husband put up the thermometer soon after the separation. She thought he was coming over to get his things. She went out for a while because she didn't want to see him, and when she came back not only were his things still there, but so was this thermometer, which he had just gone ahead and installed, "without even asking me where I wanted it, and that really ticked me off," and just like that she is angry once again.

And now, hearing about this, Sandy Perrino doesn't know what to say.

He can't even imagine why such a memory would be there so many years later. "It was just one of the things she asked me to do," he says. "There was a list. I was just trying to clean up the list." He is truly perplexed, because, of course, through his eyes, everything is entirely different:

He was a good father.

He was a decent husband.

He had, in the end, a dead marriage, but that didn't mean it wasn't sickening to write that note and walk away.

He went that day to a motel, and then he found a place to live, and then he found new friends, and eventually he remarried, and now, he says, he is doing fine, just like Barbara. But his was a different experience, and so, while Barbara can talk to Valerie about how painful rejection feels, he can't. "All I can tell her is people change," he says. "They really do. She has to recognize that. People grow apart, fall out of love, and what she has to realize is, it's not her fault. That she really is blameless."

That's what he tells her, and she is soothed, and then the girls come back after spending the day with their father and announce breathlessly that they're going to be the flower girls when he gets married, and, once again, she feels herself slipping. Because despite what anyone tells her, she still doesn't understand what happened. She keeps thinking back to what her husband said about feeling "too comfortable." "See, this is where I don't understand his perspective. I don't even understand why comfortable is a bad thing," she says. "I said, Some people strive for that all their lives and never achieve it.' "

She thought she had. And yet here she is on a Wednesday afternoon, around the time she would be listening for the sports car, instead calling Mark Barondess to go over the final details of the settlement proposal.

She doesn't want the children to hear, so she takes the portable phone upstairs to her bedroom. She sits in the chair that her husband was in the day he told her he was seeing someone else, which she has moved next to the dresser that holds her wedding ring and the note Lindsey wrote asking if she was going to leave. She has left the children downstairs drawing pictures and is in the midst of going over the cable bill, and the cost of the auto insurance, and the loan for the vinyl siding, when Lindsey comes rushing in to tell her the cat is throwing up.

"Okay, hon, thank you," she whispers.

Now they are discussing the precise amounts of child support and alimony when Lindsey comes back, saying she is done drawing and asking what she can do.

"You can go out back and play."

Now they are onto the subject of visitation when Laura bursts in, asking if she can go outside, too.

"Yes, in the back yard."

Laura goes running out. Now there's a knock at the front door. And a second knock, louder. Still on the phone, Valerie goes downstairs. The kids have locked themselves out. They come in, go out, come in, go out, and Valerie stays downstairs to finish the conversation.

"Okay," she says. "Well, we'll just assume it's all going to work out."

She hangs up.

Checks on the kids.

Cleans up the cat vomit.

Starts dinner.

Says, "I'd like us all to have a normal life. And this isn't a normal life. This isn't how life is intended to be."

WHAT IS NORMAL? Once, on the morning of December 28, in the split second before she asked if anything was wrong, Valerie thought she knew. It was a husband. It was a wife. It was a child who wasn't angry enough to hurt herself and another child who wasn't afraid to sleep alone.

Now, three months later, she realizes she has no idea, but she wants to find out. She wants to be past this. The experts, she knows, say it can take as little as a year. Her mother says two at the most.

Maybe so. She can hope. But so far, when she closes her eyes and imagines her life at the moment, what she sees is a man who is suddenly a stranger, sitting in a chair and saying he is leaving, so calm that his hands are folded in his lap. That's the part that amazes her still, those folded hands.

Now she opens her eyes. And what she sees is herself, a single mother, waiting for her children to return.

It is a Saturday.

They are with him.

He called after lunch to say he'd be by, and just after 2 he'd pulled up in her car, with her in the passenger seat and her two children in the back seat, and as Valerie watched from the front door, Lindsey and Laura climbed in and off the six of them went, another American family out for a Saturday afternoon.

Is that normal?

She doesn't know.

Is such a thing bad for the kids?

She doesn't know that either.

Will all of this show up some day on the night before their weddings, when she is listening for their sadness through the walls?

She doesn't know that either. She knows only that, at this point, a wedding seems like blindness, and a divorce seems like clarity, and now, as the afternoon fades, she says, "I don't want to be married to him, I don't want anything to do with him," and that's the point she has come to. In the course of three months, she has changed from someone who couldn't believe he would leave to someone who no longer wants him back, from someone who thought of divorce as surrender to someone who believes it is sometimes inevitable. If anything surprises her, it is the speed of the transformation. Three months ago she was in love, and now she isn't, and that would be the end of it except for their children.

As Barondess reminded her on the phone the other day, "You're always going to have to communicate with him."

"Yeah, I'm aware of that," she said.

"I mean, that is truly that tie that binds you," he said.

"Yes, it is," she said.

"And no divorce is going to take that tie away," he said.

"No."

That's what they have left, then, children who are momentarily out of balance, and while she is glad they are having a day with him, she wishes they were home.

It's now 6 p.m. He didn't say what time he'd drop them off, but she imagines it will be at 7 because that's when he dropped them off in previous weeks.

Now it's 6:30. She is sitting in the kitchen. It is early enough in the year that it is starting to get dark, and so the lights are on. "I really do honestly feel I've got my life in front of me," she is saying.

Now it's 6:52. Now it's completely dark outside.

Now it's 7. "It's around now that the house starts to feel quiet and empty to me," she says.

Now it's 7:05. "Frank and I talked a lot about how I can't do anything to make them get here sooner," she says. "That sitting here waiting is actually counterproductive."

Now it's 7:10. "I can't wait till they get back."

Now it's 7:15. She runs a hand through her hair. She takes a sip of ice tea. She runs her hand through her hair again. Now it's 7:20. "This is ridiculous," she says. She gets up. She walks around. She puts out fresh cat food. She turns on a single light in the living room. She closes the blinds in the kitchen. She goes into the dining room, leaves the lights off, and stands in the darkness staring through the blinds out at the street.

Now it's 7:25. "I could probably be doing things to make it not seem this way," she says. She thinks of what she has to do tomorrow. There is church. There is a tree planting in memory of Shannon. She sits at the dining room table, drums her nails, takes a sip of tea, runs her fingers around and around the rim of the glass.

Now it's 7:26. She hears the sound of a car door. She gets up and looks out between the slats of the blinds. No.

Now it's 7:35. She is still at the window, still in the dark. The only sound in the house is the refrigerator, and now it shuts off and the house is so quiet, and so tense, that when the phone rings, it is as startling as a scream.

She runs to the kitchen.

"Hello?"

It's Lindsey.

"Where are you? . . . Did you have fun? . . . Is Laura okay? . . . Is she feeling all right? . . . Okay."

She hangs up.

"They're 20 minutes away," she says, and with that all the tension vanishes. She turns on more lights, and suddenly, instead of the time dragging, she can't believe how fast it is going because now she hears the sound of a car door, and now the kids are inside, and now she is saying, "Hi, pumpkin," and now she is on the couch with Laura while Lindsey goes running around the room, first to one side, then to the other, then leaping toward the couch to be next to her mother. She is flying through the air. She is moving so fast she can't slow down, and now she is smashing into her mother's arm.

"Ouch," Valerie says before she can stop herself.

But this time Lindsey leans forward and kisses her, and the moment is forgotten as she starts telling her about their day. "Good," Valerie says, listening, smiling, trying to be positive, "I'm glad you guys had a good time," but then, slowly, as Lindsey keeps talking, it becomes clear that they didn't have a good time, not entirely, that Laura got into a fight with one of the other kids, that it ended up being a pretty bad day, and now Lindsey says nothing, and Laura says nothing, and Valerie, wondering what she can possibly tell two children in such circumstances, says the only thing she can think of. "I'm sorry."

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