Lucy shielded her eyes from the sun as she reeled off instructions for my weekend with the kids.
“Oh, and before I forget, you need to come to a meeting next Tuesday at four,” she said, her voice rapid and clipped. “It’s downtown on Water Street, can you be there?”
“I’ll have to look at my calendar, but I suppose I’m available,” I replied. “What is the meeting about?”
“The house. I’m refinancing it.”
“You are? Is now a good time for that? Wait, when did you decide to do this?”
“Yes, I got a good rate. So can you please come to the meeting? You have to sign some papers, that’s all. Please don’t make a big deal of this.”
Our divorce was final, but there were still some loose ends that needed tending. A number of these concerned our house.
The divorce settlement stipulated that Lucy would retain residence in our house, but I would remain co-owner until our youngest child’s eighteenth birthday—in the year 2017—at which time Lucy would be required to sell the house or buy me out. I agreed to give over the title once the divorce was final.
It was a complicated arrangement, but the best we could manage. Lucy was not in a position to buy me out at the time we divorced, and I was not going to force her to sell the home she shared with our children.
The whole thing left Lucy perplexed and anxious.
Lucy’s rash decision to end our marriage was made in anger after she found herself unable to win a fight about a business trip I had been asked to make. She threw divorce at me early in the fight, as she had often done in the past. I thought she was being shrill. I told her it was foolish to hurl threats of divorce over so minor an issue. I made the business trip.
When I returned, she moved into the basement and refused to speak to me. After the children and I had endured several months of her stubborn fury, I agreed to move out at the end of the school year.
As our separation approached, Lucy’s mood changed. She seemed happy as she insulated herself in a fantasy of life without a spouse. As she saw it, life without me would be pretty good. She had a lovely pre-war home, three wonderful children, and a good career. The only aggravation in her life was the continued necessity of compromise with a husband who could not be entirely controlled.
One afternoon, she passed me in the hall. Her face was twisted with concern.
“Jefferson,” she blurted out. “I’m so afraid that when you move out, you won’t support me and the kids.”
I stammered reassurance that we would do what we had to do to keep the house and take care of the children.
As I reflected on her concern, I realized just how little she comprehended the reality of divorce.
Lucy apparently believed that her life would be exactly the same as it was, simply minus my presence. She would have full custody of the children and access to at least half of my income. In this scheme of things, I would go off someplace else and no longer be a problem for her. She would live the life we created together, without the aggravations of being with me.
I have to say, I was surprised that so intelligent a person as Lucy was capable of being so very naive.
But such is the ability of divorce to make idiots of otherwise competent people. Divorce stands out as the only life-changing decision made in anger.
Other decisions may cause nail biting, but when you decide which college to attend, what job to take, who to marry, which place to live, which medical treatment to undergo, and so on, you are generally capable of rationally balancing pros and cons in order to make the best possible choice.
Lucy, like so many others considering divorce, could not see past her own spite. She dreamed of getting me in front of a judge and proving, once and for all, for all the world to see, just what a bastard I truly was.
Her family advised her to calm down. Her lawyer told her she would not get the arrangement she sought. She didn’t care. She dug in her heels and steeled herself to fight to the bitter end.
The bitter end came more quickly that she expected, with a result she dreaded, and at a far greater expense than anyone anticipated.
She would have to share custody equally. She would get no financial support. And she would have to continue to compromise with me on issues concerning our house and children for at least the next eleven years. If she failed to do so, she could face legal consequences.
Lucy had allowed her rage to destroy her family. She spent a fortune she could ill afford. No one thought I was a bastard. She looked pretty stupid.
In the process, I learned this sage advice: if parents are considering divorce, they should sit down calmly to determine whether or not they can comfortably afford to buy and furnish a second home of comparable size within the same school district. They should ask themselves if they could continue to work together in the children’s best interests, because, as soon becomes apparent, if you think you spouse is a jerk now, just wait until you are no longer married and you still have to be parents.
If parents fail this litmus test, they should probably get over themselves and live up to their responsibilities.
When Lucy told me that she had decided to refinance our mortgage, I was irked that she had made this decision without me. Not only did it affect a property I owned with her, but within our relationship, I was generally the one who researched such matters and helped her to weigh options. She was prone to making sudden decisions without thinking through the consequences.
As witness our divorce.
Lucy was asking me to sign off on the mortgage as I stood there, hearing about it for the first time. She presented it as a done deal, while I had no way of knowing if this was a good or bad idea.
“Well, Lucy, I can’t say I’m opposed to the refinancing,” I said. “But I can’t sign papers concerning shared marital property without my lawyer’s advice.”
“Come on, Jefferson,” she said, exasperated. “Don’t make this difficult.”
“It’s not difficult. Just have the papers faxed to my lawyer. If she says it’s kosher, then it’s kosher.”
“Fine!” Lucy spit out. She turned and walked off.
I emailed my lawyer and told her to expect the papers.
Tuesday came and went. The papers were never sent.
I called Lucy to ask about the meeting.
“We rescheduled the meeting because you fucked it up,” she said. “I lost the rate we had, and so now we have to negotiate it again.”
“I didn’t fuck anything up. If you make decisions affecting me without my input, they aren’t really decisions, just proposals. If you send the papers to my lawyer, then I will . . .”
I stopped speaking, realizing that Lucy had already hung up on me.
A couple of weeks later, my lawyer emailed to say she had received the papers.
I’m not a real estate attorney, she averred, but it looks like a standard re-fi. I don’t see any reason not to sign.
I thanked her and forwarded the email to Lucy. “Looks like a go!” I added.
A week passed before Lucy responded.
Please be at the Water Street office Monday at four.
Ten words, including “please,” forming a complete sentence. Lucy was trying hard to be polite.
I arrived at the office to find Lucy already sitting in a conference room with a bank representative who introduced herself as Miranda Valdez. We shook hands and I sat down. Lucy and I were each presented with a copy of the refinancing agreement. Each stack was at least half an inch thick.
“All right,” Miranda began to explain. “If you open your copy to page three, you can see that the value of the house is . . .”
“Wait, wait,” Lucy interrupted. She pointed to me. “We’re divorced and I’m not comfortable discussing my finances with my husband—my ex-husband—in the room.”
“Well . . .” Miranda explained, “We are only discussing information that is in both copies of the re-fi agreement.”
“Still . . .” Lucy began. “I would prefer that Jefferson leave the room.”
“I don’t mind leaving,” I said, standing.
“Well, if you don’t mind,” Miranda said. “I’ll call you back in a moment.”
“Thanks, Jefferson,” Lucy said.
I went to the reception desk and helped myself to a paper cone of water. Of course, I knew the value of the house. We had just had it appraised during the divorce. But whatever.
When I was called back to the conference room, Lucy was signing at the indicated pages.
I began to read the contract.
I got no further than the first page. There was my name, next to Lucy’s, as cosigner on the loan.
“Excuse me,” I asked Miranda. “But doesn’t this put me on the mortgage?”
She looked at her copy. “Yes, it does. Is that a problem?”
“I’m afraid so. See, I’m not obliged to take on Lucy’s mortgage.”
Lucy blanched. “Please don’t make this difficult,” she said.
“I’m not being difficult, Lucy. But this is a problem. I’m not supposed to be on the mortgage.”
“You don’t have to actually pay it,” Lucy said. “Just sign.”
“I can’t sign a contract and simply not pay . . . “
“No, wait, he’s right,” Miranda interjected. “This is a mistake. But hang on, are you on the title?”
“Yes, he is,” Lucy replied, as if that settled the matter.
“Well, that also complicates this. If you are on the title, you need to be on the mortgage.”
“I’m supposed to come off the title, now that the divorce is final,” I explained.
“Yes, my lawyer is supposed to take care of that,” Lucy nodded.
“Okay. I think that needs to happen before we can do the re-fi.” Miranda stood up. “Hang on, let me talk to my supervisor. I don’t want to give you inaccurate information, and this is the first time I’ve encountered this.”
“It’s our first divorce, too,” I joked.
“Yeah, well, divorce is complicated,” Miranda said. “I’ll be right back.”
Miranda left us alone. I continued to read my copy of the contract. Lucy continued to sign hers.
“Did you want to authorize the bank to take payments directly from your account?” I asked.
“No, of course not,” Lucy said, not looking up.
“Then you shouldn’t sign page fourteen.”
Lucy flipped back to page fourteen. “I already signed it.”
“We can ask Miranda how to change that,” I suggested. Lucy returned to signing pages. “The kids are in after school?” I asked.
Ten minutes passed.
Miranda returned and introduced us to her supervisor, Jack Rollins. He shook our hands.
“Okay, so Miranda has explained your situation to me. Now, if I have this right, you two are recently divorced and you, Lucy, want to do a re-fi on your house. And you, Jefferson, are on the title now, but won’t be for much longer.”
“That’s right,” Lucy agreed. I nodded.
“Okay,” Jack went on. “In that case, we have to draw up another agreement.”
“Oh no, really?” Lucy said.
“Yes. See, this rate was set with the understanding that the owners were refinancing a shared property. But once the title is transferred, we need to set up a different kind of mortgage. Essentially, it’s as if the two of you are selling the house to a new owner, who happens to be one of you. Does that make sense?”
“Yes,” I nodded.
“But wait, will I get the same rate?” Lucy asked.
“Yes, you should, assuming that the title is transferred promptly. But unfortunately, there is a surcharge on the new mortgage. It’s going to set you back, say, depending on the value of house, about five or six thousand dollars.”
Lucy fell back. “We both have to pay that?”
“No, only the borrower is responsible, so it would come from you.”
“Oh no!” Lucy laughed nervously. “This is terrible news.”
“I’m sorry about that,” Jack said. “But you still come out ahead in the re-fi, so you will ultimately save money.”
“Okay, I guess that’s good,” Lucy said. “I have some questions, but are we done with Jefferson? I’d prefer it if he wasn’t here.”
Jack looked to Miranda. “Yes, I think he’s done. But we’ll need him to come back when we do the re-fi signing.”
“Okay,” I said, standing. “Lucy will let me know when that date is set. Nice to meet you, Miranda, Jack.”
We shook hands.
I waved goodbye to Lucy. She waved back.
She looked as though she might be sick.
Two weeks later, we returned to the office and signed the corrected forms.
Lucy now had a refinanced thirty-year mortgage on the house. She was still obliged to sell or buy me out in eleven years.
I left the office having ended my first stint as a suburban homeowner.