Magazine article Family Therapy Networker

Short Story: The Seal Maiden: A Custody Battle out of the Not-Too-Distant Past

Magazine article Family Therapy Networker

Short Story: The Seal Maiden: A Custody Battle out of the Not-Too-Distant Past

Article excerpt

To see her son, in a visit supervised by a social worker who would sit in the back of the room, her head folded behind a newspaper, Miriam Birkin had to leave the colorful, people-crossed, café-lined streets of Lakeview and drive through the northwestern outskirts of Chicago into a section of Skokie filled with boxy, yellow houses and new trees. On the radio, Annie Lenox was singing: "Sweet dreams are made of this, who am I to disagree . . . ."

The counseling center sat at the edge of a mall. In a corner by the mall's entrance, she passed Mr. Lee, thin and white haired, sitting in his lawn chair, playing his reed. His instrument whistled sweetly in the bustle of shoppers around him. His eyes were closed. His body curled over the stick, as if it were part of his body; as if, in fact, he were a grasshopper, huddled in that dark corner, a reminder that once, on the same spot, there had been plains filled with the insects' ancient, creaking music. Each week, she dropped a few coins into the pouch opened at his feet and he smiled at her and nodded.

The waiting room had a green carpet. It was covered with stains: gum, dirty and flattened; coffee splashes; odd shapes that might have been a child's vomit or spilled orange juice. As soon as she arrived, Miri was aware that she was considered an oddity. Week after week her presence surprised the two secretaries in their white cubicle behind the window. As she signed the register, she could feel the heat from their eyes--evaluating her, feeling sorry for her, spying for some clue to her deviance. They were accustomed, she had noticed, to a different sort of parent: weary-looking, dark-skinned women, their expressions sometimes hard, tugging along troupes of bedraggled children.

"Your counselor will be with you shortly," said one of the secretaries, her hand on the window.

Behind the window, in another world, they continued talking. "He's a handsome man, don't you think, Rochelle?"

"He has the most perfectly shaped forehead," the answer came. "His hairline, really, is absolutely square."

"I love that--"

"And so quiet."

"Yes," she said. "Quieter men are so attractive."

She was sure they were talking about Adrian's father. Feeling breathless in the corner, Miri tried not to listen to them. She glanced down at the pager on her belt. When she became a board member at the Rape Crisis Center, she was told that she had to carry it. The curse of seniority. The pager reminded her of city noises. "My conduit to urban violence," she called it.

Not today, she prayed. Please, not today.

"Good afternoon, Ms. Birkin." The social worker, Miss Granville, was gesturing her through the door. Miss Granville's voice was a gravelly monotone. She moved down the hall, enshrouded by a gray stillness, an inscrutable predictability that seemed to be rooted in her core. From years of absorbing liquid tumult from the lives of her clients, Miss Granville herself was drained of color or excitement. Miri had memorized most of her solid-colored outfits, which, it seemed, were rotated weekly in sequence. Miss Granville had perfected a series of poses and facial expressions that, like the sequence of her outfits, she rotated with regularity: a regal nod; an empathic frown; a hand on her hip.

They walked down the hallway to the playroom. "He's still wetting his pants after his visits with you," Miss Granville said in a low voice. "His father says he had one or two nightmares last week, but they seem to be tapering off."

"Thank you," Miri answered absently.

"I'll get him for you."

She wanted to despise Miss Granville. She wanted to luxuriate in a deadening hatred for her. She desired the simplicity of good and evil; the pleasure of clearly identified enemies. …

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