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“We can work through it later,” replies Maddie. “We’ll figure something out.”
I’m thrilled that there is going to be a later. For most childless women over thirty-five, including my last two girlfriends, later is now. I’m seized with an urge to embrace Maddie, but she has her arms wrapped around her bare knees, and she’s staring pensively into the waves.
“I’ve got a secret too. Worse than yours,” she says. “Promise you’re not going to get mad or laugh at me.”
I am practically shaking with relief: I’ve played my “no children” card and Maddie hasn’t run off — so, short of a permanent vow of celibacy, there is little she can possibly say to upset me.
Overhead, a cushion of clouds briefly obliterates the sun. When Maddie finally speaks, her voice, always soft, is nearly lost in the breaking surf. “I meet my ex-husband every Saturday afternoon as part of our joint-custody arrangement,” she says. “That’s why I couldn’t get together last weekend.”
“You have a kid?”
“Not a kid. Not exactly,” says Maddie. “Fred is a tortoise.”
She turns to face me, to gauge my reaction. I dig my teeth into my lip.
“Don’t you dare laugh at me,” she warns.
“Who’s laughing?” I ask.
“I’ve had Fred for almost six years,” says Maddie. “We adopted him on our honeymoon. At a pet shop in New Orleans. And now Michael has taken him hostage. He doesn’t give a damn about Fred — but he knows that I do — and he’s holding onto him for revenge.”
I’m aware Maddie is in the process of finalizing a divorce, but until now I have not asked for details. “Can’t you take him to court?”
“I did — and I lost,” snaps Maddie. “Michael should have won an Academy Award for the bullshit he spewed about his love of animals. On top of that, he had some client of his with a Ph.D. in reptile biology write a letter on Fordham University stationery saying that relocating a tortoise can be disruptive to its health.” Maddie has balled her delicate hands into fists. “Know what the judge said? He said, ‘I’m all for equality, but you can’t exactly divide a turtle in half.’”
You can if you want to make soup, I think. I do not say this. I say, “That’s awful. But why would I be mad at you?”
“Michael still wants to get back together with me and honestly I don’t feel comfortable going to our house — his house — alone anymore.” Maddie intertwines her fingers with mine, as though in a collective prayer. “Can you come with me next Saturday?”
“Let me get this straight: you want me to spend my Saturday chaperoning you and your ex-husband while you have a play-date with a turtle?”
“Not just next Saturday. Every Saturday,” counters Maddie. “I promise it won’t be that bad. You can wait in the car.”
Three days later, we’re driving up the parkway toward Yonkers. That’s where Maddie’s ex-husband lives — technically her almost ex-husband, as there are still papers to be notarized — and that’s where Maddie lived until four months ago. My judicial externship is finished for the summer, and I won’t resume law school classes until after Labor Day, so I am largely a man without responsibilities. Before law school, I spent nearly two decades pursuing my childhood dream, eking out a living as a professional ventriloquist — and I failed abysmally, so I am also a man who appreciates his limitations. My wooden dummy, Dr. Whipple, sits limp on a closet shelf behind last spring’s study guides to contracts and torts. Maddie knows nothing of his existence. That’s the challenge of dating this late in the game: back story.