There's always a legal angle.
He was right. But probably not in the way he meant.
The next day – Brent was again on the road – while Joellen was driving home from the gym, she began to feel that having the note and the passkey, instead of being traumatic, had begun to give her a sense of power, as if she had some kind of an edge. Like cards that she could play. She had never felt like that before. She drove around aimlessly for quite awhile just experiencing this new sensation. As she drove, she realized that this was not the beginning of her problems with Brent. She traced back to the years before their marriage, to the way she saw herself, to the roles she had identified would be best for her to play. The helpful mate. The good mother. The dutiful daughter. The organizer. The churchgoer. The drudge. She had decided to be a model woman. Just so she could hold onto a life that had no life in it – except for her children. Yet even motherhood was not as anticipated. She had expected to have more fun with her children. To grow up with them in some way. She could not remember exactly when she had made all those decisions.
She found herself driving past a professional building not far from the shopping center where she usually went for groceries. At the entrance to the parking lot, there was a list of all the offices. She stopped the car and scanned the names. There were two dentists, five doctors, a testing service for children with learning disabilities, a weight loss clinic, and seven lawyers’ suites. She pulled into the lot and parked the car in a spot under a maple tree that was at the peak of its fall color.
She quickly zeroed in on one sign that said Porter, Novotny & Klinert, specializing in family law, divorce, custody. Inside the office, she asked if there was a woman attorney available. After a five-minute wait, she was escorted to an office and seated opposite a blond woman wearing a dark red suit and a crisp, white blouse, the collar of which was carefully set outside the jacket collar making a stark contrast to the deep red. She estimated the woman’s age at between forty and forty-five. The woman stood up and shook Joellen’s hand.
“How do you do,” she said. “I’m Monika Novotny. What can I do for you, Mrs. Vickers?”
Joellen squirmed slightly. Then she blurted out, “I just found out my husband is having an affair. I don’t have a job – I’ve never worked – and I want a divorce. I have two children and everything is in my husband’s name. I have a little money in a savings account that I’ve been putting aside for the children. It’s for camp,” she tried to hold back tears, thinking about the children. “What can I do?”
“How do you know he’s having an affair?” asked Ms. Novotny. She pushed a box of tissues on her desk toward Joellen.
Joellen told her about the note and the key. She wiped her eyes with a tissue from the box.
“Do you have the note?”
Joellen pulled both the note and the electronic key from her purse. “Yes. Here.”
“I’d like to keep these in your file,” Ms. Novotny said, taking the note. “Oh, this is a good one.” Her eyebrows arched and she nodded approvingly. “And where do you think he’s having this affair?”
“In a hotel, I think.”
“I mean in what city?”
“Oh.” Joellen felt a blush coming. She tried to sound definite, but when she spoke she was almost whispering. “New York, I think. That’s where he went last week. He’s a sales manager. He manages the East Coast. He travels with different salespeople every week. Last week he was in New York City. He does very well.”
“That’s good.” Ms. Novotny pushed her chair back from the desk. “Is this the first affair or have there been others? Understand I’m not prying. I just need to know how serious you are. Sometimes, when a wife finds out her husband is cheating on her, she gets angry and wants a divorce but later she cools off. I recommend a cooling-off period to be sure of what you want.”
“I know what I want,” Joellen said quietly. She had regained her composure and now she was feeling almost confident. “Our marriage hasn’t been working for me for a long time. This just made me realize it. I don’t want to take advantage of the situation. I just want some help from Brent until I can stand on my own.”
“Mrs. Vickers, I’ve handled literally hundreds of divorces for women, and in my experience, you need to really nail him or you’ll end up with nothing. So if you’re not prepared to go after him like a tigress, then I’m not the right lawyer for you.”
Joellen sat silently for a minute or two. She couldn’t picture herself as a tigress going after anyone, let alone Brent, the father of her children, the man she’d lived with for twelve years. Where had their marriage gone wrong?
Joellen thought about the years they had spent dating and all the promises Brent had made. In fact, he had kept to his bargain. He had provided her with everything she needed, a home and children and enough money. They went on family vacations together and they attended church and went to parents’ night at school. They watched all Jamie’s games and applauded him loudly together. Noreen had just started dance classes. Joellen had expected Brent and she would be a fixture at her recitals. So why had he felt it necessary to stray? What had she missed?
As these thoughts jumbled around in her mind, she felt a sadness take hold and hang on. But her sadness was not for the marriage or for the children or for what she was about to do. Her sadness was a kind of lonely admission that in all these past years, she had been essentially alone in her marriage. That Brent had used her as one uses a trusted servant. Without malice, but without intimacy. They had never really been connected in a fulfilling way. Would he even care if she left him? He would care about how it made him look. He would care about his ego. But would he miss her? She felt sorry for him. He was even more alone than she was. And then she thought about the note. And that he had probably been fooling around for years.
“What would I have to do?” she asked.
“Let’s see where we stand. If we come to some understanding about your options – and in my experience, a woman whose husband has been caught cheating always has options – we can make my fee part of your settlement. Of course you want custody of the children.”
“Yes,” said Joellen. “My husband travels almost all the time and he only sees them on weekends. But I wouldn’t want to deprive him of seeing them on weekends like he does now.”
“All right, but you would still be after full custody with limited visitation rights for him. Now let’s see, property, salary, investments, net worth, years of marriage, child support . . .you’ll have to fill out these forms. Do you know how much the two of you are worth?”
“No. Brent does all the financial stuff. I just have a checkbook.”
“That’s okay. We can find out all of that. I doubt he’s been hiding assets, since he obviously has no idea you’re on to him. Also, the reason why I asked where this cheating occurred is because we have operatives in many cities. I have a very good one in New York. We’ll put a tail on him and do some checking on where and how he’s been using his credit cards. They all think they’re out of reach. Once we get pictures, he’ll have no choice but to deal.”
“Pictures?” Joellen echoed. She imagined some TV show with private investigators barging in on Brent in bed in a hotel room, flashes of light and Brent and his bimbo trying to hide under the covers.
“Do we have to do that?” she asked. “I mean do we have to be so sleazy?”
“Of course. This is a game. And the one who plays toughest wins.” Ms. Novotny replied. “We’ll get him in flagrante if we can. But the least we can do is get shots with the two of them together. And then he’ll have to explain why they’re together. You do want to win, don’t you?”
“I suppose,” Joellen murmured.
They stood up and walked to the door. “By the way, are any of the reps he travels with women?”
“I don’t know. He doesn’t talk to me about work much.”