CHAPTER 7 - ROAD TO COURT
Maria agreed to sell her half of the home’s equity to Bob Finnerty, and I agreed to pay off all joint debts. I returned to my teaching job and kept trying to get my wife to date me, but to no avail. By November, eleven months after Maria had pulled out, I had fallen in love with a Jewish divorcee named Diane.
The thirty-year-old was attractive, but not overly beautiful. She had great wit and I particularly enjoyed the fact that, unlike my wife, Diane loved a good intellectual exchange. She also had a little girl about a year older than my son. Bobby was nuts about both of them, and we made many trips together to Disney World on weekends. By December I was determined to marry my new love, but there was one major problem. Maria had done nothing to finalize the divorce.
I decided to call Maria to ask her out one last time, knowing full well that she’d turn me down again. She did, and it was then that I began to push for the divorce.
“Look, Maria, it’s been a year now. You don’t date me and you won’t set me free. I’ve got to get on with my life. Why not set a court date and finalize things?” I asked.
“I don’t want to do anything for now, but if you file I won’t oppose you,” she informed me.
“I don’t want the divorce, but I can’t go on like this. My attorney has said that so long as we stick to the property settlement agreement, all we’ll need at court is a witness as to six months state residency. Will you bring your mother in for that?” I wanted to know.
“I suppose. Get a court date and call me back.”
A final hearing was set for January 20, 1980. When the big day rolled around, I was at the courthouse early with my lawyer. All Maria had to do was utter five simple words, This marriage is irretrievably broken. It seemed so simple. Five words and I’d be free to marry again, though my new love hadn’t yet accepted my proposal.
As Maria came up the steps, I sensed that things weren’t going to go down as planned. She was alone.
“Where’s your mother?” I asked.
“She’s not coming. I don’t want the divorce today,” she told me.
“Want to give our marriage another chance?” I asked nervously.
“Let’s keep things just as they are,” she responded.
Look, Maria, I’ve heard you’re thinking of taking a job as a stewardess. If you go in there today, you’ll have custody of Bobby. But if you don’t, and if you take that job so you’re out of town nights on a regular basis, I’ll take him from you.”
“‘Suit yourself,” she told me, then turned and walked out of the courtroom. Totally dumbfounded by her actions, I called Theresa to see if she knew what was going on. Not only was my mother-in-law in the dark as well, but she was furious when she heard about her daughter’s refusal to get it over with. A week later I learned my wife had taken the airline job and the fight was on.
Diane, in the meantime, had decided to not accept my proposal.
“I enjoy being with you,” she assured me, “But after twelve years of marital tyranny, I want to enjoy my freedom for a while.” By freedom Diane meant sexual freedom, something that would soon lose much of its appeal when Herpes and then AIDS began to terrorize the singles’ scene in Miami. At any rate, while I was heartbroken, I rationalized that it would probably be quite a while before I’d be free to marry anyway. I set out to find a new attorney with a sense of the jugular vein. The man hired was John Oskowitz, a tall, slender young Jew who looked like a shark. I told him the case history and asked what my chances for success were. The attorney drew up a chart with pluses and minuses for each side, what he called the equities of the parties.
On my side was the fact that I was a college graduate, while Maria had only a G.E.D. high school diploma. I was home every night; Maria wasn’t. The child seemed to have more of an affinity for me, and I was a professional educator, a published author, a county champion track coach, and a man who was actively involved in raising money for charitable organizations.
Against me would be the fact that Maria would undoubtedly portray me as a religious fanatic. More, I had nobody to help me with the boy while I was at work, and the boy was of tender years. Florida law hadn’t yet advanced, and at the time, all things being equal, a child of tender years was always awarded to the mother. Also on Maria’s side was that she now lived with a large and caring family which included other children for Bobby to play with, and the fact that Judge Hickey was, like Maria’s mother, a practicing Catholic.
John wanted to know more about the book that I had written. He wasn’t encouraged when he learned that the work had actually attacked the Catholic Church. Nor was he happy about the prospect that Maria would try to prove I had irresponsibly run off to Israel.
“Let me put it this way,” John said. “You’ve got a good shot at custody, but there are three things working against you. One: The mother usually wins when the kid is of tender years. Two: You’re Jewish. Three: You’re a Jew who attacked the judge’s church. Don’t be discouraged, but I’d be a liar if I didn’t give it to you straight. Would you settle for joint custody if I could get it?”
“You bet I would.”
I gave him a five-hundred-dollar retainer and the name of Maria’s attorney, Frank Gomez. I wasn’t yet adamant in my demand for full custody. I just wanted the divorce along with a guarantee of adequate visitation.
John phoned Gomez after I had gone. What he heard didn’t serve to increase his optimism about the case. Gomez made it clear that the other side had a bundle to spend and he intended to milk the case for all it was worth. In short, there would be no quick agreement.
At the initial hearing, the judge ordered my wife and I to be seen by Henry Knolls of the Conciliation Unit. This was customary. Attorneys weren’t permitted to be present, and such sessions were occasionally successful at defusing disagreements before they became overly hostile.
I was determined to be calm and flexible when I appeared before Knolls. After more than a year of lousy visitation, I had little to lose. Maria, however, was nervous, angry and hostile as she approached the sessions. She even refused to show up at all for the first two appointments. I didn’t mind her intransigence. It would be in Knolls’ report, and I needed all the help I could get.
When Maria finally did show up, she wasted no time at all before stating her opposition to conciliation. “My husband is insane and a dangerous influence on my child,” she asserted.
“The court is unlikely to deny visitation if that’s what you want,” Knolls told her.
“If that’s so, then the madman shouldn’t be allowed more than one or two nights per week,” she smugly remarked.
Knolls told her, a bit sarcastically, “I don’t understand. If you think your husband’s crazy, why would you allow him to see the boy at all?”
“I don’t want him to have visitation rights, but if the court must order it, I want it kept to a minimum. The man belongs in a padded cell. He thinks he’s a prophet,” she asserted.
“You’re the one who’s nuts!” I angrily shouted at her. I never thought of myself that way!” Sometimes there might be things that I interpreted as signs, but that was a long way from claiming to be a Moses, even if I did go to Sinai to make my prayers heard.
Maria went on to tell Knolls that she feared I would poison Bobby’s mind about Christianity by telling the boy about what the Nazis did to the Jews. She pointed out that I had often mentioned the Concordat between the Vatican and the Nazi government. Her mother told her that I had even written about it in my book.
When the mediator heard how she phrased her concern, he was surprised. “Mrs. Roffman,” he asked, “haven’t you yourself read the book? Your husband told me that it had, in fact, been dedicated to you as well as Bobby!”
“The topic bores me. I don’t need to read it. I’ve heard it all a thousand times before from my husband. He had a one-track mind and never shut up about the damn thing.”
Knolls pushed hard for an agreement and almost succeeded that day. I was willing to give her custody so long as my weekend visitation periods started on Friday. Maria was willing to give me Saturday to Monday mornings. I wanted to have my son on board an Irwin 37 sloop that Bob Finnerty and I hoped to buy for extended weekend charters to the Bahamas. I couldn’t wait until Saturday morning to sail (I wasn’t yet Orthodox, nor was I then observant of Sabbath rules as I am now). We would never come so close to an out-of-court agreement again.
I had filed for custody back in February, 1980. The divorce and custody hearing was set for September of the same year. The interim period was filled with motions, petitions and counter-petitions of every possible nature. The legal road to court was like an obstacle course, and at times I wondered if I’d ever get to the finish line. Maria’s attorney challenged the sale of her interest in the house to Finnerty, and another buyer sued Finnerty and I for not having clear title to the property. Legal costs ate up any possibility of closing a deal on the boat.
Maria’s attorney asked the judge to order psychological evaluations of all the parties concerned. He had hoped to prove me insane, but his efforts backfired. Fully in control of my faculties and well versed on all the tests thrown at me due to my own psychology degree, I was able to come out of the evaluation with a much stronger case.
As she did with the mediator, Maria again failed to keep two appointments at the psychologist’s office. When she finally did arrive, unfamiliar with the battery of tests thrown at her, she distorted the truth about several items, was caught repeatedly, and wound up leaving the psychologist with a very negative impression.
Bobby’s love for me dominated the boy’s session with Dr. Elenewski. He was also full of comments about fearing Mommy who hit him a lot. Every other word out of his mouth was about how he wanted to live with me, which was somewhat impressive because it was his mother who took him there. In the end the doctor wrote a report to the court identifying me as the primary psychological parent and recommending that I be given full custody.
The court also ordered an H.R.S. social worker to do a home study. I had been living in a Miami Beach hotel ever since I had sold my furniture prior to the thwarted purchase of the boat that I hoped to live on. I couldn’t very well be interviewed there, so I rented a large and beautifully furnished home in Kendall a day before Martha Anderson came around to visit us. When Martha arrived, Bobby was playing in an ideal child’s room with his one-hour-old electric train set. Around the boy were an impressive children’s library and an abundance of toys. Every moment was masterfully planned. I showed her how well I had taught Bobby to swim and dive, and also informed her about all the fights I had to endure to get access to my son.
“My main concern is that Bobby grow up to love both parents,” I told her.
By the time Martha arrived at Maria’s home, Bobby was well aware of what was at stake. The lad recognized her at the door, ran right up and told her straight away in front of Maria and her mother, “Tell Mommy what I told you before. I wanna live with my Daddy. Ask Mommy if I can be with Daddy.”
Maria argued, “As you can see, Bobby’s been brainwashed by his father. I think it’s best that the man be kept from my son completely so this won’t happen again.” Martha’s report, therefore, concluded as did Dr. Elenewski’s, that “while the father would encourage a loving relationship with the mother if he were awarded custody, the mother by contrast would harm the boy psychologically if she won by doing all in her power to keep him from his father.” It was also pointed out that Bobby appeared to love and identify with me the most anyway.
Anderson’s report was not entirely negative about Maria. “In the mother’s favor is that she is willing to teach her son about his Jewish heritage. Mr. Roffman, on the other hand, will not consent to have his son attend church as well as synagogue. He does not accept the divinity of Jesus and believes it to be a violation of basic Jewish doctrine to worship him.” Martha, a Protestant, could understand some of my criticisms of the Catholic Church, but she felt I was a bit too inflexible about joint religious exposure. Still, overall she had no difficulty in recommending to Judge Hickey that I be granted full custody. The dual expert witness recommendations in my favor were important victories, and I felt sure that my prayer on Sinai was about to be answered. John, however, reminded me that Hickey was Catholic.
“You know,” he said, “I don’t know that the man will show any prejudice with respect to religion, but I can’t over-emphasize that no matter how good a case we appear to have, Bobby is still of tender years. You’ve got to overcome that issue and the fact that you don’t have any help in raising the boy.”
I hoped that John was just covering himself. I knew the issues, but could not seriously imagine that any judge would ever ignore the weight of all expert testimony.