CHAPTER 15 - SURPRISE
If there’s one virtue that I have always lacked, it’s patience. Monsignor Walsh had explained that it would be impossible to come up with a quick decision on the annulment, but as time wore on, the inertia of the custody case prohibited me from extending the time I could afford to wait before taking action. Still, I wanted the annulment more than any amount of money. The best recourse, I decided, was to have something in my hands that I could use in the interim for Court.
I phoned the Archdiocese and informed it that I could put off the suit no longer unless the Monsignor would send me a simple letter stating that the baptism of Bobby was a serious mistake which would not have occurred if the priest had been aware of the circumstances. Walsh, anxious to head off the suit, complied with the demand instantly. The letter (with my last name spelled incorrectly) read as follows:
March 30, 1984
Dear Mr. Rothman:
Pursuant to your request, we are presently studying the validity of the baptism of your son Robert, which was performed on March 4, 1984. In my opinion, had it been aware of the circumstances regarding your son’s religious beliefs, the Church would not have performed the baptism on March 4, 1984.
Monsignor B. Walsh
When I received the letter, I was thrilled for it gave me much of what was needed. Now I had proof that the baptism had indeed occurred. r it gave me much of what was needed. Now I had proof that the baptism had indeed occurred. It proved that the baptism was wrong in the eyes of a Monsignor, and it showed that Maria had hidden the truth from the priest in her efforts to obtain the church sacrament. The document could, as Walsh had realized, be used by me in the custody battle. But it also provided the first piece of significant evidence for my planned suit of the Archdiocese itself. Walsh would probably later regret that he had been so hasty in granting my request.
Armed with the just received admission, I drove off to Family Court where I would meet with Maria for the ordered mediation. When I arrived (a half hour early), I was allowed to give the mediator, Mrs. Joanna Mills, a full run-down of my position before Maria showed up. Maria was unaware of my my advantage when she walked into the office, but I didn’t think it would really matter anyway. I was sure that my ex would be as unbending as she had always been.
Maria started out by stating that she was there against her will and then reminded Mills that mediation hadn’t been successful before. Joanna tried to emphasize the positive, pointing out that Maria and I had been able to work together for three years without a problem.
Maria told her that we could have gone on as before, but that I had poisoned her son’s mind. I used Walsh’s letter to embarrass my ex, and we traded accusations and denials for about ten minutes while Mills just sat there trying to get a better picture of the dynamics of the relationship.
It soon became apparent that Bobby was being hit for refusing to eat non-kosher food and for refusing to bow before statues of Jesus. Maria saw his behavior more in terms of disrespect for her and her family than as an honest expression of his true religious convictions.
“If you’re so Christian, then why are you living out of wedlock with Ricardo Estavan?” I asked militantly.
“I don’t live out of wedlock with anyone,” Maria said.
“What? Then where have I been picking up Bobby for the past month? Certainly not at your mother’s anymore!” I asserted.
“I don’t live out of wedlock with anyone!” Maria repeated.
“Do you live at 534 Hummingbird Drive on Key Biscayne?” I asked.
“Yes, I do,” Maria answered.
“And is your phone number 427-9735?” I asked again.
“Yes, it is,” my ex responded.
“Mrs. Mills. If you’ll open a phone book and look up Ricardo Estavan, you’ll see that he lives at that address and that’s his phone number,” I said while reaching for the phone directory.
“Ms. Hernadez,” Joanna asked, “If you live at that address and that’s your phone number, then why not admit that what Mr. Roffman says is true?”
“Because . . . because . . . because we’re married,” Maria said in a barely audible voice.
“What?” I asked in shock. “Can you prove that in a court of law?”
“Yes,” Maria said.
“Does Bobby know about this?” I wanted to know.
“No, we didn’t tell him yet,” Maria revealed.
“‘Do you mean that your son is living with you, and you get married, and you don’t even tell him about it? What kind of mother are you? Mrs. Mills, this is why I want Bobby out of that house. There is no mother-son relationship here. My son is a hostage in a stranger’s home!”
Mills had to agree. She turned to Mrs. Estavan and asked, “Why don’t you try switching primary residency to the father? It sounds like the boy has a lot closer relationship with his dad than he does with you. Surely you want your son to be happy?”
Maria took a hard look at me for the first time in the meeting. “What type of visitation would I have?” she asked.
I felt as if the heavens had just opened. The question implied that victory just might be at hand. And yet it all seemed much too easy.
“What would you want?” I asked, realizing that this was the first time we had ever been talking in terms of Maria’s visitation.
“Every Friday afternoon to Sunday afternoon,” Maria said innocently.
“You know that’s impossible!” I exclaimed. “Bobby’s in synagogue every Friday night. He’d miss it, but you’d be free to take him to church every Sunday.”
“I want you to drive him up from Homestead, too,” Maria added.
I offered her every other weekend and told her I’d be willing to split the driving with her. It was about forty miles each way between our two homes, and I didn’t want to get stuck with it all.
Maria told me she’d consider it, and the meeting broke up with a promise that we’d discuss it more in another week. As I drove away from court that day, I was singing at the top of my lungs. At last I thought, My son is mine.
That afternoon started a visitation day for me. When Bobby got in the car, I asked him, “Did your mother tell you anything about the mediation session today?”
“Daddy, what happened?”
“You mean that your mother didn’t say anything about Ricardo?" I asked in disbelief.
“No, what happened? I want to know!” the boy said.
“I can’t believe that your mother still didn’t tell you. She married him! She’s considering turning you over to me. I guess Ricardo doesn’t want to pay a fortune to fight for someone else’s kid!”
“That’s fantastic! When will you know? Mom never tells me anything.”
“In a week. We have to go back for another session. Your mother will bring you in before that time to talk to a Joanna Mills. Be careful about what you say around the house. Your mother may be upset if she learns I told you about the wedding,” I warned him.
“I love you, Daddy. I can’t wait to be with you all the time.”
“I love you, too, son. Keep the faith. It looks like we’re finally beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
A few days later Maria took our son to be interviewed by Mrs. Mills. Bobby, (feeling his oats), told the mediator that if given his say about visitation, he would limit it to an hour per week with his mother.
“But, Bobby,” Joanna told him, “Your mother loves you so much that she wants to make you happy by transferring primary residency to your father.”
“If she loves me so much, why does she hit me almost every day?”
“I don’t know, probably from frustration because she thinks you don’t love her.”
“If you’re serious, and I’m gonna live with Dad because she really wants to make me happy, and not because the judge is gonna order it, then I’ll love her again and agree to see her more than an hour a week, uh, maybe one day a week.”
“I’m sure that will make your mother happier,” the mediator said.
“Is she really gonna turn me over?” Bobby asked.
“I don’t know. I hope so. Today she said he’s still thinking about it, but isn’t sure.”
“God, I hope so,” the boy said, “I get so many headaches and I can’t sleep at night.”
“Why do you want to live with your father so much?” the woman asked.
“Because we love each other so much. He always does fun things with me. At night we have pillow or slap fights before we go to sleep. I like those. Then he tells me stories. My dad’s got a new story to tell every single night. He teaches me lots of neat stuff and never hits me if I do something wrong. He just talks to me about it and makes me understand. I want to be just like him when I grow up. Besides, I’m Jewish and Mom hits me a lot when I won’t kneel to Jesus or when I tell her I can’t eat something because it’s not kosher. I just want to live in peace, and Mom won’t let me.”
A few days later Maria and I were back again in the waiting room outside Joanna’s office. Neither of us would look at the other for the twenty minutes we waited. I could sense that something had gone wrong and worried that my big mouth might have done me in, that it was wrong to tell Bobby the details of the previous mediation session.
It soon became obvious that my fear was well founded. Bobby must have done something to give away his knowledge of the marriage, for upon appearing before Mrs. Mills, Maria announced that she had decided not to give in.
My choice of language at that point was anything but refined or religious. It took some time for the mediator to calm me down while Maria just sat back and looked at the ceiling.
You won’t be satisfied until that kid totally hates your guts, will you?” I demanded. “Do you enjoy beating him? You do, don’t you? I know how you think. Bobby is a miniature me, another Barry Roffman. In that sick head of yours, you really believe you’re hitting me whenever you strike him, don’t you? That shrink was right about you last time. You’re nuts!”
“Why do you hit your son?” Joanna asked.
“I don’t hit him that much,” Maria insisted, “but sometimes I have to because he shows no respect, not for me, my family, or my religion. I tell him, If you don’t respect Jesus, you don’t love me. He just looks up at the ceiling. I hate that, so I hit him . . . but not hard, just enough to get the point across.”
“Mrs. Estavan, as a Christian, I must tell you that you can’t beat the love of Christ into a child. I can’t understand what meaning you might have thought baptism would have for someone who was as unaccepting of Jesus as your son is. Why did you want to baptize the boy knowing how he felt?” the mediator asked.
“Without baptism you’ve got to go to hell,” Maria said. “That’s what I was taught as a child in a Catholic school.”
“I cut in and promised, If I have anything to do about it, your Church is gonna wind up teaching something very different before I’m through with it.”
Maria knew what I was up to. “I heard all about your threat. Mrs. Mills, this insane man is trying to sue the Vatican for six million dollars. That’s why Monsignor Walsh wrote the letter he did,” she declared. She was aware of my plan because I had been goaded into answering questions about what I would do by a student in the hallway after class one day. The kid was a friend of Maria’s brother and word of the pending suit had gotten to her by the boy.
Mrs. Mills did her very best to arrange some type of agreement, but her efforts were in vain. I now suspected that Maria’s strategy had been to try to appear reasonable while really offering nothing. She had known all along that I would never have accepted primary residency without some way to take my son to synagogue. When the mediation confirmed that Bobby would still go every other week, she felt justified to fight on.
I was troubled that my son would now have to endure so much more pain. And yet, in a way I also felt relief. Any quick agreement with Maria was likely to include a promise to not sue the Vatican. I, however, wanted the annulment of the baptism every bit as much as primary residency. Without the annulment, Bobby’s religious identity would always remain clouded.
To be sure, I would have taken the quick agreement had Maria gone through with it. But, failing to achieve such a settlement, I rationalized that my karma was not in the simple solution, but in the epic struggle that lay ahead with the new Roman Empire. David had to slay Goliath. When Maria baptized Bobby without my consent, I had been given the slingshot needed to attack the giant. Walsh’s letter provided the shot required to finish the job. Karma, however, turned out to be much more complex than I could have foreseen in those days.