Chapter 34: Stuck in the Middle at the Border of Crazy
As I run through JFK Airport, I hear an announcement on the PA system. “Flight Number 1028 is about complete boarding, and the gate will be closed, Ms. Christine Escribano, please report to Gate 28 immediately.”
My lungs are burning, heart racing and my eyes are starting to tear as I continue the long race to my gate to Austin, TX. At Gate 35, I have to stop and catch my breath, and I realize I have at least another half mile to go. Fucking JFK!!! I am reminded once again why I absolutely hate this airport.
Dragging my suitcase, backpack, and coat, I am quite the sight…panting, mouth-watering from my lung exertion and brow sweating cause, of course, it was cold, and I’m in a sweater, coat, scarf, etc.
As I arrive at Gate 28 like a flurry of bags, sweat, and tears. The tears start to stream because at this point, I don’t believe I’ll be able to get on my flight.
The gate agent looks at me apathetically as I attempt to catch my breath. Wheezing and panting, I loathe myself for starting to smoke again. Really, I wouldn’t be this severely affected by this run, had I continued being smoke-free.
I shakenly hand her my boarding pass on my phone as I can barely keep it still enough to scan. She looks up at me and says, “Have a nice flight.” With just a hint of sarcasm, I respond, “A little late for that!”
When you are the last person to board, the looks of annoyance are so distinct. The passengers believe you are the reason the plane has not taken off yet (as I myself have felt before) as everyone else is clearly settled and ready for take-off.
As I find my row, it occurs to me that I have a middle seat. This is not going to be a good day. The middle seat is the only thing I ask to NEVER, EVER book. It’s my pet peeve, my hated place in life. The middle seat might be the absolute worst place on an airplane no matter what row I am in!
Of course, the person seated in the aisle seat is sleeping, and now I have to wake him up. With apologies, I sloppily make my way into the chair. I’m seated in between two guys. Of course, there is NO chance for me to have an armrest. I will have to sit with my arms crossed over my chest for the rest of my flight instead of inciting an elbow wrestling match.
Just at the moment I settle into my seat and put my bag under the seat in front of me, I attempt to catch my breath. The wheezing is still happening, and now my nose is running, and my mouth is watering. I have NO water since I didn’t have time to stop at the store, and I am about to have a full-on panic attack.
No water. Out of breath. Middle seat. Gasping for air. Adding insult to injury, it was smoking hot on the plane as I stew in my sweater.
Weakly, I turn to the gentleman on my right and apologize for the frantic disruption. He looks at me and smiles. He kindly says, “There’s no need to apologize. Would you like a Ricola?”
Reluctant to take candy from strangers, I defy every rule I give to my daughter and accept his kind gesture. He also provides a tissue so I can blow my nose.
As I begin to catch my breath, I thank him for his kindness. He says to me, “there’s no effort in being kind. It’s truly my pleasure!” he goes on to introduce himself. His name is Joseph, and he is a former Veteran and Firefighter.
I learn that he is single, but currently dating a friend of which no one knows he is dating. He was on his way to a wedding in which he would be going stag and was ready to have a blast. He is Trinidadian and often travels there to be with his family and plans to move to Trinidad full time.
After 9/11, Joseph shared that his health took a turn for the worse. He developed all sorts of lung issues and allergies he never had in his life. Joseph went on to explain that he wasn’t able to have children because of his consistent health issues. But on the bright side, he had lots of Godchildren and nieces and nephews to fill the void.
When someone is naked with you, it inspires complete honesty back. How could I look Joseph in the eye and learn of his deepest fears and hopes and not be open-hearted with him? Wholly inspired by this complete stranger, I began to open up about my own strife.
At first, I tell him about my new boyfriend. Mr. Pizza is a new and welcomed addition to my life. I share that it had been six years since I met anyone of worth. That I met someone who was my equal and was equally ready to love me as I was to love him. And Pizza was it! While we are still getting to know each other, I have high hopes for our love.
Then I went on to talk a lot about my divorce and the most contentious challenge I have faced throughout the past six years since I left my husband.
Middle School…the most dreaded time in a child’s life…for both parents and pre-teen. This is the time of discovery and growth into adulthood. When the transition from the innocent, sweet child turns into a pre-adolescent, tortured young adult.
Hair growth, menstruation, breast development, hormones, acne…all the horrific bodily changes that occur. On top of the relationship changes. Friends become enemies, boys turn into suitors. Loving Parents turn out to be your antagonists.
But when a child goes through all this PLUS is a child of divorce, there’s a whole other level of adversity that accompanies these inevitable changes.
I share with Joseph that my daughter, MSP, has a choice to make of where to attend Middle School, Brooklyn, or where we live in Westfield, NJ.
She has already made her choice. She has told her therapist, teachers, grandparents, friends, and family on both sides that she wants to attend school in Westfield, NJ. However, MSP’s father insists that she apply to schools in Brooklyn.
We are facing what they call a “change in circumstances,” and now her say in where she wants to go weighs heavily on where she will land. At 10 years old, she needs to decide between staying with her mother (me) or her father (the Chupacabra of Joy).
For the past month, we’ve been visiting schools in Brooklyn; five in total. You see, in Brooklyn, your zone school is only one option of many. You can apply to surrounding schools that specialize in different areas of education. It’s a significant application process, similar to what college students go through.
Her Brooklyn zone school is atrocious, so we target the schools that get high marks in education quality, extracurricular activities, after school programs, etc.
Ironically, the middle school in Westfield we are zoned for is excellent. Both my niece and nephew attended this school, and the education level is superior. You see, I moved to Westfield precisely because of the quality of education, safety, commitment to diversification with arts, and theater. I pay very high real estate taxes in exchange for what is essentially a private school education.
Let me restate that my daughter has been VERY clear that she wants to attend Middle school in Westfield. She’s been consistent in that stance for over a year. However, her father is insisting that she considers all options in Brooklyn before making the final decision.
With that, I tell Joseph that while I think some of the schools in Brooklyn are solid, they don’t compare to the lifestyle, safety, community and lifestyle she will experience in Westfield. Listen, I grew up in Brooklyn and will always be a proud Brooklynite, born and bred. However, I now understand the difference between living in a neighborhood and being part of a community.
So, I play the game and attended every single Brooklyn school visit (six times in total as one of the schools canceled the night of the orientation). And when I called the Westfield Middle School to inquire about their orientation, they told me that they don’t host these types of events as they are a zoned school.
Due to my Uncle’s relationship with the school and the love they have for the Mazzola family, the principal makes an exception, and they host us for a private tour.
Which just serves to solidify MSP’s resolve to attend school in NJ. She loves it there and feels at home. She feels safe.
Joseph turns to me and asks, “So what will it take?” at first, I said, “I don’t know. He just wants control, and ultimately I don’t think he wants to let go of the custody payments.”
His eyes got really wide. He turns to me and says, “You pay him.” Yes, Joseph, I pay him custody every month.
He asks, “Would you have to pay him if she moves to NJ?” I respond,” no, he indicated that he would not expect payment if she moved to NJ. But, he wouldn’t pay me custody if she lived with me full time due to the disparity in our incomes.”
He smirks and asks, “did you ever consider continuing to pay him even though you have her? Like, what does that money mean to you since you are already paying him.”
I said, “it’s funny, I wanted to offer that, but my lawyer thinks its bullshit to continue to pay him when she would be living with me full time.”
He says, “I understand that, but isn’t that the price of freedom and peace?”
Fascinating …that’s what my gut has been telling me for years. Since we’ve been in court over the move, he initially supported but then reneged.
I say to Joseph, “He’s machismo. I’m concerned that if I did offer it to him, it could backfire on me.”
He says, “I get that, which is why you can’t diminish him in the offering. You have to position it properly and build his ego in the process.”
Fuck!!!! Really? Come on, Joseph.
I laugh out loud. I can’t help myself. I know he’s right, totally and completely right. So I ask with real desperation, “How? How can I possibly do that?”
He advises with the exact words I need to reiterate in writing. “Just write that the custody payments will remain intact. And that he can use the money to save for college, travel, expenses, etc. Assume he is using the money for his daughter and all the current and future expenses related to her upbringing.”
Interesting. Very interesting. I turned to him and said, “Thank you. For validating my gut instinct and giving me the kind words that I am struggling to find.”
We chatted for a little while longer, and then we both napped side by side as he made space on the armrest for me.
As of Friday, I sent that note, and my proposal for the revised visitation agreement in the (likely) instance that MSP goes to school in Westfield. I’ll continue to play this game even though we both know the outcome.
And I did take Joseph’s specific advice. I realized I needed validation, and a perfect stranger gave me just that. He listened and offered his impartial insights into my custody situation of which he had zero investment.
I choose to believe that Joseph was a messenger. He was sent by my angels to help validate me, offer sage advice, and console me during a time of need. His support and love were unexpected but very needed.
The email with Joseph’s exact words was sent to MSP’s father late last week. I eagerly await his response to see if our instincts were right. For my daughter’s sake, and the sake of her future, I pray Joseph was right and that he would be proud with the way I handled the communication.
Either way, I am so humbled and grateful to have met a man who has sacrificed his life for others. His selflessness was another vital lesson that sticks. It’s unlikely I will ever see Joseph again, but I pray for him every day. And every day, I am thankful to have met an angel on earth.
Cherry Maggiore is the proud single mom of her 9-year-old super-sassy daughter (aka Miss Sassy Pants or MSP) and 15-year-old pug baby (Tiki Barber); in addition to being an award-winning senior marketing executive at NBCUniversal.
Beside her side hustle as the Freak of Nurture, she also started a home design company after being inspired by renovating and designing her 1880’s home in NJ.
This insanely curious and passionate “multi-potentialite” can be found dancing the Argentinan tango, swing and Hustle every Saturday, cooking her family an Italian Sunday dinner, singing and air drumming at concerts or searching for her next adventure.