Pain behind Those Eyes

This is Chapter 6 for my attempt at National Novel Writing Month. I have written for half the month of November and crossed the halfway point in terms of the reaching the word count of 50,000 words. Feel free to comment below.


Collin was sitting in the reception area of an office high rise that overlooked the Mississippi River in La Crosse, WI. He had made an appointment to meet with a lawyer that the husband of his department chair had recommended. Collin was dressed up, not for the lawyer though. He had to drive back to Wanetta after this and teach. 

There was a pretty paralegal behind the reception desk. She was busy sorting appointments and responding to emails on the desktop computer. She was young, probably too young for Collin. He didn’t know who was appropriate for him anymore. He felt old. Hiring a lawyer to go after your ex seemed like the kind of things that old people did.

“Mr. Nguyen.” The paralegal announced. “The lawyer is ready. Please follow me into the meeting room.”

Collin picked up the manila folder of papers that he brought with him and followed the paralegal to the meeting room down the hall.

In the meeting room, there was a long wooden table that probably could sit 10-12 people. Collin sat in a chair in the middle of the long side, waiting for the lawyer to show up. On one side of the room there were windows that overlooked downtown La Crosse, not river facing. Outside the day was dreary and overcast. It had been raining a lot recently. Opposite the windows, there was the door to the hallway and a series of translucent windows that you to see all the people walking back and forth down the hallway like ghosts. On the sides of the room that were actually walls, not transparent or opaque, there were paintings of Mississippi nature. Boats on the river. Eagles flying above the bluffs. Duck hunters with hunting dogs. Those type of things

Collin sat in the meeting room for several quiet minutes. Soon a ghost wearing heels walked quickly towards the meeting room door. In came the lawyer. She was wearing a navy suit coat, white blouse, and a matching navy dress. Her hair was short and was tucked behind her ears. Collin stood up when she entered the room. She walked towards him to shake his hand. She had a firm handshake, and in her heels, she was slightly taller than him.

“Mr. Nguyen,” She said looking him directly in the eyes. “It’s good to meet you. Sorry that I kept you waiting. Would you please have a seat?” Collin sat down. “Now please tell me how my firm and I can be of service to you.”

Collin then explained how he and Lyla had separated. They had never been legally married, so he wanted to make sure that he was on the birth certificates of the boys so that he would legally be recognized as their father. Also, he wanted joint custody and fixed child support payments. Finally, he wanted to make sure that Tony would not have contact with the boys. He slid the lawyer the manila folder with all of Tony’s court cases that he had printed out. The lawyer pulled the folder towards herself but did not look at it.

Collin could not tell how old the lawyer was. She was sophisticated and attractive, but very serious, like the kind of serious one becomes after a tour of duty. As a divorce lawyer, she must have seen some shit. She also watched and listened to Collin carefully to understand his situation but also to appraise if he was some vindictive man portraying himself as the slighted party and was trying to make his ex’s life miserable as much as possible legally.

“Mr. Nguyen,” The lawyer said, “I’m sorry about your situation and the need for our firm’s services. We’ve handled hundreds of divorce cases, and the history behind each one is often sad and complicated. Your history with your now ex is probably sad and complicated as well. However, most of what you want to accomplish is reasonable. Tell me, does your ex have representation?”

“No, I believe that she will use a public defender.” Collin speculated.

The lawyer nodded. “That’s good. That will help you.”

“Now before I proceed, I must inform you that my firm requires a $2000 retainer for our services. All the work that we do on your behalf will be come out of this retainer. Do you understand this?”

“Yes.” Collin said calmly, but inside he was screaming: $2000!

The lawyer must have seen through his poker face. “I don’t anticipate our services costing the entire $2000, so any returning amount can be returned to you or remain in your account with us for future services. Do you understand?”

“Yes.” Collin said calmly, slightly relieved inside.

“Good. Let me proceed. Because you and your ex were never married, don’t own any property, and are currently living apart, this simplifies matters somewhat. We can file a motion to have you added to birth certificates of your sons. Since they were both born in Wisconsin, this should speed up the process. Also, in regard to joint custody, you plan on having your sons every other weekend and twice during the week?”

“Yes.” Collin answered.

“Where will your sons and you stay during the week?” The lawyer asked.

“We will stay at my mother’s place in La Crosse. The boys have a very close relationship with their grandmother.”

“Will they each have their own bed?” The lawyer asked specifically.

“Yes, of course.” He responded.

The lawyer nodded. Apparently, the boys having their own bed at their grandmother’s house worked in Collin’s favor.

“I believe that the judge will accept this custody arrangement. In terms of child support payments, I believe we can secure a monthly amount that you will find favorable, since the two of you were never legally married, and especially since your ex will likely use a public defender.”

The lawyer’s review of the child support situation didn’t sit well with Collin. He wanted to do what was fair for his sons. However, he didn’t want to make himself vulnerable to Lyla, should she later decided that she wanted more money from him.

“Look,” Collin clarified, “I gave Lyla the car that I paid off. I maintain the medical and dental insurance for my sons. I have been covering half of the expenses at her place for the past two months. I just don’t want to be take advantage of because…” Collin took a deep breath, “because I’ve been oblivious to the situation.”

The lawyer waited to see if Collin had anything more to add. “I understand, Mr. Nguyen. Has everything, so far, seemed reasonable to you?”

“Yes.” Collin reaffirmed.

“Good. Now regarding this matter.” The lawyer tapped the manila folder. “From a legal standpoint, even though your name is still on the lease of the apartment, your ex has the legal right to invite whomever she wants into her residence. Now if she is exposing your sons to illicit or dangerous behavior because of the company she keeps or the environment that she fosters, the court can become involved, but that needs to be handled through CPS, not through this firm. Is your ex exposing your sons to illicit or dangerous behavior, Mr. Nguyen?”

Collin sighed. “Not to my knowledge.”

“Ok. Then we’ve discussed a plan of action. Once you make payment for the full amount of the retainer fee, we will draft papers and have them served to your ex. Also, this consultation will be deducted from your retainer. Do you understand, Mr. Nguyen?”

“Yes. I do.”

“Good.” The lawyer responded. “Now, Mr. Nguyen, can I give you a bit of advice?”

Collin nodded.

“I’ve been a partner with the firm for several years now, and during that time, I’ve worked with some men that are very angry about their separation or divorce. Sometimes they act out in irrational ways that complicate their situation in court. It becomes more costly and more time consuming for them to untangle their mistakes. You seem like a reasonable man that wants achievable objectives. I am confident that our firm can attain results in your favor. However…” She slid the manila folder back towards Collin. “Please don’t provoke your ex. It will make things more difficult for you.”

“I understand.” Collin answered. 

The two of them stood up, shook hands, and left the room. Collin then returned to the reception area. 

The pretty receptionist was waiting with a retainer form for him to sign.

She then asked, “How would you like to make payment? Cash, check, or credit card.”

“Credit card, please!”

– – – –

Collin was driving west along Interstate 90. He was still on the Wisconsin side and had not quite reached the Minnesota. First, he would need to drive across the bridge over the Mississippi River. Since he discovered about Lyla and Tony’s chicanery, his depression had become muted, and he had shifted into a more driven but equally unfavorable emotional state—that of the jilted partner.

For the past couple days, Collin had entertained many unsavory fantasies to strike back at Lyla. He thought about emailing all of Lyla’s friends and family PDFs of Tony’s court cases. He thought about slashing her car tires to cause her duress. He even thought about setting fire to Tony’s Taekwondo studio. So hiring a lawyer to secure custody and child support payments that were favorable for himself seemed the least objectionable behavior that Collin could have acted upon.

Still, he wondered what type of machinery he was setting in motion on Lyla and how she would respond to him. Collin had always felt he was an ally of women. After all, he had seen how his mother had suffered during his childhood from an absent husband who she later found out was having an affair. She had to make the decision to leave the situation as a naturalized citizen from Vietnam with no education, no job, and no support network in the community where they lived. And yet, somehow, she was able to acquire a car, rent a house, and establish a household on her own.

This separation did not make Collin’s father happy, but why should it? Still, he would call and show up to fight with Collin’s mother, now his ex. Sometimes Collin and his brothers would be there, sometimes they would not. But Collin always knew when he came back from school if his father had been there because there would be a stiffness to his mother and a weariness in her face.

Collin did not want to behave like this version of his father. This was the version of his father that Collin conjured when he wanted to be mad, when he needed someone to hate, to blame for the problems in his life. This was not the version of his father that would later sit civilly with Collin’s stepfather and watch Collin’s brother play hockey. 

Collin did not want his sons to have memories of him as an angry out-of-control man. So, he would let his lawyer do her job, and he would continue to entertain revenge fantasies in secret to help drain the anger that bubbled inside of him like an infected cyst.       

– – – –

Collin was sitting on the bed in his room. He was providing feedback and grading papers on his laptop. His phone buzzed. It was Lyla. Collin had a pretty good idea why Lyla was calling.

“Hello.” Collin said in a composed manner.

“I was just served papers.” She said clearly agitated. “What the hell are you trying to do?”

“I’m trying to protect myself.” Collin responded.

“Protect yourself from what? I haven’t tried to make anything difficult for you. I let you see the boys whenever you want.”

This was true. Lyla had been good about allowing Collin to have regular visitation with their sons. Sometimes Collin would drive to La Crosse to attend a school event for one of the boys and then take them for a meal afterwards before dropping them off at their mother’s place. Lyla never begrudged Collin these impromptu visits.

“I don’t trust you. And I don’t think you’re in control of your situation.” This was the crux of Collin’s position, and he didn’t feel the need to explain anything more.

“So, you use your money to hire a fancy lawyer to make my life miserable?”

“I’m not trying to make your life miserable.” Collin calmly said, but if being served papers scared Lyla, good, she deserved to be worried after her deceit.  

“Are you trying to take the boys from me?” Lyla asked. This clearly was her greatest fear.

“No.” Collin answered indignantly. 

Why would he ever do that? Denying his sons contact with their mother was never something that he considered. Right now, he hated Lyla more than he thought he possibly could hate a person, but whenever that hatred threatened to overtake him, driving him to say or do something irrational, he would think about his sons and their love for their mother. They didn’t understand the way their mother betrayed their father. They wouldn’t know what it felt like to carry his emotional pain until they were men one day and made the mistake of giving their hearts to the wrong women. Still, Collin always told himself that he loved his sons more than he hated their mother, and anything that he did to hurt her or make her life difficult would only hurt his sons and make their lives difficult. So, no, his endgame was never to take the boys away from Lyla.

“I’m not trying to take the boys from you.” Collin stated honestly. “Again, I’m trying to protect myself, and I don’t trust you. Do I need to explain why I don’t trust you?” This was a rhetorical question, but Collin was perfectly willing to tell her why he thought she was a piece of shit. Part of him was yearning to have this conversation, even though it would fly in the face of the clearheaded counsel of his lawyer.

“No, we don’t need to rehash things. We’ll talk later.” Lyla hung up. She was still uncertain about the situation, but she must have believed that Collin wasn’t going to take the boys from her. This was all she wanted to discuss.

Collin closed his phone. He looked at the paper that he was in the middle of grading. He hit save and went downstairs to the kitchen

The local college radio station was playing. Raf had made chicken soup from the carcass of the chicken that his children didn’t finish over the weekend, and the kitchen smelled like chicken stock. Raf was sitting at the kitchen table reading an issue of Asimov’s. There was an empty bowl in front of him. Raf looked up when Collin came into the room.

“It looks like you got a little pain behind those eyes.” Raf said, doing his best Paul Rudd surf instructor impersonation from Forgetting Sara Marshall.

“Yeah, maybe a little.” Collin said, playing along.

“There’s really only one cure for that.” Raf offered.

“Yeah, what’s that?” Collin asked feigning curiosity.

“Weed. You got any?” They both chuckled as Raf delivered this line from the movie.

“No.” Collin said smiling.

“Oh, well. Then how about a bowl of soup?”

Collin sat down at the table, and Raf served him a bowl of warm chicken soup.

– – – –

Collin was sitting with Ana in her office at campus. Her office had a window, so she kept the lights off whenever possible. She preferred natural light. The room was dimly lit because outside the sky was overcast from the encroaching fall weather.

Collin was updating Ana about the legal proceedings that he initiated.

“Yeah, Lyla’s situation doesn’t seem good.” Ana conceded. “It’s probably best that you got yourself a lawyer. Have you two talked since the phone conversation?”

“No. I email her or have the boys relay messages to her.” Collin answered. “I really don’t have anything to say to her anymore.”

This information disheartened Ana. “Collin,” she said his name in a way that indicated that she was about to disagree with him. Collin smiled. One of the things that he cherished about his friendship with Ana was the disagreements and arguments that they would periodically have. One time they presented at a conference in the Twin Cities, then proceeded to party the rest of the evening and into the night. Collin was extremely hungover the next day and not looking forward to the two-hour drive in order to get back to home. However, he made an off-the-cuff comment that one of the presenters at the conference looked like a biker with his handlebar mustache. He and Ana then proceeded to have an argument about the artifice of professionalism in academia. Collin forgot about his hangover, and before he knew it, two hours had elapsed, and they were back in Wanetta.

“It’s probably good that you don’t say anything to Lyla while you are still angry. Your lawyer gave you some good advice. However, you’re going to need to resume talking with Lyla someday. How are you going to communicate about matters relating to your sons?”

“I dunno.” Collin responded. “Email and relaying messages through the boys seems to be working.”

Ana shook her head. “When my mother left my father for a younger man, he was devastated, understandably. But his hurt and anger, made it very uncomfortable for me and my sister.”

“I understand that,” Collin interrupted. “That’s why I don’t use the boys to pry into what goes on at their mother’s home. What her and Tony are up to. I also don’t bad mouth Lyla in front of them.”

“And that’s good,” Ana barged back in. “But at some point, this behavior is going to be unhealthy for your sons. They need to see their mother and father have a civil conversation. You and Lyla will need to talk about matters pertaining to your children. Your children, Collin. Half of you, half of Lyla. Do you understand?”

Collin chuckled. He understood the merits of Ana’s arguments, but he still didn’t see himself lifting his embargo on conversations with his ex. Ana must have realized that she did not sway Collin’s thinking, so she continued.

“Years after my parent’s divorce, they still wouldn’t talk. My father was still angry with my mother. It became so ridiculous that they would exchange us in parking lots. My father would wait in the parking lot of a grocery store or a Hardees, and then my mom would show up with my sister and me. We would then get out of our mom’s car and go to his. Sometimes we would have to make multiple trips between cars because we had stuff that we needed to bring us. He wouldn’t get out of his car to help us. My mom wouldn’t get out of hers either. It was so ridiculous!”

Collin nodded. What Ana described did seem ridiculous. However, Collin would park across the street from Lyla’s place and honk to signal that he was there to pick up the boys. 

“Well, when Lyla and I are exchanging the boys like a couple drug dealers in a parking lot, then I’ll reconsider the absurdity of my behavior.”

Ana shook her head. She had to teach class, otherwise she’d argue more with Collin until he saw the validity of her point. Instead, she asked, “We still going out for Halloween?”

“Yeah, I already took the boy trick-or-treating, so I’m free this Friday.”

“Good,” Lyla said, “I’ll see you and Raf at Al’s.”

– – – –

Collin was waiting in the lobby of the La Crosse Courthouse. He was dressed up and wearing his black peacoat. He recently bought a new Samsung phone with a slide out keyboard. Per his usual behavior, he was 20 minutes early for his court appointment. His lawyer was not there yet and neither was Lyla. 

10 minutes went by. Collin had put away his phone because he was done playing with it. Then Lyla showed up. He looked up at her as she sat in the chairs opposite Collin, not directly in front of him but in his periphery. She was wearing a winter coat and dressed like she was going to attend a parent teacher conference, not like she was attending a court hearing.

Their eyes met, and her expression seemed to say, “Hey!” Collin averted his eyes and took out his phone again and pretended like he was responding to multiple texts messages. However, he was only typing gibberish on his phone. Lyla sat there quietly. 

5 minutes later Collin’s lawyer showed up, “Hi, Collin. Sorry, I’m running late. Let’s go in.” Collin got up. The lawyer then acknowledged Lyla, “Hi, Lyla.” Then her focus was solely on getting her client the things that he wanted during the court proceedings.

Collin and the lawyer entered the courtroom first. Lyla followed them afterwards all by herself.

– – – –

Collin was the first one to leave the courtroom. He headed outside to have a cigarette. It was October and cold outside. 

His lawyer joined him. “Congratulations, Collins.” She said seemed happy. “That went well.” Collin was a little embarrassed that his lawyer saw him smoking. However, she didn’t seem the slightest bit concerned by what he was doing. There were worse ways for people to behave following a court appearance.

“Listen, I believe that wraps everything up, and the firm will bill you for my time today and any filing that still needs to be done. Once that amount is deducted from your retainer, you are free to request the balance be refunded to you.”

As the lawyer was explaining things to Collin, he saw from the corner of his eye Lyla emerge from courthouse. The lawyer had her back to the door, so she did not see Lyla. Collin did his best to focus on what his lawyer was saying, but he watched Lyla walk meekly away from them. She seemed deflated from the experience. She seemed very alone as she walked around the corner, out of sight from Collin.

“Any further questions, Collin?” The lawyer asked.

“No. Thank you for your help.” Collin responded.

“My pleasure. Have a nice day.” The lawyer said as she walked off leaving Collin alone to finish his cigarette outside of the courthouse with the cold fall winds blowing against him. 

Photo by Ra Dragon on Unsplash

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