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Divorce is a Four- Letter Word

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The silent sleepy house was suddenly interrupted with a blaring “LADIES, LEAVE YOUR MAN AT HOME!” as her phone began it’s obnoxious ring. She groaned loudly as the song pulled her from sleep, and rolled over to check the time. 3:23 AM. She snatched the phone from her nightstand and her stomach dropped when she saw the all caps “MILTON ACADEMY.” She cleared her throat and clicked to answer.

 

“Hello –

 

“Hi Mrs. Novak. This is Stephanie from the Dean of Students office at Milton.

 

She didn’t bother to correct Stephanie; she just interrupted her with a slightly panicked, “Is Connor okay?”

 

Stephanie assured her with an, “Oh, he’s fine – I didn’t mean to scare you!”

 

She let out a sigh of relief. Connor was fine. “Then why are you calling me at 3 AM?”

 

“Mrs. Novak, your son was caught vandalizing school property with a few other boys late last night. We wanted to call you to inform you of the situation, and discuss our disciplinary plan with you.”

 

 

“Okay – where is Connor now?”

 

“He’s here in the office with us.”

 

“Please put him on the phone with me for a moment.”

 

Stephanie started to protest, but she silenced her with a stern “I’d like to speak with my son.”

 

She heard the phone being passed over, and then heard Connor’s embarrassed voice – “Hi Mom.”

 

“Connor … “

She paused – drawing as much patience as she could into her exhausted mind.

 

“Connor, will you please ask Stephanie if you can step out into the hallway to talk to me?”

 

He apparently got approval because she hears a door close about 30 seconds later.

 

“I’m outside, Mom.” He said it quietly, a shadow if his normally boisterous and loud personality. He knows he’s in trouble.

 

“Why don’t you explain to me what you did that caused someone from the Dean of Students office to call me at 3 AM?”

 

Her 15-year-old son starts babbling immediately – “It wasn’t my idea. Rick said we should do it and I thought it was a bad idea the entire time, but then we were there already, and ..”

 

She cut him off. “Look, Connor. You vandalized school property right?”

 

He sighed, and then, begrudgingly answered, “Yes ma’am.”

 

“Okay, then you’re going to have to face the consequences of that decision. We’ll talk about this more with your dad later. I love you.”

 

He murmurs, “I love you too.”

 

She sighs, ready to fight this new school administrator and once again lessen her son’s punishment.

 

“Hand the phone back to Stephanie.” She spits the name out as though Stephanie has personally offended her.

 

She spends the next 20 minutes convincing Stephanie that a full month of detention is excessive and would limit her son’s time to expand his mind through academics and extra-curricular activities. She instead suggests two weeks of detention and promises that she will work with his father to make sure he is adequately punished at home as well.

 

Stephanie finally relents, and they hang up. By now, it’s 4 AM. She has another hour to sleep before she has to get up and head to The Mindy Project, but she knows there’s no use trying to sleep anymore.

 

Instead she calls BJ. He deserves to be awakened just like she was.

 

He answers on the third ring with a gravelly but concerned, “What’s wrong Min?”

 

“Your son takes after you, that’s what wrong.”

 

“Fuck. What did he do now?”

 

“He vandalized some statue on campus with Rick and Matt. And now he’s getting two weeks of detention for it.”

 

“Shit.”

 

They talk for an hour – first about Connor, and how they should handle his punishment, and then their conversation veers off course, as it always does. They talk about politics and her show and the screenplay that’s not “ready” for her review yet.

 

“Just let me read it Beej – you told me it was finished!”

 

“No,” he replies, firmly. “Just give me a week – then you can read it.”

 

She is about to protest again when she sees the time – “I have to get ready.”

 

--

 

She’s been shooting all morning in sky-high heels and her feet are killing her. Also she is wearing fake eyelashes in this scene and they are making her eyes water constantly.

 

She returns to her office to grab a quick bite and finds BJ there, sitting comfortably behind her desk, tapping away on her computer.

 

He looks up when she enters, smiles and pulls a bag of Thai food out from behind her desk.

 

“Thought you might be hungry!”

 

She smiles and drags a chair next to him to begin eating.

 

“Also, I texted Connor this morning. I thought we could chat with him before lacrosse practice.”

 

She sighs, knowing this is probably the best time to get their son on the phone.

 

Without further conversation, BJ pulls up her Skype account and calls Connor. It still perplexes her that BJ knows all of her passwords – she’s changed most of them over the years since they were married and living together, but it seems he’s just as embedded in her life as he was then.

 

Connor answers the phone with a sheepish grin. He has the expression that she saw on BJ as he tried to charm that cop out of giving them a ticket. She KNEW he was too much like his father.

 

She cracks a bit of a smile at this thought, but BJ remains stone-faced.

 

He sighs, and then begins in a stern voice “Why don’t you start at the beginning, son?”

 

Connor’s smile slides off of his face, and he begins – walking them through the tale that ended with toilet paper and spray paint and detention.

 

They listen, and once he has concluded, start ticking off the flaws in his “plan” one by one.

 

They’re good at lecturing him, she thinks. They have a back and forth – they don’t yell, but actually call into the question the logic and morality of his transgression.

 

After about 30 minutes of lecturing and apologizing and punishing, they hang up – assuring Connor that yes, they still love him, and yes, they are still planning to come up and see him this weekend.

 

BJ presses the end button, and they both sigh, leaning back in their chairs. They sit in silence. They are constantly talking, but they have developed a habit of sitting in silence for a few minutes after a stressful talk with their son. Neither of them like the “discipline” part of parenting very much.

 

BJ is the first to break it – he stands, mumbling something about going to the bathroom, and slips from the room.

 

She shakes herself from her stupor, and throws the rest of her – now cold – food in the garbage. She actually needs to get some work done. She pulls the latest version of a script that one of her writers had submitted to her earlier that morning. She still needs to review this to give them time to make edits. She opens her desk drawer, hunting for a red pen to start marking up the draft, but she can’t seem to find any. Frustrated, she opens each of the other drawers in turn, disturbing their contents with her impatient fingers.

 

Unsuccessful, she sinks to her hands and knees, and peers under her desk, hoping one of her precious red pens had rolled under it. No luck. As she starts to stand, she spots BJ’s bag, carelessly thrown near their shoes under her desk. She is suddenly consumed with the urge to open it. She tells herself that she’s looking for a red pen, but the pen is long forgotten – she now just wants to see if his screenplay is in there.

 

She sits up, glancing at the door again, and then unzips his bag before she can talk herself out of it. Jackpot! She spots a thick stack of pages, held together with huge binder clips. She glances at the door again – toying with the idea of locking him out so she can finally read it. She thinks better of that plan, and resolves to spend just a few seconds flipping through and to put it back before he realizes anything.

 

She glances down and page one, and the title knocks the air from her lungs. There in large, black, indelible font are the words “BABY DON’T by BJ Novak.”

 

Her vision blurs. Her mind rockets back to that night all of those years ago. They’d both known that it was a matter of time –they fought too much, they weren’t happy enough, they couldn’t sustain this marriage. But neither of them had expected the quiet heartbreak of their last night together as husband and wife.

 

He’s said something hurtful – and she’s spent an hour whisper –berating him, so angry but also determined not to wake their 4-year-old son who slept peacefully in the next room.

 

She’d sat back, utterly exhausted by the argument and said under her breath “Maybe this isn’t worth fighting for anymore.” The tears that filled his bright blue eyes when he heard that were almost enough to make her want to take it back. But she didn’t.

 

He’d opened his mouth a few times – desperate to say something to save them, but he seemed at a loss. Finally he opened his mouth and croaked, “Baby, don’t … “

 

She shook her head – this was over, as much as she didn’t want it to be.

 

He’d crawled across the bed to her, and they held each other, intermittently crying for hours.

 

At some point, they must have fallen asleep, because when she woke up the next morning, he was gone.

 

She got up and walked to the kitchen, determined not to let her son see her cry. But the house was quiet – Connor was gone too. She found a note on the counter – “Took Connor to brunch. We can talk more about the details of how all of this will work later. I will always love you. – Ben.”

 

She’d crumpled the note in her hands and let out a strangled sob and she sunk into a heap on the cold tile in front of the refrigerator.

 

But she wasn’t in her kitchen – she was in her office. She desperately tried to shake this memory, and wipe away the tears that had been streaming down her face. She hoped her crying had disturbed the adhesive on her false eyelashes –that would be a dead giveaway.

 

She heard footsteps in the hall, and desperately shoved the screenplay back into the bag – kicking it away from her.

 

BJ walked back into the room – a slice of cake on the plate in his hands.

 

“Someone was having a birthday! I thought you might like some rewrite fuel! And it’s –“

 

He stopped, a few feet away from her. She’d tried to school her features into a grin, but he’d always been able to see the pain behind her smile.  He dropped the plate onto her desk and knelt in front of her.

 

“You okay, Min?”

 

For a split second, as she saw him kneeling in front of her and staring up into her eyes, memories of the day he proposed threatened to consume her – but she shook her head and smiled – determined to get through this moment.

 

“I’m fine, Beej. I just don’t like when Connor does stuff like this.”

 

His smile softened into a look of commiseration. “I know – but we shouldn’t be surprised. He is our son.”

 

She chuckled, hoping he would leave.

 

Seemingly reading her mind, he reached across her to grab his bag from the floor. He leaned back and pressed a kiss to the corner of her mouth.

 

“I should go – I have to work to do, and I know you have to review that rewrite.”

 

He headed for her office door, but turned back just before he reached it. “So I’ll see you tonight?”

 

She’d forgotten – they’d planned to go out with some friends.

 

“Yes, pick me up at 8:30.”

 

“Okay, Love you, Min!”

 

He said it so openly and freely – it almost sounded like he was still in love with her. In moments like this, she could pretend that night never happened.

 

Chapter Text

 

Leaves crunched under her boots and the wind made her wish she’d grabbed her sweater from the rental car. BJ was walking next to her, navigating the cobblestone pathways to the Parents’ Reception where they would finally see their son after being apart for four weeks and three days.

 

She knew that this school was the right decision for him. No matter how much trouble Connor started, he was growing here. She’d shoved her maternal instincts down and let him fly the nest at 14, and now she lived for these short visits.

 

BJ was walking next to her, prattling on expansion project he’d read about in the parent newsletter.

 

“I think we should donate Min. I know these things are annoying, but wouldn’t it be great if we could show our grandkids that brick with Connor’s name on it?”

 

She didn’t respond. She couldn’t honestly say she’d been listening intently. She’d mostly been trying to build a mental block against the pain from the blister that was growing on her heel and decide how long she could hug her son in public without him pushing away from her like he was embarrassed.

 

Warm fingers tangled with her cold ones, and they slowed to a halt just in front of the reception hall.

 

“Did you hear me? Are you okay?”

 

“Let’s buy the damn brick Beej.”

 

If he was startled by her abrupt tone, he didn’t show it. He just nodded, rested his hand on the small of her back, and said, “Let’s go inside.”

 

She nodded gratefully, and leaned on his arm as they climbed the stairs.

 

As always at events like these, they were first greeted by a cheery twenty-something alumni in a Milton Academy blazer.

 

“Names?” she asked brightly, looking down at her checklist.

 

“Mindy Kaling and BJ Novak,” BJ answered. “Parents of – “

 

“Connor Novak!” blazer-girl cut him off. “You know, I am such a huge fan of you both! I was hoping you would show up.”

 

Mindy tried to make her gritted teeth look like a smile. She loved meeting fans, but not here – not when she just wanted to get past those double doors and hug her son.

 

BJ made polite small talk, and even laughed conspiratorially at her attempt at a “That’s what she said” joke.

 

She handed their nametags over with shaking hands and an attempted quip “not like you need these!” and gestured to the doors behind her.

 

Mindy, feeling a twinge of guilt, took care to shake – she glanced at the nametag pinned to her blazer – Alexa’s hand and say “Lovely to meet you, Alexa!” before she made a beeline for the door.

 

She yanked the door open, and rushed inside, scanning for Connor’s dark mop of hair.  Finally, she spotted him, standing with his friend Rick and Rick’s parents. She navigated quickly through the crowd, leaving BJ in the dust, and enveloped him in a hug instantly. Surprisingly, he hugged her back with equal force.

 

“Hi Mom!” came the muffled voice near her shoulder.

 

She finally pushed him back, holding him at arm’s length to examine him. He is hair was a bit too long. He had a scrape on his left arm – she could see the edge of it poking out under his polo shirt.

 

She inhaled, ready to start quizzing him on the injury, when Ben swept behind her, bringing them both into a hug.

 

BJ released quicker, with a cheerful “Hi son!”

 

Her mouth quirked into a small smile when she saw BJ’s eyes travel quickly over Connor just as hers had – scanning him for all of the little changes they’d missed in the last four weeks.

 

Like her, he spotted the cut, and lifted Connor’s shirt to get a closer look.

 

“How’d this happen?”

 

Connor cleared his throat, and then launched into a well-rehearsed speech. Clearly, he had anticipated this line of questioning.

 

“Well, it happened recently – nothing dangerous was happening. I was just partaking in some fun activities with some friends in an outdoor environment and I happened to slip and scrape my arm on a sharp edge of something but it’s not a big deal. I went to the nurse and she poured peroxide on it and everything.”

 

They both instantly understood what this meant. He’d scraped it during his misguided attempt at vandalism and was doing his best not to remind them of it.

 

BJ simply chuckled and said “Uh-huh” and pulled Connor’s sleeve back down.

 

They talked with Connor and Rick and Rick’s parents, and lovely couple from Rhode Island named Jason and Keith, for about twenty more minutes. At that point, they noticed Connor and Rick losing interest and staring over their shoulders. Apparently Matt had just walked in, flanked by his twin 18-year-old sisters.

 

Laughing Mindy leaned down to whisper to Connor. “Fine. You can go say hi. Meet us out front in 30 minutes. We’re taking you to dinner.”

 

He smiled, showing every one of his braces, and dragged Rick off with him.

 

The next half hour was unbearable. Networking with other parents at these events was nothing short of torture. As much as she loved seeing Connor, she hated attending events at Connor’s school.

 

She was one-half of a very beloved former couple – that was bad enough. Attending an event with the other half of that beloved former couple was next to impossible. No matter how snooty these society types seemed, they weren’t above scrounging for celebrity gossip.

 

On some level, she understood the fascination. She and BJ had been married, they’d had a child together. They’d been deeply in love and perfect together and the idol for many relationships. And then, seemingly suddenly, it was all over. He’d moved out and they’d gotten a divorce. And yet, they still worked together. They were still friends. They were still photographed coming out of the movie theater or Whole Foods together, just like they had been when they were in the height of “Bindy.” She understood the fascination. Their situation was definitely weird. But that didn’t mean that the questions were welcome. Or that they weren’t extremely rude.

 

“It’s so great that you guys can keep working together. How do you do it?”

 

“You guys don’t seem divorced.”

 

“Wait, are you famous? Would I have seen you in anything? Oh, sorry, I don’t own a TV.”

 

“You guys should write a parenting book. That would be so funny. Or a book for exes! Like talking about your divorce and stuff!”

 

Every time they attended events like this, it reminded her of that Emmy party - their first big event after their very public divorce. They had discussed it, and the discussion had descended into an argument, and then they decided they should both go. They’d have to go to many events where they other one would inevitably be – they should just bite the bullet.

 

The first 20 minutes were horribly awkward. She didn’t want to talk to him – it seemed too raw for a public venue like this. But, she also didn’t want to talk to anyone else. She couldn’t handle the pitying glances.

 

She couldn’t take it anymore, so she found him – sitting at a table alone. She sat next to him – uninvited, but not unwelcome. For the first five minutes they just sat together, drinking in silence, and then they started talking.

 

He’d said something corny and annoying and tinged with self-doubt like “How about them Lakers?”

 

She’d laughed, and then they’d just started talking. Both pretending that this impenetrable wall between them didn’t exist. They laughed that night – for the first time in a while.

 

That’s the photo all the magazines ran the next day. BJ with his hands out – gesticulating as he told her some joke, and her clutching her belly as she laughed, eyes closed in mirth.

 

Since then – the label had stuck. BJ & Mindy – the one couple that divorce actually worked for, a pair to be envied. And everyone wanted to know exactly how they did it.

 

It was on nights like this, surrounded by stuffy parents under bright prep school lights that she wanted to throw her hands up and shout that she just didn’t know. She didn’t know how they did it. She didn’t know how she could be with him so much even though every time she looked in his eyes, she felt the pain of their separation ripping her in two. She didn’t know how they could go from fighting to loving in two seconds flat. She didn’t understand how she could hate him and still think he was the best person she’d ever met. She didn’t know any of that. All she knew was that he was still the most important person her life, besides Connor, and that if she looked too closely at why they worked, she might wreck it.

 

So, she just nodded politely and said things like:

 

“Oh, we just take it a day at a time.”

 

“We’re friends, colleagues, and parents first.”

 

“TV’s not the best medium for everyone. BJ, tell them about your book.”

 

“Ooh you’re bad, Helen! Thanks for the idea! We’ll have to credit you in the acknowledgements if we ever right a book like that!”

 

She’d said all of those things before and she said them again. She shamelessly used her bubbly personality and BJ’s dry wit get them out of talking about it. They escaped the crowd and went to dinner with Connor.

 

Late that night, in the solitude of her hotel room, she thought about shat she wanted to say to those people – the people who begged her for the secret to their so-called success.

 

“The reason we work is that we’re still in love. We never stopped. I just gave up too quickly. And it kills me. ”

 

That sentiment was reserved for the quiet nights she spent crying on her kitchen floor – reliving their final moments and wishing she could take them back.

 

 

Chapter Text

She pulled away, panting. She realized, with a jolt of clarity, exactly what she was doing. It was a little after midnight on a Wednesday night, and she was in her office – not alone. BJ was on top of her, kissing her neck, crushing her into the couch under his weight. Both of their shirts had landed somewhere across the room already. His knee was wedged between her legs.

 

It felt like she was waking up from a dream. They’d been all tongues and teeth and pent up feelings, but now she was thinking clearly. She could stop this if she wanted. She could push him away and stop this. He’d go home and it would be awkward for 48 hours and then he would call and it would go back to the way it had always been.

 

Or she could keep going. She could let go of her fear and give them a fighting chance. Tomorrow would be different and awkward, but maybe that was good. Maybe tomorrow needed to be different and awkward so the next day could be better and less awkward. Maybe the days would get better and better. Maybe this was the beginning of their second chapter – or their second book – or second saga. She wasn’t certain anymore. Had their story ever really stopped?

 

He must have felt the absence of her nails on his back and her teeth on his earlobe. He pulled away, gulping his own breaths of fresh air, giving her just enough space.

 

It was cold. Dazed blue met clear brown, as he waited. He wanted this – that much she knew. She wasn’t sure he had ever stopped wanting it. His patience always astounded her – especially in moments like this. He had always been so great at not overthinking – not dreading her response before she gave it. He just waited and stared. He looked at her with hope and acceptance and arousal and love.

 

She stared back. The decision was made. She pulled him down to her lips, her desperation returning instantly.

 

--

Wednesday morning had dawned like every other one. She’d gotten up, and stumbled blearily to the shower. She’d gabbed happily in the make up chair and brushed her teeth obsessively as she shot two make – out scenes with Chris in a row.

 

She’d exchanged texts with Connor – he wanted to ask her about something, and they’d made plans to talk on the phone that afternoon. BJ had a meeting for his new screenplay at the time, but she’d promised with a quippy text to keep him in the loop. They’d learned that communication was vital to the success of their co-parenting a long time ago. Their texting had devolved into chat over his screenplay, and he’d promised that today would finally be the day that he’d share it.

 

--

 

Wednesday afternoon light poured in her office window and she struggled to find a place to sit where the light didn’t cast an offensive glare across her screen. She finally settled for the couch, and called her son.

 

The conversation began with a bashful, “I miss you too, Mom.”

 

They chatted, and he finally got around to his request. He wanted to go with Rick’s family on their Winter Break Ski Trip, rather than coming home.

 

No. Their families were flying in. They hadn’t had time with Connor in months. The answer was unequivocally, “No.”

 

The conversation ended with an angry “I hate you!” as he disconnected the line.

 

--

 

She’d gone back to set and shot more scenes, after that. Inside, she was torn apart, but she didn’t show it. She smiled and cracked jokes. She improvised perfectly, one hilarious line after another. She winked and smirked and flirted with ‘Danny,’ and she got a standing ovation when they wrapped or the day.

 

She sent the writers home early – hopefully convincing them with false bravado that they were way ahead of schedule – that they should all take some time with their families. They packed up. She promised she’d be right behind them.  She wasn’t.

 

She sat in her office and allowed herself to cry. He’d never said that before. He’d never said anything like that before. She tried desperately to be rational – he didn’t mean it. He’s a hormonal teenager. The platitudes sounded whiny and hollow in her mind compared to his voice ringing in her ears – dripping with disdain and anger and hate. She didn’t think her son was capable of feeling things like that.

 

That’s how BJ found her. Sitting on her sofa in her dark office – staring ahead, tears slipping down her cheeks. She burst into sobs when she caught sight of him. He dropped the takeout bags in the doorway and scooped her up. She told him what happened between hiccups and sobs.

 

She fell asleep at some point after that. She woke up to BJ’s hushed angry voice. She looked around, but didn’t see him.

 

“Connor, I don’t want to hear it!”

 

He was in the hallway, and it sounded like he was telling off their son. She sighed. She’d deal with all of this tomorrow. She rolled over, pressing her face into the back cushions of the couch and fell back to sleep.

 

The steady tap of his fingers on the keyboard woke her up this time. He was sitting at her desk, writing. That was her favorite way to see him – so focused and smart and purposeful.

 

She sat up, sighing. He glanced up, but kept typing. She understood the look in his eye. He needed to finish his thought. She waited. The clicking stopped after about 30 more seconds.

 

They made eye contact again, and he eyes seemed different, suddenly. He looked at her like he used to – like she was a revelation. In her earlier years, she would have looked away, awkwardly smoothing down her hair. Now, she just smiled back.

 

She suddenly needed to be near him. She stood, before she could really decide whether or not this was a good idea. She rounded her desk and crouched behind him.

 

A younger BJ would have minimized the window with panicked haste, desperate to avoid her seeing his drafts, but this time, he just slid the chair over a few inches to give her room.

 

Love stories aren’t perfect anymore, but that doesn’t make them any less beautiful. In fact, it might make them more beautiful.

 

This is the story of my love. I have known her for years. She has seen me at my worst, and at my best. We have screamed and sobbed together. We have faced death and we have brought life into this world together. She has been the most consistent force in my life – both for pain and for happiness.

 

She has been called by many names, but the most recent is my ex – wife, though calling her that pains me, both because the tiny “ex” at the beginning is a constant reminder of what we lost, and also because “wife” never seemed like enough. Is there a word to describe someone who is simultaneously your biggest supporter and your most constant source of joy? Words seem cheap in the face of something like that.

 

I have always been a lover of words, but this seems to be the one area of my life in which I am content to be left speechless. When I am forced to title her in my mind, I simply refer to her as ‘my love.’

 

So, here we go. This is the story of my love.

 

She stopped reading. She dragged him out of the chair and back to the couch. She wasn’t sure when they started kissing or shedding their clothes, but she didn’t want to stop.