"Mom, can you take me to Dad's house to pick up my computer?" my 15-year-old son Luca asked after we'd opened the presents on Christmas.
It was a simple, reasonable request. In fairness, my ex-husband Prince should have dropped off the computer at my house, but he is a VIP, so I knew that wouldn't happen. Luca had behaved well during his first trip post-boarding-school, and I wanted to reward him with his computer.
"Sure," I said.
Luca called his dad back to set a time. We planned to be there at 2:00.
"Oh, and Mom?" said Luca. "He said to tell you I have to sign some papers for my new school, so you'd just have to wait, like, two minutes."
Warning bells sounded in my head. Prince is notorious for making "the little people" wait, since his time is valuable, but theirs is not. Having Luca sign papers, which could probably wait a few days until he went on vacation with his dad, felt like a set-up for a power play.
But I had already promised to take Luca to get his computer. Refusing to wait for the papers to be signed would create drama, which I assiduously try to avoid with Prince.
So I said okay.
Can you hear the foreboding music in the background?
Two Minutes in VIP Time
I sat in my Prius at the curb by Prince's house. Luca was inside signing papers. I checked my e-mail on my iPhone. I checked the weather. I scrolled through my 932 photos. I checked the time.
I felt the slow boil of anger rise up from my stomach. Two minutes, as I had suspected, had turned into ten. I looked in the back seat to see if I'd brought my iPad. I hadn't.
Why had I not been proactive? If I'd brought my iPad I could have read an iBook and made this time work for me. Instead, I was waiting at the curb like the chauffeur.
I took some deep breaths and compulsively checked my e-mail to see if new mail had arrived. It hadn't. I checked the time again.
Two minutes was now fifteen.
I called the house phone. Prince's wife Sarah answered.
"Hi, Sarah. Can you find out how much longer it will be for Luca to finish signing the papers?" I asked, trying to keep my voice steady.
I heard some muffled voices in the background, and then she said:
At this point, I should have employed some better options than stewing. I could have gone to Starbucks, or the grocery store, and told her to call me when Luca was finished. In fact, I should have done this right after I dropped Luca off, instead of simmering in a vat of resentment.
But I didn't. Like Charlie Brown deluding himself that, this time, Lucy will hold the football so he can kick it, I waited another two minutes.
Which became five. So now two minutes had morphed into twenty.
Luca appeared by my car window. I rolled it down. Guess what he said?
"It'll just be two more minutes."
I snapped. I told him I should not have been kept waiting, that I was going to the grocery store and I would call him when I was done. His face turned red and he started to tremble.
"But, Mom, it's not my fault!"
I went to the grocery store. Prince called me, demanding to know "what the problem is." I informed him that I was not The Help and I would pick up Luca when I was finished shopping.
After I'd paid for my few items, I returned to the car and called Luca. I told him I leaving the market, which was around the corner from Prince's house, and to wait for me at the curb.
Prince texted and said Luca could not wait by the curb and I must text him when I was actually at the curb.
By this time I was at the curb. Luca was outside, in tears. Prince was hovering on the lawn, and while I couldn't hear him through the car window, I could imagine that he was giving Luca tips on how to deal with his evil mother.
"It wasn't my fault, Mom! Now everyone at my dad's is mad!"
I said some other things I shouldn't have, adolescent things along the line of who really deserved to be mad.
"You're putting me in the middle, Mom! I don't want to be in the middle of you guys! Besides, you can't point out when other people are in their boxes, Mom! You can only talk about your own box!"
The parent-child curriculum at Luca's boarding school included a book called Leadership and Self-Deception, which explained how conflicts occur: people with long-standing interpersonal grievances approach each other with "hearts at war." They act in ways that betray their own values -- like a good-enough mother having a hissy fit in front of her son -- at which point they've trapped themselves "in the box." When you're in the box, others respond to you from inside their own boxes. If this goes on long enough you have Israel and Palestine.
I clamped my jaw shut, as I was still "in the box." I silently kicked myself for blowing my stack in front of Luca and Prince, who had succeeded in his plan to piss me off. Luca and I drove home without saying a word.
When we got home, I noticed an Our Family Wizard text alert on my phone. This could only be a diatribe from Prince chastising me for my unfit mothering.
And he would be right, to a degree. I had acted badly.
I e-mailed my friend Miranda, who also deals with a VIP ex. We analyzed the situation, determined what I could have done differently. I told her I couldn't bear to read the OFW, so she volunteered to read it for me.
Having someone else read your ex's nasty e-mails is an excellent technique for maintaining one's sanity, and one I would recommend to anyone who has PTSD from years of receiving hostile e-mails.
Miranda e-mailed a few minutes later and told me the OFW was actually about something else. Written in a demeaning tone, yes, but at least not threatening a law suit. She mimicked Prince's tone and we had a few cyber-chuckles.
After dinner, I apologized to Luca for blowing my stack. I told him I should have gone to the grocery store originally so I wouldn't have gotten mad waiting.
"I just don't want to be in the middle anymore, Mom," he said.
"I don't blame you," I said. "I wouldn't want to be in the middle either. I'll try not to put you there again, but I won't be perfect."
Later that night we sat on the couch watching TV. Luca put his feet in my lap and I covered us up with a blanket. Halfway through the movie, he conked out, his head leaning over the back of the couch.
I nudged him awake and led him upstairs.
We hugged goodnight.
"Love you, Mom," he said.
"Love you too. Sleep well."
I watched him shuffle into his bedroom, then walked into my own. It had been a long day. But one that ended with me a little bit smarter.