“The best feeling in the whole world is watching things finally fall into place after watching them fall apart for so long.”
Call me Collins, Michael Collins. Yes, that will do fine. Hi, I'm Michael and I am divorced. When you put it that way, it almost sounds like you’re admitting to a disease in a support group. That’s because it is a disease. Divorce is metastatic cancer eating away at various parts of your life. Unlike cancer, though, this disease is communicable. This two-part series is my story—how I lived, died, and resurrected. It is also about how others were not so lucky.
Proof of Life
“Can you send me the video?” Asks Emma.
“Yep. I think you have to friend me on the Facey-page first. It’s too big to text.”
“We’re not friends on Facebook?”
“I don’t think so.”
It’s a bit strange. My 12-year-old buddy has my cell number, but she has not tracked me down on any form of social media. She fixes that instantly and signs off. That short exchange lifted me past the mood to which I was descending as I passed through my old neighborhood to work.
Divorce is bad. The aftermath is sometimes worse. It is a dirty thunderstorm of smoldering shrapnel and ash that haunts you as you attempt to remain a productive human. I recite a mantra to myself each day to side-step a self-medicating spiral.
If you don’t let it go, it will take more.
Emma’s mom calls me back 20 minutes later.
“She wanted Chick-Fil-A for lunch. I can’t stop my workday to do that, so I got her a breakfast wrap instead. Did you eat?”
“I have a tall gas-station coffee with cream and three packets of ass-cancer.”
“Why? Michael, I told you about that stuff. Did you know that…”
Lorraine hates the artificial sweeteners, so I embrace the horror that they supposedly are by referring to them via ridiculous monikers. Mostly though, I like to provoke her fast-paced, attention-deficit rant. It’s probably selfish to want to hear how concerned she is about my longevity.
It is something I began to reconsider about five months prior. I was sitting at a café-like table on a screened-in porch near the state capital, drinking coffee with Truvia instead of ass-cancer, and it tasted not good.
I have an involuntary tremor in my right hand that gets worse with stress. I had to use two hands with the coffee. Olivia simply sat down, took my right hand, and said,
In November of 2018, I threw my wife out of our marital home.
With a blood-alcohol level four times the legal limit, Charlotte had crashed our car into the truck of the man she was following home from a party with whom she had hooked up.
My six-year-old daughter, Isabella, was in the back seat.
The man fled the scene.
Charlotte fought with her arresting officers, and they took her to the ground.
A restraining order was continued for months, and so I commenced a lonely existence as the sole caretaker of Isabella, working, racing home, making sure she was well-fed, loved, and as happy and stable as possible.
Slowly visitation was re-established—supervised at first, and just three weekends a month.
I emerged from those months to find some of my friends and acquaintances looking at me across the courtroom with angry, accusatory faces—gas-lit to believe that my wife’s “lone mistake” was that of a desperate, unhappy woman forced to live with the evil that is apparently me.
It certainly was not a lone mistake. I predicted the crash to my boss a year earlier, and days after the crash, she reminded me.
One of the faces looking at me curiously was Charlotte’s new boyfriend, a married man she met in Alcoholics Anonymous less than a month after the crash. Frederick lived in the same neighborhood, and he was willing to drive her around.
Mrs. Collins and Fred became a tag-team, following me, filming me, filing unwarranted charges on me that had to be dismissed and expunged. When visitation was established, the couple paraded around with my daughter like a brand-new family. Isabella was confused and scared. She wanted to know why Mommy held the man’s hand as they drove. She asked why they called each other “honey” and “babe,” and she did not understand all the touching.
Isabella did not like being forced to hold the man’s hand or being asked to give a “proper goodbye” in the form of a hug.
When the married guy became a liability, Mommy replaced Fred quickly with a friend of mine—except she forgot to tell Fred she moved on. Married guy got caught stalking the house.
For my daughter, the routine started all over again. Mommy force-fed the new boyfriend to her, put him on the phone with her, forced the goodbye hugs, etc.—a manufactured family, like it was a kit one purchases from Ikea.
Now that guy follows me around.
Over the last year, Isabella developed blockage and put on weight. She cried when it was time to go away for visits, as did I.
DSS investigated twice. One time was because Isabella was given a prescription med so she would go down and thus allow the adults to sleep off a Father’s-Day-weekend hangover.
Months of raising her by myself, and I did not have my daughter on Father’s Day. I had also been forced to bring my little one to visit when she had pneumonia. Any resistance brought police to my door.
As the protective order was relaxed and visitation increased, I discovered I had no life outside of Isabella. The void her absence left was unbearable.
Charlotte meddled in my work affairs as well. She has a knack for bending middle-aged men to her will, and one of the men enamored with her was the husband of my then boss. He would show up to work, look at my papers, threaten me under his breath, and curse at me in front of staff.
I lost my cool one day in a grocery store and slapped the shit out of him. For all his bully bravado, he simply turned white and nervously fished around in his cargo shorts for his phone.
“Siri…find my balls.”
I needed a distraction. I took a colleague out to lunch a couple of times, but she was attached to someone, and she became a friend. I joined Eharmony and Match. Mostly I met broken, divorced folks with whom to commiserate. One was calling me pet names after the first date, and another was uncertain if she even had the time to be doing this.
I don’t need this.
I didn’t want to do what the wife did and put a band-aid on my lonely. I had done that kind of thing as a younger man.
I was about to shut it all down and run when I got a message toward the end of May.
…Not sure what the Match protocol is but wanted to say hello. Hope the holiday weekend is fun and relaxing for you. I’m sure you get this a lot, but great hair.
I looked at the profile. Ms. Lorraine was close to the same age as me, grew up where I grew up, and she had flown solo for quite some time. I responded by detailing the adventures of the three little girls ransacking my house during a sleepover.
There was an instant comfort that I could not explain. It was not long before we were sharing our life stories via phone conversations, texts, and emails. We Googled each other and laughed at what came up. She found some of my articles, and I sent her more. She had a similar, heart-breaking story, her ex-husband with whom to contend, three children to raise, and a career to rebuild after years of being a stay-at-home Mom.
Lorraine had been just as financially devastated (and for the same reason—endless maneuvering by the other side that did not change the settlement agreement hardly at all). No house. No job prospects. Like me, she had been sleepless, panicked, and discouraged at how the legal system works in this particular state.
In two years, I had endured the deaths of close friends, the death of my marriage, the deaths of my oldest and most treasured pets, the near psychological collapse of my resilient daughter resulting in much expensive therapy, the near psychological collapse of me, the loss of multiple immediate acquaintances and friends, and the loss of all of my money.
And listening to this woman, I kinda felt like a wuss.
When Lorraine and I agreed to meet in June, I told her over the phone that when she answered the door, I would say nothing. I was simply going to walk through the door and kiss her face.
I rang the doorbell.
She answered, and I altered the promise a little.
“Hi,” I said.
And then I stepped through the door and kissed her for quite some time. In that one moment, I did not just feel human again, I discovered that what I had begun to feel for this person through messages and phone calls was real.
Breath filled my lungs. My head cleared. My hand stopped shaking. For the moment, I was not a broken divorcee raising a child and fighting off new foes and legal assaults each day.
I was just a boy in front of a girl.
A girl with whom I was seriously making out.
Months later, Lorraine shared the interior monologue going through her head that day.
Is he really going to kiss me? What if I don’t want him to kiss me? There’s no way he’s going to do that. The rest of the day is going to be really awkward if I don’t want him to…
By July, Lorraine and I had acknowledged that we loved each other. By September, Isabella was in love with Lorraine. My little one found what was missing in her other household. This situation was not contrived. My daughter was not marginalized in favor of a new companion. She was part of the relationship--front and center with my new significant other and her children.
Lorraine's daughter does not have quite the same personal relationship with her Dad that her brothers do, but I’m a guy who is very good at raising and entertaining girls, and Emma and I hit it off. The boys are sharp, good at sports, and they enjoy my deadpan smartassery because they too are smartasses. The eldest occasionally enlists my help with college essays.
The boys have Lorraine's empathetic heart, and they embrace moments to play with Isabella.
Lorraine and I speak throughout the workday, exchange inappropriate memes on social media, and we trash talk each other’s ability to throw axes at painted targets—one of our first dates. Isabella messages Lorraine daily. I use the word “girlfriend” to describe Lorraine, but this thing is bigger than that word. Unexpected and bigger.
Puzzle pieces have drifted together. I got new adolescent buddies who call me. I play street hockey now. I go to ice hockey games and volleyball tournaments. Isabella and I travel to Raleigh for the occasional Sunday dinner.
The first year of divorce is the hardest. It is a daily struggle to avoid the bitter examination of all that’s lost. It is a daily struggle to keep the shrapnel from piercing the new world you are creating. There is proof of life all around you—a new life. You see it, and it carries you forward.
Sometimes it’s merely a phone call from a 12-year-old girl asking for a video.
“We are all collateral damage for someone’s beautiful ideology, all of us inanimate in the face of the onslaught.”
Benjamin Alire Saenz
"What do you mean, honey?"
"I just don't like it. It's weird."
I did not know how to respond. Isabella was essentially describing public physical intimacy between her Mom--whom we'd removed from our home in November after she put our daughter's life in danger--and her new boyfriend who was on the scene by December.
In April, Charlotte inexplicably moved into an expensive cottage a mile from us and not far from some friends of mine who walk their dog each day in that area. It was now May.
This conversation was the third time my Isabella had brought up the "the touching" as she called it. I ignored and side-stepped the issue for a while. She was confused because I am still Daddy, and that lady with the strange man is still Mom, and technically Mom and Dad were still married. She could not wrap her mind around some dude underfoot and virtually living with her Mom. Ultimately my daughter would detail the touching in a crushing journal entry that her grandmother stumbled upon and turned over to her therapist--it described what Isabella imagined happening behind closed doors between her Mom and Fred, her new man. Then social services visited Mom.
"Maybe this is something you can talk to our new friend about?" I asked, referencing my daughter's therapist.
"Maybe you can talk to him about it," my daughter said, meaning Fred
We had stopped at the mail house in our residential area, and we were back on our way to school. We paused at the intersection of the main loop that runs the perimeter of the community. My daughter was pointing across the intersection toward a side street.
"He lives right there."
Whoa. But then again, what the hell? Boyfriends happen and have to be accepted at some point--maybe not four weeks from the day the marriage officially died--but they will exist whether one likes it or not. What does not need to be accepted is unethical conduct in front of my little girl. Perhaps I would handle this situation man-to-man.
"Don't worry about anything, honey. Just focus on school. It's a P.E. day, isn't it?"
"Yup, it is. Good thing I'm wearin' what I'm wearin'."
Isabella sported new running shorts and a new t-shirt. I dropped her at school and returned to the intersection and drove down the side street. I pulled up to a sprawling lakefront home that was at least 450,000 dollars-worth of house, eyeballing the jeep in which I had seen my daughter riding around the community.
Why did the first boyfriend out of the gate have to have so much money? Crap.
Anyway, I rehearsed what I was going to say. I was going to be polite and understanding but firm.
Look, Fred, I know you have two older boys and it has been a while since you've been around a child as young as my daughter, but Isabella sees and hears everything, and you have to be more careful. You're making her uncomfortable.
I took a breath, knocked on the door, and waited. I was midway through my second knock when a lovely silver-haired woman in her mid-50s answered the door in a bathrobe.
"Yes?" She asked.
"Ah...yes, Ma'am, I was looking for the gentleman of the house..."
She saw the confusion in my face and interrupted.
"He's upstairs sleeping."
"And you are?" I asked.
"His wife, Nancy."
"I think you and I should talk. May I come inside?"
Nancy paused, but then I explained to her who I am, and she quickly ushered me into her kitchen. I began by asking her to describe what she thought was her husband's relationship with my wife, and I discovered that suspicions were already running high. We heard a creak on the staircase, and we both turned and saw nothing, so she continued.
"They met in AA. My husband is an alcoholic. Frederick said he is just a 'good friend' to your wife, and that's why he spends so much time with her, but he's not Charlotte’s sponsor."
"What about when he does not come home?"
"He says he's working."
"He's a real estate appraiser. Do they normally do that in the dark?"
"Where was he last Thursday?"
I explained to her about my dog-walking friends who found Fred’s jeep parked in my Charlotte’s driveway both Thursday night and Friday morning--and several other nights and mornings (enough for them to bring it to my attention now that child visitation had been reestablished). Then I described the three uncomfortable conversations I had with Isabella.
"Nancy, your husband is not working. He's banging my wife."
She slowly fell against the wall and propped herself by what looked like a pantry door.
"I knew it," she exhaled. Then she began to tremble.
I walked toward her and held her for a good two minutes. I spoke as my chin rested on her shoulder.
"I'm sorry. I'm used to this, but you're not. I've gotten a little rough around the edges."
I explained to her Charlotte’s car crash and that she’d been following a guy home that night. I told her that my daughter had been along for the ride. We exchanged business cards and made empty promises to assist each other where we could.
I went to work and emailed Charlotte. Among other things, I wrote:
Fred is about to have a very. bad. day.
At that moment, I earned myself a stalker. Fred was pissed. He and my wife became a tag-team. Much irony ensued.
Isabella caught Fred parked outside our house three times. Her grandmother filed a report with the sheriff's department. My wife later said to our daughter it was "to send Daddy a message."
The couple continued to deny their relationship verbally while demonstrating very little public pretense. They continued to avoid public outings in the immediate community. Still, Fred virtually moved in with Charlotte and was at custodial exchanges describing all the "evidence" the two of them had collected on me and were holding in reserve.
They hired a private investigator to follow me around. Then they charged me with stalking while I was physically meeting with Social Services on my front porch. Charlotte was under suspicion of administering a prescription benzodiazepine to Isabella so she would sleep, and so Mom and Fred could sleep off a hangover Father's Day weekend. It was their second charge on me. They filed an assault charge on me three weeks after the fact. I had denied Charlotte a weekend visit that I did not owe her, and so she told the magistrate the following Monday that three weeks prior, I violently struck her in the back with a suitcase. The video eventually showed me disgustedly tossing my daughter's suitcase at Charlotte’s feet. Isabella had been bawling on the way to the exchange. Charlotte had taken up smoking--like Fred--and all Mom did was "smoke on the porch and talk about you, Daddy."
Charlotte sometimes had her man friends talk about Daddy for her. The one I slapped called my new boss posing as a sheriff's deputy and revealed to her the recent allegations. That call fast-tracked the end of a new career and the end of Isabella’s free health insurance.
I had to have both charges dismissed and expunged. Fred then attempted to take out a restraining order on me, claiming I'd lied to his family and committed random acts of midnight vandalism on his property. He intimated that it was I who was following him around. I realized that he is a lot like my wife. He does what he wants when he wants and assumes no accountability--a pirate whose gorgeous life facade hinges on an ever-changing fictional narrative that explains everything.
I faced off with him in court. Fred is in his mid-50s--at least five years older than Charlotte His distinct features are weathered by smoke and alcohol. His hair is swept back and considerably thin. On that day he wore a blazer with a tieless and colorful collared shirt and loafers with no socks.
The judge tossed out his restraining order inside of 20 minutes. I did not bring my lawyer, and I did not ask a single cross-examination question.
Then came the moment when I realized other lives were imploding in addition to mine. My phone lit up with a number I did not recognize. I figured it was another deputy informing me of some other charge.
"Mr. Collins, I want to apologize for my father's behavior. My brother overheard your conversation with my Mom, and I found your business card on her desk. I have some questions."
We heard a creak on the staircase.
It was Fred’s youngest son. He was upset. He had always gravitated towards his Dad more than his Mom, but things had changed. He wanted answers, and he wanted proof as to why his Dad should come off that pedestal his son put him on well over a decade ago.
This moment was uncharted territory for me. I tentatively relived a version of the conversation I had with the boy's mother. I said if he wanted proof, then he should go to my Charlotte’s address and knock on the door one night, but that I would not be sneaking around trying to snap a photo of the couple making out for the sake of a teenager's closure. I did send him a link to Charlotte’s Facebook Page. Her cover photo was Isabella riding in the back of Fred’s jeep at the local shopping plaza.
"Is that my brother's jeep?"
"Yes, I thought it was your Dad's. He spent the whole weekend with my family."
"He was supposed to be working."
"He wasn't. Sorry kid."
I learned that Nancy, not Fred, had the money--she is a bank administrator. So, I told the kid to tell Nancy to circle the wagons with her finances, and she did just that. The kid and I had a few more exchanges. He texted me the moment his parents announced they are splitting up. I sent him a final message.
One last thing, kid...No one's all good, and no one's all bad. Your Dad just is two different guys, but you love one of those guys, and you should. Put him through the wringer and hold him accountable. Eventually, though, forgive him.
Nancy had an uphill battle ahead of her. Decades of marriage means a payout regardless of who is at fault, and then there are the lawyer fees. A two-income family becomes a one-income household with one son off to college and one on the way the following year. The family home suddenly appeared on realtor.com. Nancy changed jobs to a bank in a nearby county. Fred was kicked out of his house and relegated to an apartment in a nearby town. He surrendered the tricked-out jeep for a little station wagon.
Pirates are takers. Inevitably in a relationship between two pirates, something or someone has to give.
Fred was still around through October. He helped Charlotte move back into our house after she bought me out of it. With no license, no car, and hardly any money, she began posting pictures from a football stadium. She stopped smoking. Unbeknownst to Fred, Charlotte began dating a friend of mine on the sly, and he was into football, not cigarettes. Thus, my now-ex-wife developed a sudden affinity for the NFL.
I learned from the sympathetic community gate staff that my ex filed a security alert in the second week of October. The now ex-boyfriend got caught stalking the house again. This time he was sending my ex-wife a message. After almost a year of denying the relationship, Charlotte described the event in October to an officer as follows:
Received a phone call from Charlotte Collins that Fred Hollingsworth was stalking her home after a bad breakup...
I called Charlotte out on this event, as well as her description. And she responded.
The “paid” front gate staff misinterpreted the complaint of a “bad breakup." Rather, this was a dissolution of friendship in the best interest of our daughter. I cannot control the actions of others, but I can respond and protect myself and my daughter, which I did. Mr. Collin’s allegations are based upon his fractured fairytale...
I ran into Fred (perhaps a month after this event) in a local grocery store. He was gaunt and distracted. I once read an account of a critical Vietnam War battle in which survivors of a bombing run stumbled about senseless. They ambulated and remained technically alive on the outside, but they were dead on the inside.
This was Fred standing before me by the ground beef.
Here's hoping that he too finds proof of life somewhere and in some fashion.