Family Visitation Solutions was in downtown Hempstead, just off of Fulton. The building looked liked it had been constructed at the turn of the 20th century. Once, it must must have been seen as regal but now it was a decayed remnant of a different time.
Greg walked to the glass door and found it locked. Then he noticed the speaker mounted on the side. He pressed the buzzer and a distorted voice asked his business.
Restraining his anxiety and frustration, Greg forced a calm tone into his voice, “Greg Garson, I have an appointment to see my kids.”
As he said it, a sharp pang hit him. I have to make an appointment to see my kids. After a moment the door buzzed open and Greg entered a waiting room, which seemed filled with other men.
It was the smell of unwashed bodies which first struck him. The other “fathers” looked like they had been bused in from skidrow or a jail.
The chairs were cheap plastic and aligned against the walls. None of them looked particularly clean. Glancing furtively from side to side, Greg made his way to a receptionist, who sat behind a glass window.
The woman was middled aged with a short greying afro. After, Greg checked in with her, he was directed to sit and wait for the social worker.
While he was in the waiting room, he tried to compose his thoughts and ignore the drone of conversation around him. Evidently, for most of these guys, coming here was part of their regular routine and casual friendships had sprung up.
One guy was bragging to another that it was three weeks since he last used drugs. Another was asking someone if his latest arrest would hurt his family court case.
It was hard to ignore that many of these guys hadn’t showered. Greg breathed shallowly through his mouth to get past the smell.
As he sat in the hard plastic chair, Greg pulled into himself. He tortured himself by imagining all the germs crowding every surface of this place. There wasn’t enough Lysol in the world to clean him, his clothes or his lungs. And this is the place I have to see my kids? He thought.
To distract himself he studied the waiting room with a professional eye. It was terrible work which he could have done better in his sleep. The tiles in the drop ceiling were the cheapest quality which started disintegrating the minute they left the factory. The doorway leading out of the waiting area and deeper into the building was not perfectly square. He spent the next few minutes cataloging all the flaws in the room, but that just increased his agitation.
His appointment was for 4:45, but wasn’t until 5:10 when an earnest looking young Hispanic woman with a file in her hand had called his name. She was standing in the doorway leading out of the waiting room. When he approached, she looked up from the file she was holding looked taken aback, as if she wasn’t expecting him.
“Mr. Garson,” she asked tentatively.
Greg nodded, “Yeah, that’s me.” He realized why she was so surprised. Unlike the rest of the guys in the waiting room, he didn’t look like he just come from Junkies R Us. He changed from his usual T-Shirt with his company’s logo into a polo shirt, slacks and a sport jacket. Fitz told him that FVS would be writing a report, so Greg wanted to show them that he was a respectable person.
Her face blossomed into a genuine smile and Greg suddenly noticed that she was very attractive. It usually didn’t take him long to notice a pretty girl. Then surprised himself when it occurred to him that it was because he really didn’t care. All that mattered was seeing his kids.
“I’m Fanny Vasquez, I’m the social worker assigned to this visitation. I am going to ask you to fill out this questionnaire, which everyone is required to do,” she said apologetically.
Then she handed him a clipboard which he hadn’t seen because the file had been resting on it. “Your wife just arrived and is filing out hers as well. We should be starting shortly.”
He took the clipboard and returned to his hard seat. Belatedly, he realized that there must be a separate entrance and waiting area for the mother and children.
Ignoring the smells and the homeless shelter atmosphere, he started on the questionnaire. It was basic, just where he lived, how much school he had, and where he worked. He finished it and approached the woman behind the window and indicated that he’d finished the questionnaire. She nodded and picked up the phone on her desk, presumably to call the social worker.
A couple of minutes later, Fanny returned and called Greg’s name. He walked up to her and handed over the clipboard. This time the smile was absent and Fanny’s manner was noticeably cooler.
Greg had been feeling defensive to begin with and now this cold shoulder made him feel a bit paranoid. What had Debbie told her?
“This way Mr. Garson,” she said, leading him down an institutional corridor to a smallish room. It contained a desk, and a couple of chairs in the corner. There was a chest of toys and several children’s books in a low bookshelf. The air smelled of disinfectant.
“Please wait here,” she said in the same professional tone.
Greg moved to one of the chairs and sat down. He looked at his hands and saw that they were sweating. He rubbed them on his pants. Fitz stressed to him how important this was. He had to look good and act good for the supervisor’s report.
This is crazy, he thought. I don’t need someone looking over my shoulder like I’m some criminal. I love my kids, it’s Debbie who’s the criminal.
This was longest time he’d ever spent away from them. His father once told him that only when you became a parent will you ever truly understand total selfless love. He’d been right. Cody and Katrina were the centers of his universe. Words couldn’t describe the ache he felt in being separated from them.
His revery was interrupted by Fanny returning to the room. She had Cody and Katrina with her. At 5 Katty looked like a porcelain doll. Her chestnut brown hair fell to the middle of her back. She was wearing the clip on earrings he’d bought for her last birthday. She’d put them on immediately, and almost never took them off.
Her eyes normally shiny brown and full of joy were apprehensive. She took a tentative step into the room, but when she saw Greg, her mouth split open into a wide smile and launched herself at him. Greg, halfway to standing was nearly bowled over. As he hugged his little girl, he felt his eyes fill up with tears. He lean down and whispered in her ear, “I love you, princess.”
She looked up at him and said, “I love you too, daddy.”
The water broke from his eyes and cascaded down his face. Katrina reached up to his face and touched the track of his tears. She looked fascinated as if she’d never seen anything like this before.
She was about to say something when Cody roughly pulled her away from her father.
“Katty, get away from him, you heard what Mommy said.”
Stunned, Greg looked at his 8 year old son. Cody was small for his age, with hair as black and curly as his father’s. The blending of Greg’s blue eyes and Debbie’s brown made Cody’s a brilliant emerald. Right now, those eyes were filled with fear.
“What did Mommy say?” Greg asked.
Emotions warred on Cody’s young face. “That you’re a bad man, and that you want to hurt her.”
Greg went to one knee to look at his son in the eyes. Struggling against the emotions surging inside, he tried to keep his face calm. “You know that I never hurt her or you.”
“Mommy says that you want to throw us into the street. And that Uncle Willy will be a better daddy anyway.”
“I hate Uncle Willy,” Katty said fiercely.
Uncle Willy? Greg thought, stunned. His mind blanked for a moment, before a sick dread hit his stomach. “Who’s Uncle Willy?”
“Mommy told us not to tell you,” Cody said.
“Mommy said he’s our new daddy,” Katty said. “I hate him,” she repeated. “I want you home and him gone.”
Greg felt like he was going to throw up. Debbie was alreadytrying to replace him as a father with this “Willy.”
“Don’t say that,” hissed Cody in a panic. “Mommy said that if we want daddy back it means we don’t love her.”
“I don’t care,” she said, pulling away from her brother and wrapping her arms around her father’s neck.
Looking past Cody, Greg could see that Fanny’s expression had softened again. He was at a loss. Debbie was trying to turn the kids against him. She knew that this would hurt him. She knew that one thing he loved above all else was his kids.
He was so angry that he could barely see. Holding Katty close to him, he breathed in the clean scent of her and worked to calm himself.
“Cody,” he started and stopped as Cody walked away from him and over to the toy chest. Conscious of Fanny in the room, Greg did not yell for Cody to come back. Instead, he stood up, still holding Katty and walked over to his son.
“Cody,” he began again and lowered himself to sit on the ground. Katty refusing to relinquish her hold, shifted so that she now sat on his lap. Her head was still turned and nuzzling against his neck.
“You know that I’d never hurt you or your mother.”
Cody ignored him pretending to be interested in the toy chest. Greg glanced around and saw that Fanny had taken the chair which he had vacated. For the first time as a parent he felt at a loss. If he expected help from Fanny, there was none. She was there merely to observe and not to assist.
Greg waited another couple of minutes until Cody found a Thomas the Train toy. “That’s like the one I got you for Christmas.”
Cody hesitated for a minute and continued turning the train over in his hands.
“I know you are always playing with it. I was thinking about getting you more trains. I saw a really cool set with Samson.”
Now, he had Cody’s attention. Ever since he seen Samson in that children bible picture book which his grandmother bought, Cody had been obsessed with Thomas’ train friend Samson.
Hooked, Cody asked, “When?”
“Your birthday,” Greg answered.
Cody looked stricken, “But that’s forever.”
“No, that’s next month. I will buy it for you next month.”
Cody suddenly smiled and then just as quickly it was gone. “Mommy said not to take anything from you. You just want to make me hate her and like you.”
Greg hugged Katty close to himself trying to regain his composure.
“You can love both of us. Loving me doesn’t mean hating mommy.”
Cody looked conflicted. No face that young should ever have such an expression on it. It broke Greg’s heart to see his young son being manipulated by Debbie like this. She shouldn’t be forcing Cody to chose between his parents.
Greg was still struggling with what to say next, when Fanny cleared her throat. “Sorry, Mr. Garson, but the time is up.”
Greg felt a surge of panic. “But, they just got here.”
“I’m sorry, but the half an hour is up.”
“Please just a few more minutes.” He hated himself, and Debbie, for making him beg a stranger to be with his children.
“I’m sorry,” she repeated,”but those are the rules.”
Greg came very close to losing it right there. But, he heard Fitz’ voice in his head. “Keep it cool. Everything you say and do will be reported to the judge.”
He nodded both to Fanny and to the voice in his head. When he tried to gently disengage Katty’s arms from his throat she just hugged tighter.
“Princess,” he whispered in her ear, “you have to go.”
Katty fiercely shook her head and wouldn’t release her hold.
Greg looked up helpless at Fanny. “She won’t let go,” he explained.Fanny stood up and walked over to Greg. She leaned over and said Katty, “Come on honey, it’s time to go back to your mother.”
“No, I wanna stay with daddy.” Her voice though muffled by speaking into Greg’s neck was very clear.
With Fanny’s help, Greg finally got his neck free from Katty’s arms.
Once her arms were off and Fanny tried to lift her, Katty went into a full meltdown.
Greg tried to calm Katty as Fanny held her, but all he got was several kicks to his stomach.
Fanny started out of the room with a hysterical Katty. Cody followed and finally in disgust said, “I’m telling mommy what you did.”
And then they were out of the room.
Greg sat down on the chair. He was too emotionally drained to even think. He must have zoned out because then next thing he remembered was Fanny sitting across from him.
“Mr. Garson,” she asked softly, “are you ok?”
He looked at her uncomprehendingly. Am I ok, he thought? Debbie is destroying my kids. No, I’m no where near to ok.
He looked down at the scarred plastic table. “What do you think?” he asked.
She nodded sympathetically. “When I started here, I was warned that not all mothers are saints and not all fathers are evil. I shouldn’t be telling you this, but after I gave you the questionnaire, your wife told me stuff, which I know is all lies now.”
Greg was too numb to respond.
“Look, what she doing to those kids is wrong, evil. My report is going to tell it to the judge.”
“Thank you,” he said, mainly because he didn’t know what else to say.
“Look, again, I really shouldn’t be saying this, but you should fight for custody.”
Greg jerked his head up in surprise. Now, she had his attention. “What you are talking about? Debbie’s the mother, the mother always gets custody.”
Fanny shook her head so vigorously that her long blonde frosted tresses shook. “She’s trying to make your kids hate you. That’s called alienation. She can lose custody for that. You should talk to your lawyer about that.”
“Really, you’re not making this up?”
“I haven’t seen it, but I’m still pretty new. But, I did learn about it in school, and my supervisor recently had a case where that happened.”
For the first time since he was served with the Family Court papers, Greg felt a surge of hope.
“Thank you,” he said again and this time he meant.
She flashed a disarming smile at him. “Da nadda. I think you’re one of the good guys.”