I had watched my student, Colleen, grow strong as she worked through her divorce and started a new life for herself and her two children. So I was surprised the next semester when she came into my office crying. She flopped into a chair and spoke through her tears.
“Professor Howard, I have to drop out of school.”
“Why?” I asked in surprise.
“I don’t have the money to continue. My ex-husband’s lawyer got the judge to agree that if I took the children out of state, I had to pay for my ex’s airline tickets to come see them. I appealed to the judge, telling about my husband’s infidelity, but he didn’t seem to care. And if my ex keeps demanding more visits, I won’t be able to afford tuition.”
“Does he have a reason he wants to see the children?” I asked.
“No. In fact, the last time I flew him up here, he didn’t even come see the children. He went hunting with his buddies.”
“That’s not fair,” I replied.
“What’s not fair is that while he was in graduate school having affairs with all the young undergraduate girls, he was hiding away money that I earned, planning all along to pay for a divorce lawyer. Then when he demanded a divorce, I could hardly afford a lawyer at all. And now he and his little floozy wife just . . .”
I interrupted her. “Wait a minute. He’s married already?”
Colleen nodded. “He’s married to a girl who is probably still in her late teens, about ten years younger than he is. He married her about a week after the divorce was finalized.”
“Colleen,” I said slowly, “I think you’re appealing to the wrong judge.”
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“I think it’s time you wrote a letter to his wife and thanked her for being willing to let her husband come visit you.”
“But he doesn’t visit us. He just goes off with his buddies to . . .”
I raised my eyebrows, and Colleen paused, trying to understand what I was saying.
“You see,” I said, “with his reputation of cheating and lying, what happened when he came up here doesn’t matter as much as what his wife thinks happened. If he would cheat on you with her, why wouldn’t he cheat on her with you?”
Colleen grinned. “So you mean, let her think that he has ulterior motives for coming up here?”
“Maybe it is a little underhanded, but what he is doing is unfair. You won’t have to lie. With his reputation, even a simple thank-you will cause her to question his excursions.”
Colleen laughed. “Professor Howard, that is almost evil. But I love it! I’m going home to write the letter right now.”
She left and was back in less than a week. She bounced into my office and pulled up a chair.
“The thank-you letter worked like a charm!” she said. “I’m sure my ex’s wife had barely received it before he called me. Apparently, when he arrived home, she demanded to know what he had been doing while he was visiting us. He told her he didn’t visit us. That was the truth, but she didn’t buy it for a minute. The more he tried to convince her of that fact, the less she believed him. She told him if he came to visit me again, she had to come along.
“He called, insisting I buy his wife a ticket, too. I told him to take a hike. He talked to his lawyer, and his lawyer told him no judge would make me do that, and if he wanted to take his wife, he would have to pay her airfare. My ex said he was not about to do that, partly because of the money and partly because he didn’t want her to come anyway. That really made his wife suspicious. So he called me again, wanting me to tell his wife he hadn’t visited us. I told him I wouldn’t get involved.”
“The sad thing is,” I said, “he has lied so much that now, when he is telling the truth, his wife can’t trust him.”
Colleen grinned. “What matters is that they have canceled all of his trips up here, which means I can afford to stay in school.” She handed me a plate of cookies. “These are for you. You are a genius.” Her grin widened. “An evil genius, but a genius.”
I smiled. I never thought I would consider being called an evil genius a compliment.