Chapter 23

It was a Saturday. Molly and her neighborhood friends were wandering from yard to yard to play. Last I knew, she’d been around the corner at her friend Brad’s house but I called to check on her – she was eight. Brad’s mother said they’d headed back to my house and I promised to let her know when the children showed up. I went out to the garden to find a few ripe tomatoes to slice into a salad. Neil rolled the lawn mower out of the garage and called to me,

“I’ve got to go get some petrol. I won’t be long.”

Jingling the car keys, he swung the empty gas container into the trunk of the car, waving as he pulled out of the drive. A few minutes later Molly and her group of friends burst into the yard.

“Do we have any juice boxes?” Molly asked.

“I think so.” I leant over to kiss my daughter’s sweaty cheek then followed the kids into the house to collect the cellophane wrappers before they ended up on the kitchen floor. Juice boxes in hand, they ran out to the yard to play on the rope swing. After pouring myself a glass of water, I hit redial to let Brad’s mother know the children had arrived to my house. At the same time I said hello, a woman with a Spanish accent barked, “He’s left already!” and hung up. I stared at the receiver in my hand. I’d redialed using ‘last call made’ – but that woman was not Brad’s mother. Who was she? Neil must have called someone after I did. But he said he was going out to get gasoline. A few seconds later, the phone rang. The woman with a Spanish accent had called me back and now demanded, “Who is this?”

“Who are you? I hit redial and it wasn’t you that I called before. I guess my husband Neil called you? Do I know you?”

“Never mind. Wrong number. Goodbye.” She hung up. In the few words she spoke to me I could hear a confusion and anxiety in her voice that mirrored my own. The disconnecting click triggered a powerful shift in me. I looked around the house stunned, unsure how I arrived in this place but knowing, I has arrived and there was no return. The echo of my own uncertainty and misery in the voice of the woman on the other end of the phone had galvanized me. No car accident, lost job, suicide threat, stolen money or horrible fights – nothing had been as clarifying as the sound of that woman’s voice. I did not want to be the person she was, that I had already become. I would take back a life I barely remembered. Fuck the therapists, his supposed meetings, enough! I no longer believed any of it. I no longer believed him.

I needed him out of this house. His only choice was rehab – to actually check in somewhere and stay as long as it took. Otherwise, it was over for me. I would not waver. Too many seasons of my life had been blurred together and consumed by his addiction. I could not solve his problems nor continue worrying about him, about money, about our safety. I definitely didn’t want to be his mother and I no longer wanted to be his wife.

Molly’s laughter as she spun around on the rope swing was my background inspiration as I wrote everything down in a letter. I’d barely finished and folded the two sheets of paper ready for an envelope when Neil returned proudly holding up the plastic gas container as he got out of the car.

When he came into the house, my voice quavered as I did my best not to sound too sarcastic. “I see you got gasoline – and? What else? What else did you pick up while you were out?”

“What’s this in aid of? What’d I do now?” he said.

I told him about the redial call.

“Oh, that was just Juan’s girlfriend. I called to ask him something.”

“So I gather.”

I thought of all the times I thought I needed proof – that I could only go through with giving him an ultimatum, or even kicking him out, if I caught him at it as if I were a cop or something. I skulked around looking for this fucking white powder, trying to catch him with a spoon up his nose for years. No more.

“I wrote you a letter with everything I’m thinking and feeling so you can read it whenever. I’m done. This time, I’ve really had it. You need to check into a real rehab program – one where you go away and stay there for 24 hours a day for as long as it takes. No coming home. That’s all that’s left on the menu in this house and I swear this is your last chance. I’m done with the drugs, done with the craziness, done with your lies. And if you’re not, then you’re on your own. Our marriage will be over.”

I blurted out my last straw between clenched teeth. His face screwed up in anger as I finished and taking the letter, he shredded it before throwing it in the trashcan.

“Fuck you! I’m not reading your fucking letter! What more do you want from me? I’ve done everything you’ve asked me!”

I walked past him to the sink and began washing the dishes. I clutched the sponge, suds filling the bucket as Neil slammed cabinet doors and shoved kitchen chairs around me. Rinsing cups, dishes, silverware, I refused to look at him. He kept screaming, his face now inches away from the side of my head. My stomach was in knots but outwardly I remained in a bubble of calm. I could hear Molly and her friend still laughing and playing outside. I willed them to stay there long enough to miss this scene.

“Fine! You want me gone? I’ll sod off and you’ll be sorry! You’ll grow old alone and bitter – an old spinster with no one. You can be like your mother – an old lady alone! Is that what you want? You can have that! But I’ll fight you for the house and for custody of Molly. You won’t have fuck all when I’m done with you.”

The suds slid off the plate in my hand and disappeared down the drain. I said nothing.

“Fuck this! And fuck you! I’m taking the car,” he screamed on his way out the door.

Slamming doors along the way, he peeled out of the driveway.

I turned off the water and dried my hands. The house was silent. Everything felt different, calm and clear and terrifying. I stood on the very edge of all the illusions of our marriage – none were left. I was done with denial and there was no turning back.

 

That evening, I cuddled close to Molly on the couch as she watched television. When I heard the car pull in, I did my best to muster the composure I felt earlier – but my gut burned. I gave Molly a squeeze and went into the kitchen to try and head off any scenes. Neil pushed the back door open and stepped into the kitchen without looking at me. Taking my earlier spot by the sink, he washed his hands. I watched the back of his head, leaning on the doorway ready to exit quickly and go upstairs.

Looking out the window over the kitchen sink he said, “All right. I’ll go. I’ll go to rehab.”

“I’m glad. I want this to work but I can’t do this way anymore. Nothing we are doing is working and I’m just wiped out.”

“I know,” he said.

“We need to tell Molly. She needs to know what’s going on and what’s going to happen.”

“Fine, let’s do it now then.”

“No, it’s right before bed and she’s watching television. We don’t need to do it now, we just have to do it.”

“No, we should do it now if you’re so keen on telling her.”

Neil strode past me into the living room. I trailed behind ready to pick up the pieces. Before I could open my mouth, he said, “Mommy wants me to go away for a bit, Molly.”

“Why? Where are you going?” Not waiting for an answer before turning her gaze back to her show.

“Daddy has a problem. He’s sick and needs some help.”

I glared over at him. Why was he speaking in the third person?

“What do you mean – sick? What’s your problem? Mommy?” She turned to me for explanation, wide-eyed, brows like question marks. Now we had her full attention as she looked back and forth between us looking for her answer.

“Just tell her, Neil! She’s not three!” I imagined that like me, after witnessing his insanity, she’d be relieved to actually know the cause.

“Daddy has a little bit of a problem with drugs. But I am going to go away for a few weeks to get better.” He paused, waiting for Molly’s reaction but she only stared at him, waiting for more explanation. “You have to know that I love you more than anything in the world, Molly and I don’t want to lose you. And please… don’t tell anybody about this. This is our private family business.”

A secret, he wanted to make a secret out of this. Of course he was worried about what other people think, he always was. And his daughter should feel shame for his behavior? And he couldn’t even say “I”, own his shit for once. “Daddy has a problem” as if he were talking about someone else. I clenched my teeth to keep myself from screaming at him.

“Can you get better?” Molly always asked the profound question.

“Yes, Molly, sweetheart, I can and I will get better!” he said.

Reassured she asked, “Can I turn my program back on now?”

 

 

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Chapter 22

On evenings when I needed to manage author events at the bookstore, I went into work later in the day. I missed not being home to put Molly to bed, but treasured the rare morning hours of solitude when she was at school and Neil was at work. On a warm morning in October, I went for a long walk on the beach, hoping to quell a simmering panic. I wondered if Neil was using, and my doubt meant that he probably was. Sitting cross-legged on the rocky beach, I closed my eyes and focused on the sound of the water rhythmically pushing and pulling the sand and pebbles. There are rarely large waves on the Long Island Sound, but the heaving tide jostled the stones and the sound soothed me. I imagined myself cleansed by the water’s movement, taking away thoughts of unpaid bills and visions of Neil with his drug, the incoming surges delivering serenity. I managed to do this for almost ten minutes before growing self-conscious. Opening my eyes, I pushed up the sleeve of my sweater and checked my watch. Time to go to work.

My job at Barnes & Noble kept me sane. My manager and a handful of closer colleagues knew about my struggles and lent me a sympathetic ear and whatever support I needed. It really was the perfect job for me. I could set my own schedule according to the needs of the work that needed to be done and never tired of walking in and seeing books. Growing up, we had bookcases and shelves full of classic and contemporary literature. The family myth is that my parents only spanked us children if we damaged a book.

Our relationship was in full swing before it dawned on me that no books were piled by Neil’s bed at the Holiday Inn. When we moved into a sunny apartment in Zagreb without one, I discovered how important watching TV was to him. The antique-filled flat at the top of 120 steep-steps, so high it seemed to be hovering over the city, captivated us. Suffused with light and a rare quiet, I resisted getting a television, not wanting to fill the space with noise and to suck away our time. Neil insisted he could not live without his English comedies. He bragged that in his house in Windsor he’d had a television in every room – even the bathroom. Horrified he might have such designs for our beautiful apartment, I finally agreed to the smallest set we could find. From then on, the sound of British television perpetually filled our home. The novelty of his English shows made it easier for me to tolerate, at least for a while.

 

Television was Neil’s idea of bonding with Molly. Nights when I worked, I’d come home to find them both on the couch watching a silly English comedy, a James Bond movie, or worse: Rocky or Rambo for the gazillionth time. By the time Molly turned five she had her own favorite Bond episodes and been witness to hundreds of bad guys being slaughtered in the jungles of Southeast Asia.

With some cajoling and a sterner countdown, I usually had Molly in bed by eight o’clock. Our ritual was to read her choice of five picture books and then I stroked her hair and rubbed her back, singing from my limited lullaby repertoire until she fell asleep. When I wasn’t there, Neil, not wanting to miss whatever he was watching on TV, would let her stay up with him until she fell asleep on the couch.

Arriving one night after an author event, I threw my bag and car keys on the kitchen table and followed the noise of the television. Molly lay sprawled across her father’s chest, staring wide-eyed as Sylvester Stallone machine-gunned his enemies. Scowling at Neil, I snapped, “She should be in bed by now. It’s a school night!”

“She couldn’t sleep and wanted to cuddle with her dad, didn’t you poppet?”

“Come on Molly, let’s go. It’s time to go to bed.”

She stared glassy-eyed at the screen.

“We had a good dinner of daddy’s sausage and mash and a really nice time tonight, didn’t we Molls?”

I reached down and Molly wrapped herself around me as I hoisted her off the couch. She leaned down from my arms to give Neil a good night kiss.

“Books-a-bed, Mommy?” she mumbled as she settled her head into my neck.

“Not tonight honey. It’s really late.”

Nestling into her pillow, she looked up at me with her beautiful blue eyes.

“Mommy, cuddle me?”

“Just for a minute, okay? You need to go to sleep and so do I.”

Climbing into the narrow bed, I pulled her close, relaxing into her sweet scent. I loved this time with my daughter, feeling the heat of her back through the flannel pajamas and the softness of her fine hair against my nose, tension melted away even as the sound of yelling and machine gun fire drifted up from the living room.

“So you had a good day, honey?” I asked.

“Uh-huh,” Molly murmured. “I missed you though. Daddy’s acting a little crazy.”

My heart froze. “What do you mean?” I tried to sound nonchalant.

“Well, he borrowed the neighbor’s car and we drove to the video store to meet somebody. The guy didn’t come and Daddy kept calling him and he kept using the F word and the A word – but mostly the F word. Then we drove to a gas station and waited there until the guy came – he had all these things stuck in his face. I didn’t like him. And then he gave Daddy something and then Daddy was okay again and stopped saying the F word.”

I resisted quizzing her for more details and willed my heart to stop pounding lest she sense my alarm. “Go to sleep now honey, it’s late.”

 

Molly always recognized Neil’s suspicious behavior before I did perhaps because he underestimated how perceptive she was and didn’t bother trying to hide his shenanigans around her. How pathetic of me not to have been more alert that he was up to something. He was taking her with him when he scored drugs! He’d gone too far – how could I have let this happen? I needed to get away from him. My mind raced. I thought of wrapping Molly up in blankets and fleeing into the night immediately. But where could I go? My mother was long dead and my relationship with my father practically nonexistent. My sister was in the city but Molly needed to go to school and I needed to keep working. I also needed to remember to breathe. When I was sure Molly was asleep, went to the bathroom and found a t-shirt I’d left on the back of the bathroom door this morning. I changed into it and slid back into Molly’s bed as the sounds of war raged downstairs.

 

I woke to Neil slamming doors. He was late. Barreling into Molly’s room where I feigned sleep he announced, “I’m taking the car. Catch a cab and pick it up from me later.”

We had only one car between us now. Neil drove so recklessly he’d destroyed the last old junker and we could not afford another. Most days he took a cab back and forth to his current job at the coffee shop at the train station.

“Why should I do that?” I snapped, lifting my head from the bed. After hearing about yesterday’s escapades, there was no way I was letting him take the car. “I have to take Molly to school and get to work myself!”

“Just take a cab down to the station and come pick up the car. I’m late, I’ve got to go.”

“Why should I have the hassle because you’re late? You should have gotten up earlier.”

“That’s it! I’ve had it with you! I’m going to see a lawyer and I’m divorcing you and I’m going to make you sell this house and give me half!”

Molly raised her head sleepily off the pillow. Pulling her close, I spoke to her quietly,

“It’s okay. Daddy’s just a little mad right now.”

Turning to leave the room, he snarled,

“I mean it. I’m sick of you! I want a divorce!”

“What’s Daddy talking about, Mommy?”

“He’s angry because I don’t want him to take the car. It’s okay, don’t worry honey.”

“Mommy, just let him take the car, okay?” She stroked my arm as if to calm me. She was learning skills to keep the peace.

The front door slammed and tires screeched out of the driveway. Did he mean it? Was he going to a lawyer? Good! I wanted an end to this insane life with him. His mood swings were getting out of control. I pulled Molly close to me, seething and scared.

“It’s still dark out Moll. Let’s try and go back to sleep for awhile.” I nuzzled her and tried not to cry.

 

I picked the car up at the station without exchanging a word with Neil as he handed me the keys. In the school parking lot, I ran into the mother of one of Molly’s classmates who I knew was a divorce lawyer. As our girls became friendly so did we, chatting at pick-up time and play-dates. She knew about some of my struggles with Neil.

“Susan? Can I ask you something? Our situation is really deteriorating – it’s getting a little scary.” I described this morning’s scene to her. “He said he’s going to divorce me and at this point, I want that. Does it matter who files first?”

Susan looked dismayed.

“Tricia, he’s being abusive – Molly shouldn’t be exposed to this. If I were you, I’d go down to the courthouse this morning and do two things: ask for a protective order to get him out of the house and file the divorce papers. Yes, it can matter who is filing and you want to be the one to do it. You need to protect yourself and Molly now. Call me afterwards – although I can’t be your lawyer because I know you both and it would be considered a conflict of interest. But I’ll give you some names. Do it!”

She looked me in the eye and gave me a quick hug before climbing into her own car.

The morning felt unseasonably cold. I cranked the heat up as I sat deciding what to do. I felt like throwing up. My friend had looked at me with such pity. She’d used the word ‘abuse’. Was this my life? When did I become someone who was afraid of their spouse, who made excuses for their bad behavior, who tolerated their addiction to the point that he scored drugs with our child? That’s the person she saw when she looked at me. That’s who I had become. What was I waiting for? How many more times would I be fooled into thinking, fool myself into thinking that everything was going to work out? When would it be enough? Now. It is enough now.

I pulled out of the lot, returning waves to the parents I knew. I imagined their normal, happily married lives as I headed south on the turnpike. What did others see when they looked at us? Neil, so handsome, charming, making people laugh at school events, and Molly the perfect kid. I bet they couldn’t imagine the lunacy of my life.

Twenty minutes later, I parked on the street outside the courthouse, passed through security check and was directed to the county clerk office on the second floor. I moved robotically through the halls, feeling nothing. Two women were ahead of me, speaking through the small, bulletproof window to a clerk. One didn’t speak English, the other acted as her translator. I gathered that they were also applying for a protective order.

“Do you have the police report?” the clerk asked.

The woman shook her head as she listened to her companion’s translation.

“You have to get one. Here, fill out that form.” The clerk passed another document through to them. “Go upstairs to room 345 and they’ll give you a copy of the police report.”

She took the paper, looking overwhelmed by the additional bureaucracy.

I stepped up to the window.

“I guess, um, I want an order for protection and also,” I hesitated, “divorce papers.”

She reached for the different documents and slid them through the slot as if there was nothing extraordinary about wanting protection from your husband.

“Bring the court order papers back to this window after you’ve filled them out,” she said to me before closing the plastic window.

I set the papers down on the scratched counter and struggled to read the instructions through tears. ‘Reason’ How about: I’m terrified that my husband brings my daughter with him to get his drugs? And, I want to sleep at night, to answer the phone again, to enjoy food, my friends – life! Instead I wrote, “My husband is a drug addict and regularly uses illegal drugs in the house where we live with our seven year old daughter.” I paused before heading back to the window and eyed the door. I could leave. I didn’t have to do this now. If the judge agrees to a protective order, Neil would have to get out of the house right away – there would be no more threats, begging or persuading. But where could he go? Molly and I are his only family here and his friends are mostly my friends. I had to stop thinking about him first – I couldn’t do this anymore: Molly and I needed sanity and to be safe. I slid the form through to the clerk.

“What do I do now?” I asked, leaning towards the thick plastic.

“Wait here and I’ll bring you an answer from the judge. It shouldn’t be long,” she answered.

I collapsed into a molded plastic chair bolted to the wall. A young couple tumbled through the doorway, holding hands and giggling. Marriage licenses were also issued out of this office. Staring at these two in their mid-twenties and in love with each other, I tried to remember. Is this how it starts? I looked at the divorce papers in my hand. They were complicated, requiring financial information I didn’t know off the top of my head. Assets and debts – that’s what remains to be fought over. And Molly. My heart beat faster. Neil’s ranting from this morning and Susan’s words of urgency rang in my head. I felt in a race to do this thing – to file for divorce – first.

After about 30 minutes, the clerk motioned me towards the window.

“The judge denied your request.”

“What? Are you serious? Even though he keeps drugs in the house and we have a young daughter?”

She shook her head and shrugged. “There has to be threat of physical abuse. Did he hit you?”

No. I couldn’t imagine Neil hitting me. He abused himself – we were only the collateral damage from his self-loathing. Even as I blamed him for my misery, I understood that much.

Tucking the divorce papers into my bag, I left the building, got back on the highway and headed to work. Clutching the steering wheel, I crawled along in the slow lane. Even my confidence in navigating this familiar road felt unhinged. This system was not on my side. Drug abuse wasn’t considered serious enough to merit protection – he needed to physically hit me? What now? My head was spinning, but part of me also felt relieved. I could pretend for the day, yet another day, and there would be no drama — no scenes with police escorting him out of the house – to where? Not today. But, when – when would it be over? I wanted to fast forward to a future life I couldn’t imagine. The dream that began in a war zone was tattered but all I knew.

I felt like I had no recourse, no way to change anything. It had taken everything in me to get down to the courthouse and file the protective order against Neil and it hadn’t worked. I didn’t know what else I could do. At work I shoved the divorce papers into my filing cabinet and called my lawyer friend.

“The order was denied.”

“Oh shit. I’m sorry. It can depend on what judge you get. I’m really sorry. But fill out those divorce papers – call me with any questions – and I’ll give you the name of somebody who can serve them.” She sounded disappointed.

“Thanks for your help, but I have to think about what to do next. I don’t have much faith in the system right now. At this rate, I’m not sure I feel ready to get the wheels spinning on divorce.”

I plowed through the rest of the day. That evening, Neil and I were cordial. After my books-in-bed reading session with Molly, I held her close and spent the night sleepless beside her. Neil watched his English sitcoms, laughter rumbling up the stairs. The next morning, he took a cab to work without complaint.

 

I badly wanted to believe Neil’s lies were truth. That he was clean and everything would be fine. He knew how to convince me. Up early in the morning, he’d be energetic and sweet natured, go to meetings and toss AA slogans around for me to hear. I hadn’t forgotten the divorce papers in the filing cabinet at work but all it took was a few weeks of normal life and I abandoned thoughts of escape strategies. The thought that Neil might never stop his drug use terrified me but so did the thought of life without him. I was so desperate to keep my family together that I created a new normal for us with every new bump. Any fragile boundaries I’d ever had were long shattered. It took only a few crumbs of hopeful moments for me to be convinced (almost) that we were through the worst of it and at a new beginning.

My friends and my sister worried, offering hollow responses when I told them Neil was clean and everything was great now. I retreated from them all, reluctant to hear the scream of doubt obvious in their silent pauses, the worry at the other end of the line. I knew they were right but denial had become second nature to me and I resisted any challenges to my fantasy – until pretending any more felt impossible.

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Chapter 21

I wished Neil was drunk. Besides being a legal poison, I would be able to smell the substance destroying us and have bottles to brandish accusingly. Evidence of cocaine use is elusive but I looked. When I thought he was using, I madly foraged through the house and his clothes for drugs. Hating him and hating myself, hot with fury and shame, I looked in pockets, under the car seats, behind drawers and dusty shelves in the garage. I watched his every move, obsessed. Standing at the bottom of the stairs I stared up at the gap under the bathroom door as if I might surmise something from the view of his feet as he sat on the toilet. Why was he in there so long? I listened for sniffing. Later touching my finger to specks of white powder spotting the black tiles of the bathroom floor, I tasted for his bitter drug then convinced myself it was only cleansing powder. I longed to believe his repeated promises of sobriety, almost willing to accept his accusations that it was me that was crazy. I felt it.

 

On a steamy August day almost a year after I’d learned the truth, I rifled through his pockets not caring if he woke up and saw me. It was well past noon. He’d seemed so good for much of the year and I’d started to feel sure he was out of the woods with the old Neil back with us. But last night he didn’t crawl into bed until the early hours of the morning and when his legs and arms began twitching and jerking, I knew. I could hear by the sound of his breathing. I could smell it on him, a chemical sweetness that made my stomach heave. How could he do this again?

My head spinning and my heart broken, I pawed through his pockets. Finding only a broken cigarette and coins, I dropped his jeans beside the bed. His ragged snores followed me down the stairs to the living room. Transfixed by the television, Molly ignored me as I tore at the couch cushions around her, shoving my hands into the upholstery’s crumb filled crevices.

Taking the stairs by twos back up to the bathroom, I peered into cabinet corners, aspirin bottles and light fixtures. Balancing with one foot on the radiator and the other on the tub, I pushed two fingers into the hollow of the dusty blind frame fixture and felt something. Time stopped as I pulled out a baggie – the same kind I packed Molly’s peanut butter sandwiches in. Outside it was so hot, heat mirages shimmered in waves across the parched lawn, but I shivered. The bag contained blue pills and a square of aluminum. Peeling back the foil, I found what I expected, what I dreaded: white powder. The bastard. Cartoon-chatter triggered Molly’s laughter, the innocent sound echoing up the stairs. Storming across the hall to the bedroom, my nausea turned to fury.

“Neil!” I hissed, yanking the sheet away. His eyes sprung open in surprise.

“What the hell?” he growled, snatching back the cover.

I put my face up to his so Molly wouldn’t hear me and whispered, “I found your stash!” shaking the bag before him. “You are such an asshole! What the fuck? What the fuck, Neil? I’m throwing this shit down the toilet where it belongs. I can’t believe you! What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

The bed heaved as got up and followed me to the bathroom.

“Hang about! I’m holding that for somebody who is going to be right pissed off.” He made no move to stop me but I paused, momentarily fearful someone might really come after us, then recognized the sound of a lie and dumped the drugs in the toilet.

“You know what, Neil? Fuck you! Maybe I should call the police instead? I can’t believe you brought this shit into the house. You really want to destroy everything, don’t you?”

I smashed the handle down, swallowing tears as the pills and powder swirled around and around the bowl before sucking away. We stood side by side watching the water rise back to fill the porcelain.

“Mommy, I’m hungry.” Molly looked up the stairs, her big blue eyes questioning. She wore an oversized t-shirt for a nightgown and her hair was still bed-messy.

“I’ll get you something right now, honey,” I said, pushing past Neil, grateful for the reminder to take care of our seven-year old. Sometimes I felt like I spent her childhood obsessing over her father more than thinking about her. What had I missed while worrying about his behavior, trying to control his addiction?

Downstairs I took deep breaths to calm myself, concentrating on what I was doing: carefully pouring cereal into a bowl, fishing a spoon from the drawer – inhaling, exhaling. The past week ran like a warp-speed rerun through my head as I tried to identify what clues I missed that he was using again. When did I turn into this insane woman? How did we go from our extraordinary beginning to this? I wanted to turn the clock back, knowing what I knew now. But what would I do differently?

 

Our wedding video is CNN news footage. On that day in August 1994, there was a rare lull in the fighting in Sarajevo. The international press pounced on our love story as a welcome change from the usual litany of battles, destruction and death. The photo and AP photographer took, Neil in his kilt, lifting me off my feet as he kissed me against the backdrop of the shell-pocked wall of Sarajevo’s City Hall, appeared in newspapers all over the world and clips of us dodging a hail of relief-rice were broadcast on morning news shows in the States.

During that cold Bosnian winter, I found Neil’s affection and quick wit amidst the bleakness of that frigid war zone irresistible. In his room at the Sarajevo Holiday Inn, as battles raged across the dark city lit by tracer fire, the hotel walls shuddering from nearby mortar hits, he blanketed the bed with bullet-proof jackets, pulled me close against his chest and promised to always protect me. How could I not fall in love? In his arms nothing seemed terrible. In one of the world’s most dangerous places, I felt safe.

Where had this man and his promise gone? Was it a mistake to move to the States? Would we have been better off moving around the globe in the wake of every war and disaster? Would Neil still be clean if he’d been working in the killing fields of Rwanda, saving lives and making people who needed to, laugh just as he had in Bosnia? I no longer understood, if I ever had, what made him tick. I knew he thrived on danger and even now was drawn to drama, the first to jump into a fray, break up a fight, to stop to help at car accidents, not thinking of himself. Or, it seemed to me, his family at home. Yet he adored Molly more than anything, loved making our house a home, drinking endless cups of tea on the couch while watching the fucking television.

He loved me. I had to still believe that. I knew him better than anyone I’d still laugh at his antics but I knew he was smart and deeper than most people gave him credit for. I saw past the clown. I loved him. But he was destroying everything, killing us, killing him. We couldn’t go on like this. We just couldn’t. But we did.

 

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Chapter 20

I moved through the days in a fog of suspicion. My greatest desire was to keep our life as a family – our imagined future as a family – but the web of deceit he had woven was thick. I knew now what easy prey I’d been. Yet when I wavered in my belief he was clean, he convinced me he was: up early with me in the morning, at night, he’d climb into bed and pull me close, his skin against mine a plea to believe in him again. He raked the leaves, cooked meals, made cups of tea and did chores around the house, singing silly songs and joking with Molly. Initially, with his dark secret finally out in the open, he seemed a changed man. Still, I wanted more than theatrics. I had yet to learn how insidiousness a cocaine habit could be but I knew it would not go away by itself. I insisted we go to counseling.

 

Dr. X’s office was in a large house on a quiet street. We pulled into the gravel driveway. I led the way in and up the carpeted staircase to straight-backed chairs at the top of a landing. We sat side-by-side listening to a woman’s strident rambling audible through the shut door. Our appointment time came and went. Neil looked tense but made funny faces in reaction to the woman’s harping. We’d have to be sure not to talk too loudly when it was our turn. Finally, the door opened and the woman scurried out followed by a bear sized man, as tall as Neil, with a beard and a full head of messy hair. A flannel shirttail hung out of his pants and the last button was undone exposing a patch of his potbelly. He looked like he had just rolled out of bed. We followed him into the room.

“Go on and take a seat. I’ll be right back,” he said. Bird song wafted through the room with a breeze through the open window. We sat in the two chairs he motioned to across from his more comfortable looking armchair. Notebooks and papers lay scattershot around his chair and an unmade bed was on the opposite side of the room. Neil and I looked at each other and cracked up.

“What’s up with the bed?” Neil said to me, laughing nervously.

“Well he looks like he just woke up from a nap,” I answered. We relaxed, taking in the messy room. Finally, Dr. X returned.

“Okay! So what’s up? Hey, do you guys want a cup of tea or coffee or something else to drink?”

Really? I thought. We’re already more than fifteen minutes late and now we’re taking a coffee break? Neil rarely turned down an offer of caffeine, so I answered before he could, “No! We’re fine.” I glared at Neil letting him know he better not disagree.

“You’re not going to want us to get into bed or anything, are you? Or is that in case we bore you and you need a nap?” Neil was already defaulting to his jokester persona. He’d say anything to avoid discussing why we were there.

Dr. X chuckled politely. “Sometimes I do bodywork. You’re feeling kind of edgy, huh?” he asked Neil before settling back in his chair. “So, what can I do for you two? What brings you here?”

Neil looked at me, waiting for me to tell our sorry tale. He hated saying it – refusing to identify himself as an addict. I resisted my compulsion to rescue the awkward silence and kept my mouth shut. I wanted him to own this, to hear him tell the truth. As part of the crazy magical thinking I’d adopted, I waited as if in Neil telling this stranger we’d come to for help, he might be healed.

“I’ve got a problem with cocaine and it’s destroying my family.”

“I’ll bet it is. And you?” Dr. X looked at me.

“Do I do cocaine? No. But I pay for it in more ways than one. Apparently this has been going on for a very long time and I had no idea.” If I were a cartoon character, there would be green bile shooting out of my mouth. I fought back tears as a flash of painful and confusing days and nights that I now knew could account for years, ran through my head.

“Cocaine is intense. It messes with your neurotransmitters.” The doctor launched into a description of the short and long-term effects of the drug then leaned back in his chair and pronounced, “You two are in a mother-child relationship here. Tricia, in taking care of his needs a dynamic is created that makes Neil want to rebel against you.”

“So it’s my fault?” I couldn’t hide my anger in answering him, “Well I don’t want to be his mother. It’s definitely my choice that he’s not taking care of his family.”

Neil sat twisted away from me in his chair, chewing his nails, probably dying for a cigarette – or something else.

“No of course not! But you have to realize that you’re enabling him to continue.”

Enabling. I was beginning to hate that word and all the rest of the catchphrases of addiction. As if any of this could be summed up in a self-help pamphlet. What the hell was I supposed to do? Where were my instructions?

“So, how do we get out of this dynamic? I want a husband, not a son!”

In response he launched into another ramble on theories and brain patterns but offered me no solutions. My eyes glazed over. Okay, enough, I thought, what can we do, how can we fix this? Finally he suggested Neil detox his body including getting a high colonic to flush out his system. Really? I thought, cleaning his asshole is going to get him straight? I almost guffawed. He prescribed anti-psychotic and other prescription drugs and Neil agreed to do it all, happy to end the session and get out of there.

We met with Dr. X a few more times before I figured out that we were wasting time and money. The clincher was the day I called him after secretly counting Neil’s pills and he had taken an alarming number more than the prescribed dosage. He brushed me off saying it was no big deal. I felt like he and Neil had forged a strange alliance and when the two of them talked about cars or tried to one-up each other on jokes, I seethed. “Can we get going here? I’m glad you guys are having a good time but I don’t think this is what we need to be doing right now, do you?”

They looked at me as if to say, “what’s your problem?”

 

I made appointments for both of us with other therapists who claimed to specialize in addiction. Neil often did not show up and alone with the counselors, I wept and ranted until paying the deductible on these visits became just another stress of a bill I couldn’t afford. Remembering what Dr. X said about my role in Neil’s addiction I decided that at least, I could figure out how to control my behavior.

Focusing on one’s self rather than the addict was a regular theme at the Al-Anon meetings I frequented. Although never a fan of groups, these meetings were free and provided comfort and a chance to talk without shame or embarrassment. I tried to attend a few times a week. Other people’s ordeals were sometimes so frightening, so insane, that mine no longer felt so terrible. Al-Anon literature became my bedtime reading. Slogans that initially seemed trite and set my teeth on edge, soon became my mantras that when mentally repeated, took the edge off a terrible episode. Even the references to God, usually uncomfortable for me in my uncertain faith, provided solace. My favorite became the Serenity prayer. The simple words steered me clear of the gaping abyss of anxiety threatening to swallow me up. Mornings, when worry rushed me like a wave upon waking, I met it with a mental chant: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change and the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.”

 

From kindergarten to 3rd grade, I’d gone to the neighborhood Catholic school. My siblings and I were required to go to Sunday mass by the school. When we moved away from Saint Gabriel’s Parrish my parents enrolled me in public school and due to a combination of their own ambivalence towards the church and towards us, they stopped monitoring our faith. Even though my parents and siblings stopped going to mass, I continued to rise early on Sundays to go to church by myself. Burdened with the guilt of my imagined mortal sins, I’d leave my still-sleeping apartment and walk alone up the 10 blocks to Saint Margaret’s Church, sliding into a pew with the solitary old people. I knelt, stood, sat and knelt again, praying for my ten-year old soul and for the slumbering souls of my family.

My faith lapse or rather, my epiphany, came after a pre-Easter Sunday confession. When I confessed to the priest behind the dark screen in the musty booth that I’d missed a few Sunday masses, he began yelling at me. “What school do you go to?” he demanded to know and gave me an extra dose of Hail Mary and Our Fathers as penance. Devastated by his admonishments, I shuffled up to the altar, stared at the gloomy statues of blood and mourning could not remember how to say either prayer. Flustered, I stood up, hurried past the other penitents, out of the incense-filled church. Staring at the cracks of the sidewalk for the dozen blocks home, my mortification became anger. Who was that man pretending to be God’s judge? What did he know of my life? By the time I’d taken the elevator up to our floor and opened the door to apartment 7D, I’d rejected all priests. I needed no spiritual intermediary making sure I conformed. I released myself from ever having to attend another boring mass again. Nature would be my church. No men in dresses needed to run interference in my not-yet cobbled connection to God. To this day, I cannot remember the words to the prayers of my penance.

 

Yet years later, I am comforted by the possibility offered by prayer. My terror of Neil’s addiction and worry about the damage it was doing to our lives, receded behind the dam of my new composure. Al-Anon slogans helped curb my preoccupation with what Neil was up to. I was learning to let go of him and to move forward on my own. But I could not let go of the hope that Neil would catch up.

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Chapter 19

Neil admitted he had not been the best father to his daughters in England and vowed to do better by Molly. The girls were now young women and told me they forgave him. Like me, they remained grateful for any glimmer of attention he gave them. He called them mostly when I my badgered him to and was able to go to their weddings only because I bought his plane ticket.

I hated when his behavior towards the girls reminded me of my own father who was completely disinterested in me for much of my life. He moved out when I was seventeen and never looked back. Months passed without as much as a phone-call. Perhaps he felt absolved by my mother’s bitter instruction that once he moved out, he should stay away. In any case, he obeyed her, not attending my high school graduation or any other event in my life from then on. Our visits were rare and stilted and almost always, I initiated them. When I was 19 and just back from a solo four-month backpacking trip through Europe, I called him and asked if I could visit. He said no.

When my father died more than 30 years later, I felt strangely hollow. I’d mourned him long ago. No surprise I dated men as miserly in their love and sometimes as mean in their rejection. But Neil seemed different. He had me from the start with his shout-it-from-the rooftops courtship. Only after seeing how absent he was from his daughters did it dawn on me he was the same as my father and as all the other men I’d picked – he was just better at faking it.

 

On a Saturday in early autumn, Lucy called from England. Neil and I had argued fiercely the day before and he’d spent the night at a hotel. Usually, I didn’t share our problems with her but today could not stop myself from pouring my heart out.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with him! He doesn’t do anything but sleep and when he’s not sleeping, he’s nasty.”

“Tricia…” Lucy started.

“I’m sorry. He’s your dad – I shouldn’t be venting to you like this but I don’t know what to do anymore. I’m feeling like this is could be the end. Honestly, I don’t think he even wants to be married anymore and at this point I’m not sure I do either.”

“Tricia, wait – I need to tell you something. You need to know something about Dad.” Lucy’s urgent insistence quieted me.

“What? What do I need to know?” I asked, a sick feeling flooding my gut.

“I’m going to tell you something that’s going to make Dad furious at me. He may very well never speak to me again, but you really need to know this.”

“What is it? What do I need to know?”

“It’s drugs. He’s doing drugs,” she said.

I felt like I was going to throw up.

“How do you know that? Are you sure?”

“I’m sure. Remember when I was over last year and he and I went to visit his mate – the guy he knew from his work? Well, he was buying some then. I told him he should tell you but he refused and made me swear not to say anything. Honestly, I’ve never known him not to be using. He has all my life.”

All of her life’. Lucy was in her late 20s. That added up to how many years of lies and manipulation? I shivered, my blood like ice. How did I not know?

“What? What does he use?” I asked after a few moments of silence.

“Coke. It’s always been cocaine. I remember so many times, especially when I was Molly’s age, maybe 7 or 8, waiting at the window with my bag all packed and dressed up and ready for him to come and get me from mum’s for the weekend. Waiting and waiting. He never showed up. And this happened more than once. I don’t want Molly to have to go through that.”

The image of that waiting little girl ran through my mind. First, of little Lucy, then of Molly, then me, all of us girls so loving and waiting for this man – who never showed up. It was too much.

“Thank you for telling me. At least I know what I’m dealing with now.”

 

How dense could I be? Now it all made sense: the sleeping, the disappearing money, moodiness, constant complaints about sinuses and headaches – how obvious! I knew his past – on our first date he admitted his coke addiction, his stint in rehab – why didn’t I figure out he was back at it? Over the years, I sometimes, usually in the middle of a fight, asked if drugs were to blame for his behavior. His vehement denials were always convincing. I believed him in spite of all the glaring evidence. I searched but never found anything in the house or his pockets. “I swear on Molly’s life!” he’d say and I was sure he would never take such an oath unless it was true. So I searched for other explanations for his behavior – looking for answers from incompetent shrinks, regular and naturopathic doctors. Neil played along by visiting whatever specialist I made appointments with, me hoping they held the answer, the way to a ‘cure’. And these professionals, perhaps as conned as me, gave their (all different) diagnosis of allergies, depression, herniated discs, polyps and added more drugs to his mix of poisons. None of them saw or at least none told me, the truth. Neil’s specialty was deception and we were all fooled. Why did I so willingly accept his lies? If it weren’t for Lucy telling me I may never have figured it out. Now I knew. My husband, Molly’s father – was a drug addict.

A few moments after hanging up with Lucy, hands trembling, I dialed Neil at the hotel.

“I just got off the phone with Lucy,” My voice was composed and cold.

“Yeah?” he answered defensively. He hadn’t been gone long enough to be contrite or perhaps, to have run out of drugs. Now I had that missing part of the puzzle.

“She told me everything. She told me about the cocaine.”
“What the fuck is she on about? What a stupid idea! She doesn’t know what the hell she is talking about!” he yelled.

“Forget it. Save your energy. I know. I know everything. Things finally make sense.” I spoke calmly even as my heart thundered. But I felt an all-but forgotten clarity. I didn’t know what to do but at least I now knew what the problem was and as my enemy had a name, I might beat it.

For a moment, he was silent and then, in a different, fearful tone he asked,

“Can I come over? I can’t do this on the phone, I need to talk to you in person.”

“Give me some time to take Molly over to the neighbor’s house. I don’t want any scenes in front of her.”

I could see Molly out in the yard, swirling on her rope swing, twisting around and around as high as she could and then releasing into a violent spin.

“I swear to you, I won’t make a scene and I need to see her. Please!”

“I think we should talk alone first, don’t you? She’ll come back when we’re done.”

I heard concession in his voice and knew that what Lucy told me was true and my stomach turned. Somehow I still half-hoped he’d pull something convincing out of his bag of tricks, to swear to me for the umpteenth time that it was not addiction ruining our marriage, our family and his life. Explain it away as something less terrifying. For once, he didn’t even try.

 

Less than an hour later he stepped into the kitchen, his usual swagger and the smirking grimace I’d grown accustomed to, gone.

“Let’s sit outside,” I suggested, knowing we were less likely to let things escalate into a screaming match in view of the neighbors. I followed him through the house to the front door. He wove past the furniture as if dodging a sniper. Outside, we sat down in two lawn chairs set far enough away to be awkward. A carpet of red leaves surrounded us.

“I’m relieved, like a weight has been lifted off of my shoulders. You can’t imagine what it is living with a secret like this.”

I was taken aback, ready for another lie and instead, this honest admission. His face seemed to have changed, his brow and mouth looked almost relaxed. He looked relieved.

“So why didn’t you tell me? If it weren’t for Lucy, I’d never known!” I’d been so blind. Now, memories of past events ran through my head like flapping red flags. Of course I should have known.

“How could I tell you? How could I admit it?”

“How could you not? All those times I asked you if it was drugs making you so crazy – you always said no. And stupid me, I believed you! Why couldn’t you just tell me the truth?”

“I know. I’m a lying git. I don’t blame you for being mad.”

I heard the grind of one of my neighbor’s lawnmowers and from the baseball field, the crack of a bat hitting a ball followed by a cheer from proud parents watching the game.

“So you have a dealer? Do they come here when I’m not here? Is it just cocaine? Do you use when you are with Molly?”

He looked at the leaves on the lawn as I pelted him with questions.

“Lucy said she never knew you not to use – have you been using since we have been together?”

He looked up, his eyes wide. “NO! Lucy doesn’t know everything! I was clean when we were in Europe. It’s only since coming to this fucking country that I got into it again. It started with the car business. Drugs are all over the place, it’s so easy. You can get anything you want. But I swear it’s only been ‘charlie’ for me – I don’t touch the other stuff – never would. And when the cash started coming in and someone offered me something, I thought I could handle it. I thought it would be a one-off. Bloody stupid, I know. I didn’t think I’d get hooked again!”

Neil looked me, the fear in his eyes reflecting my own. I’d never seen him afraid. Through the worst shelling in Sarajevo, Molly’s too-early birth, I was comforted by his confidence and now, seeing his fear, I felt unmoored. Maybe he’d had enough of his life being a charade and maybe this was his rock bottom. He needed me. Whatever I needed to do to beat his addiction and to save our marriage, our family I had to do. I couldn’t give up on our family.

“What do you want to happen?” I asked, trying not to concede anything to him yet.

“I want you and Molly! I don’t want to lose you two. I don’t want to lose my home, our life here, our dream of growing old together. I’ll do anything to save it.”

He sounded and looked desperate. In those moments, I began to crack and believe he might come back to me. I swallowed hard to keep a sob from escaping. This was not the time for emotions – I needed to stay tough with him until he really committed to me.

“I’ll do whatever I can but there are going to be rules. There are things I’m not going to bend on. You can’t put us in jeopardy any more. You need to go to rehab.”

He shook his head, “What? How can I do that? I’d lose my job. You know I need to keep working.”

He was already backpedaling.

“But isn’t work where you get your drugs from? How much sense does that make?”

I hated the idea of losing even the meager amount of money he gave me each week – hardly enough to count. But we needed every penny. He was right. I didn’t want him to lose his job yet again.

“I can do it. I need you – you and Molly. I swear to God and on Molly’s life I will!”

He was crying now and I was breaking. But I needed to get something more, to extract a commitment from him of what he actions he was going to take to quit. He offered nothing so I wracked my brain for what I imagined might solve the problem.

“Meetings! You need to find the right meeting and you have to go every single day. And we need to go to counseling – me and you together.”

“Whatever you want me to do, I’ll do whatever you want. I can’t lose you and Molly!”

“And there can’t be any goddamn drugs in the house. What if Molly were to find them? What a fool I’ve been!”

A momentary panic shook me as I imagined scenarios that might have happened, that could happen. Molly finding him in an overdose, Molly finding his drugs and thinking they were candy. She wouldn’t do that – she was too smart, too savvy for her age. That shouldn’t have happened. She shouldn’t have to be exposed to all of this. I felt my face get hot.

“Don’t you dare put her in danger ever again or everything’s over. I could lose her! You bring drugs anywhere near this house again and or those creepy guys, and we’re done – and I’m not kidding.”

My voice grew louder with a surge of anger, this time, mostly at myself. I had been so blind for so long!

He wiped tears from his face and nodded his head up and down, like a child, agreeing to everything, to be good.

“I promise you I will be the man you married again! I swear this to you.”

“And you need to give me money. Christ! How much money have you blown on drugs?”

He hung his head.

“A lot, a bloody hell of a lot. I’m sorry. I am so, so sorry. From now on I’ll give you my entire paycheck.”

“We deserve that. God, how I’ve scraped by, Neil! It’s not fair! None of this is fair to us. You can’t mess up! I’m serious.”

We sat, him in his shame, me in a confused stew of fury and terror, picking at the chair webbing between my legs, fraying and probably not strong enough to make it through another season, certainly not with the weight of Neil’s frame. Although I’d never seen him so thin. Now I knew why.

“Go ahead and pick up your things from the hotel before I change my mind. I’ll get Molly.”

“I won’t let you down, I swear. I love you both so much!”

He leapt up and the flimsy lawn chair collapsed behind him, a crash of aluminum on the grass. Grabbing me in a hard embrace he let out a sob. It was all I could do to numbly pat his heaving back a few times. Pushing gently away, I tried to sound encouraging although my stomach was in knots.

“Go on, get your stuff. I’ll see you back here.”

“Thank you. Thank you for believing in me.”

Did I? I looked back out at the yard, the overgrown hedge splattered with red leaves. My head ready to explode with this new understanding of our reality. Now I knew the truth, we would beat this, I told myself again. I wanted my Neil back. Back? Was he ever the man I thought him to be? When did he disappear down this rabbit hole? Was it only a fantasy, me imagining the man I wanted? The hopes and dreams we once shared had shattered over years of lies. But now that I knew the truth, we could fight this together. A gust of wind spun the leaves around in a mini tornado on the lawn. I grabbed a sweatshirt from the back of the closet door and went to pick up Molly from the neighbors.

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Chapter 18

Molly’s first day of kindergarten, in new dress and shiny shoes with ruffled ankle socks, she perched on her little chair at a table with three other children. Her new classmates wept around her, distraught as their parents left. Meanwhile, my girl urged Neil and I to go so she could take command of her new life. Briefly brushing my lips with hers, she turned to comfort her bawling peers. That she knew what to do in this chaos disturbed me a little. This orderly room with miniature everything must feel safe and I found comfort in that. We followed the stream of cars out of the school lot and made it around the corner before I burst out crying. In daycare from the age of two, Molly – and I, were accustomed to a full-day routine of being apart, but somehow, today felt final. She was officially part of the system of outside life and I would become increasingly peripheral. Molly had become less mine.

She loved school, excelled in all her subjects and was socially at ease. I worried our home-battles might take a toll but she seemed happy and well adjusted, popular and in every grade, she became a favorite of her teachers.

 

Neil also found new friends. One day when Molly was in second grade, I returned home to check on her before going back to work for an evening event. An unfamiliar car was in the driveway.

“Daddy’s friends are here,” Molly said meaningfully, greeting me at the door clutching Tetley, the little Cairn terrier Neil had brought home one evening. I’d been annoyed at this new addition, registering the additional expense and chores for me, but had quickly fallen in love with and was completely devoted to the shaggy gray dog.

“Oh really? What friends?”

I leaned down to kiss them both and Molly giggled as Tetley slobbered me with a kiss. Neil sat at the computer desk with two men whom he introduced as Juan and Duncan. They barely glanced up from the screen.

“Juan’s computer isn’t working and he needs to send someone an email message about some real estate down in Florida that Duncan might buy.”

“Okay. I can’t stay long, I have to get back to work,” I answered, looking over at the two men.

“Oh, that’s too bad. You really have to go back?”

I could hear his relief that I wasn’t sticking around. Obviously, he hadn’t expected me home and I suspect knew that I didn’t find his friends very charming. Besides lacking any social graces, I wondered why they weren’t at jobs at 3:30 pm on a weekday?

Having tapped out all the car dealerships in the area, Neil was now running a coffee stand at the train station. Ironically, for a guy who couldn’t wake up, this job required he be at the station at 5:00 AM – before the first train to New York. He finished up around noon and could pick Molly up from the bus stop saving us the expense of after-school care. I always felt nervous around 3 o’clock afraid he’d forget or still be sleeping when he should be at the bus stop.

Everyday it was a crapshoot whether I’d find him crashed out on the couch with the television blaring or happily greeting me in kitchen while he prepared dinner, a cup of tea at the ready. Recently he’d been playing his part well except that he rarely sat down to eat with us. Claiming he needed something for the coffee shop the next day, he’d take the car and leave Molly and I to eat the dinner he’d made.

 

The two characters huddled in our dining room made me suspicious. Neil knew so many people, anytime we were out together at the grocery store, on the beach, he’d be greeting faces I didn’t know. But none were friends, friends he didn’t have – as far as I could tell. No one he confided in or checked in on regularly – or vice-versa. It seemed he never risked connecting with anyone but me – and our connection had lately been feeling very tenuous. I wished he had at least one other person around here that he could count on, who really cared about him. These guys were not such friends. They made me nervous and I didn’t want them as his buddies. In the kitchen out of earshot, Neil reassured me they were fine, he was only helping them with their business. What business? I wondered but didn’t ask.

I went upstairs to the bathroom to put on mascara and brush my hair. Molly followed me, twisting her brown hair around her fingers, watched me as I leaned forward towards the mirror.

“How was school today, honey?” I glanced over at her, the mascara wand mid-air.

“Fine. I got an A on my spelling test. Mom, do you have to go back to work? I really don’t want you to go back to work.”

Molly should have grown out of the separation anxiety thing by now, but she still complained when I worked evenings and weekends, leaving her alone with her Dad. When she was smaller she sometimes grabbed a fistful of my shirt and clung to me as I tried to leave the house. But what could I do? I needed to be the stable one and financially support us.

“I know honey, I do. But only for a few hours, I won’t be long,” I tried to comfort her, feeling even more irritated with Neil. Why did this have to always happen? He just wasn’t attentive enough to her. Once, when Molly was smaller, she wept and screamed as he put her in the car to take her to her daycare.

“Don’t make me go with him! I don’t like him!”

Neil blanched as he buckled her into her car seat and I felt gut-punched. She didn’t like him? I didn’t understand: Molly loved her father and always greeted him excitedly when he came home from work and cuddled up on his lap to watch television. But she preferred not to be alone with him. What was I missing? Acutely attuned to his mood swings, from an early age she recognized changes in his behavior before me. I felt helpless when she rejected him – it wasn’t right.

I put the cap back on the mascara, took Molly’s hand and headed back downstairs. I said goodbye to the two men who barely looked away from the computer screen to acknowledge me.

“Please make Molly something healthy for dinner and get her into bed by 8:30, okay? Promise? And walk Tetley.”

“Of course! We’ll do books-a-bed and everything, right sausage?” Neil reassured me, kissing me once as we walked out of the house. He seemed eager to have me gone.

As I opened the car door, Molly came close for a hug and whispered urgently, “You’re not going to leave me here with the three stooges, are you?”

I laughed nervously.

“What do you mean by that? And how do you even know about the Three Stooges? You’ve been watching too much TV with daddy, you!” I tickled her under her arms.

Molly twisted away with a giggle.

“Come on honey! Those guys will go soon and you and daddy can have a nice evening together. And someone has to keep this puppy company.” I scratched Tetley under the chin. “You’ll be fine! I’ll be back in just a couple of hours. I love you!”

I closed the car door but hesitated before putting the key in the ignition. Why had she referred to Neil and these guys as the three stooges? Maybe I should bring her with me. Molly was happy to look at books and had made friends with all the booksellers and they loved having her around.

Neil came out of the house calling, “Where’s my sausage?” Molly put her arm around him and he hoisted her and dog up in his arms.

“You’re okay then, Moll?” I put my head out the window as I started the car.

“Of course, why wouldn’t she be?” Neil squeezed her tight as she nodded.

They both smiled and waved as I backed out of the driveway saying aloud to myself, everything’s fine.

 

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Chapter 17

 

Neil had no trouble getting jobs but could not seem to keep one for more than six months at a time. In the few years we’d been in Connecticut he worked at almost every car dealership within a ten-mile radius. I always knew when the end of a run was imminent. He would call in sick and when he did go to work, came home miserable, complaining about his boss or a collapsed deal. With each new job I felt myself watching the story of our marriage over and over: he started out as a star, his new employer seduced by his energy, humor and promise to be a hard worker. For a few weeks, he’d be a model employee, easily closing deals. The magic disappeared earlier with each company, the pattern beginning again: he’d struggle to get out of bed in the morning and sleep well past when he should be at work. I tried to sound loving as I prodded him to get up but inside, I’d be steaming.

“Honey, don’t you need to get up now? You’re going to be late. Hon?” I’d shake his shoulder gently.

“What? Huh? No, I’m going in later today, it’s okay,” pulling the covers tight under his chin as if to ward me off.

I pulled my hand away, a wave of anger shooting through me. If this was true, which I doubted, why the hell didn’t he get up and help me get Molly ready for school rather than leave everything to me? I suspected he either wanted to be – or already had been – fired. My suspicions would be corroborated by angry messages from his boss left on the answering machine, wondering where he was.

After I’d left the house for work, I obsessed over the image of him still in bed and dialed the house, telling myself maybe he just needed another wake-up. The phone rang and rang until the answering machine picked up. “Hi! Just wondering if you’ve left for work yet!” I tried to leave a breezy message, hoping I sounded warm. Surely he was up and about ready to leave the house or had already left. One day, consumed with the image of him still asleep, I made up an excuse to leave work, frantically driving home.

Gripping the steering wheel, I imagined him on this same highway, now speeding to work. As I pulled around the corner to our house, I hoped for an empty driveway. His car had not moved. My heart sank. Willing him to be in the kitchen, freshly showered and on his way out, I opened the house door. In the kitchen sink, my lone coffee mug was where I’d left it. I visualized him just at the top of the stairs pulling his tie on. But the house was quiet. I abandoned my magical thinking and climbed the stairs to our bedroom. He lay stretched out straight, snoring. I exploded.

“What the hell? What’s wrong with you? Why are you still in bed? It’s going to be almost noon by the time you get to work or aren’t you going to bother today?”

I shook his shoulder, my voice cracking as I yelled. His eyes peeled open slowly, like an ancient tortoise coming out of a stupor.

“Neil – tell me what’s going on! Why are you doing this? What the fuck? Please, you can’t get fired again. What’s wrong? You need to tell me if something’s going on!” I pleaded stepping a few feet away from the bed, hugging my arms across my chest in an effort to control my shaking.

“Look at you. You’re like a madwoman! You’re like a bloody witch! What’s wrong with you?” He yelled.

“I need to know what’s going on, Neil? Please, tell me what’s wrong? I’m scared. This sleeping is crazy. I don’t even think you remember Molly and I exist most of the time. How are we supposed to keep living here if you keep losing your job? ”

“I’ll get another fucking job. I always do, you know I do! Why do you have to be such a bloody nag? Stop trying to control me! I’m getting up now, are you happy?”

He flounced the sheets and pushed his pillow, glaring at me as he shifted up on an elbow. My fingernails dug into my damp palms rather than punch or throw something at him. Gulping back an ugly sob, I ran out of the room, down the stairs, slamming the house door. The tires screeched as I pulled out of the driveway but I slowed on the back roads, allowing myself to scream and weep all the way back to the store. I pulled into the parking lot and peered at my bloated face in the rearview mirror, brushed my hair, took a few deep breaths and went into the bookstore, cutting through the emptier stacks to my office, stepping around a woman crouched in front of Romance.

 

For a few weeks after each blowup, we’d enter a ‘honeymoon’ phase and Neil would be the kind, funny, delightful mate I had committed to in war-torn Sarajevo. There were mornings when he sprang out of bed before me, bringing a cup of coffee delivered with a kiss. Later he’d serve up one of his special dinners of ‘Sausage and Mash’ or ‘Shepard’s Pie’, the table decorated with flowers and lit by candles. In bed, he held me close, promising his undying love, swearing how much he needed us in his life. Tucked into his arms, encircled by his familiar warmth, I pretended to believe all was well. And for a while, it would be.

Years. Not days, weeks or months – years went by marked by bad episodes followed by sweetness. But each season, my crazy hopes for normality were marred by bitter disappointments and insanity. I tried to keep my focus on Molly as she grew from toddler to a beautiful, animated, little girl. I resented all the time and energy spent worrying about Neil’s erratic behavior. Why couldn’t we enjoy our daughter’s precious years together? She was growing up so quickly.

 

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Chapter 16

Connecticut Summer 1999

The rusty porch glider squeaked as I swayed back-and-forth, mentally running through my ‘to-do’ list. Looking out at the overgrown lawn between sips of tea, I thought of the laundry piled high in the basement, the kitchen floor covered in footprints. I filled my lungs with summer morning air, almost tasting the brine of the Long Island Sound. Lifting arm, I used my tee-shirt sleeve to wipe the sweat off my brow and decided: to hell with the chores – a Saturday in July – we should go to the beach. Molly can play in the playground. A self-possessed 4 year-old, she makes friends easily, just like her dad used to before he started sleeping all day again.

Back pain, sinus headaches, upset stomach – ailments he complained of while swallowing pills and swigging neon medicine straight from the bottle. Lately, he didn’t bother making excuses for checking out since I already knew them all. But today might be different, I thought, conjuring the image of the three of us sprawling across a blanket on the sand after eating our picnic. It had been months since we’d done anything like that. It was still early though – even Molly had yet to get up. I’d make my rounds in the garden before trying to wake him.

I walked to the back of the house to the small vegetable patch where radishes crowded together, their red shoulders and green crowns jostling for position in the earth. I could never bring myself to thin out plants until it became obvious they were smothering each other. How could I decide which should go? I knew in the end, the radishes suffered from my indecision, growing twisted and skinny from lack of space.   But the same technique worked out well with lettuce that thrived all clustered together, the ruby reds provided shade for the more delicate greens of the mesclun mix. I plucked a few leaves for our sandwiches.

“Mommy!” Molly called to me from the bathroom window.

“Good morning honey,” I answered, at once happy to see her sweet face and disappointed my solitude was up.

“Come join me,” I called back.

Her brown curls disappeared from the window and moments later reappeared at the screen door that slammed behind her. Maybe the sound would wake Neil. Climbing up three wide steps to the vegetable garden, she stepped through the gate and hugged me. She smelt of last night’s bath, her favorite pink Powder-Puff Girls nightgown clung to her back, damp from sleep. I called her my little radiator, always so warm. We crouched together searching the twisting plants for hidden pea-pods we popped whole into our mouths agreeing they were better raw. I grabbed her in for another hug before going back into the house for breakfast.

Would Neil spend another Saturday unconscious instead of with us? He stayed up late watching television until the early morning hours, claiming he couldn’t sleep – no wonder he couldn’t get out of bed the next day. I had no idea when he came to bed, but at 2:30 in the morning I woke to the canned-laughter of an English comedy. Rather than try and entice him to bed, I rolled over and willed myself back to sleep. Later I might try to cajole, nag and finally bully him to get up. Or maybe I wouldn’t. Molly no longer expected anything different from him. I should take my cue from her. She and I spent our days together running errands, dropping in to friends’ houses and enjoying whatever adventures came our way while he remained comatose in bed.

There were mornings, (although rare) when he’d get up and make us breakfast. Banging pans around, covering the counter with ingredients of his English breakfast complete with the canned tomatoes that Molly and I declined. Such times, his energy was irresistible. Swinging her over his shoulder calling her sausage, Molly laughed till she cried. He’d be helpful, jovially greeting neighbors as he clipped the hedges. Or we might drive around searching for tag sales finding bargains on things we didn’t really need. Desperate for that man, I continued to hope today would be one of those days.

 

Molly climbed onto the couch, fishing for the controls lost between the cushions during Neil’s late-night television viewing. After filling the kettle I poured cereal into a bowl, letting her eat in the living room, dish balanced on the faded blue couch armrest, eyes riveted by cartoons. It was almost 10:00 o’clock – 3 hours since I’d fed the cat and taken a shower. Another hour, I thought, deciding to be generous. His sinuses had been bothering him lately – another reason why he should get up and go to the beach with us – the sea air and sun might help. I washed the dishes that had appeared in the sink overnight. Mugs with tea and coffee stains – beakers, Neil called them. I guess I should be grateful he wasn’t a drunk, only drinking the odd beer with dinner. Still, I put my nose to the cups. They smelled faintly of milk.

Rinsing out the last dish, I looked out at the flower garden by the side of the house and noticed the lilies in bloom. Grabbing the scissors from the windowsill, I went out to the yard again, giving the screen door a good bang behind me.

Molly called, “Where are you going, Mommy?”

“I’m just cutting some flowers, honey. I’ll be back in a minute.”

The sun was getting hot and I should water before it gets too late. I usually tried to do this in the morning, getting up early before going to work at the bookstore. I read somewhere watering at night causes the roots to rot so I only did so if they were drastically wilted. First, I’d snip some flowers. I loved how the fragrance of the Oriental lilies filled the house. I didn’t bother with Daylilies as their bloom barely lasting an afternoon – I preferred to enjoy them as a bank of blossoms outside rather than in a vase, spent blossoms and pollen dropping all over the tablecloth.

Sitting on a wooden bench against a wall of tumbled rocks, I assessed the small flower garden. It lacked form. I read garden books and magazines but when it came time to plant, I did so without any design in mind and the results looked haphazard. No brilliant color scheme or orchestrated timing between blooms. I was learning as I went along. With a handful of lilies and daisies, I went back inside.

“Pretty!” Molly said, barely glancing up from the television.

“Aren’t they lovely?” I said. The kettle whistled.

With a cup of tea in one hand and a vase of flowers in the other, I climbed upstairs to our bedroom. It was almost 11. I left the door to the bedroom open earlier, but no morning noise, not the TV, the slamming screen door, or chatter, had any effect. Neil lay on his side, his usually handsome face slack – mouth open, his thick eyebrows every-which-way like useless paintbrushes. I put the tea on the end table next to the bed and touched his shoulder.

“Hey, it’s beautiful out. Why don’t you get up so we can go to the beach together?”

He didn’t flinch. I shook his shoulder slightly.

“Honey? Can you get up soon? It would be nice to spend the day together and it’s almost noon.” How silly of me to make the time later, as if an hour, or two, or three would even matter to him.

“I brought you a cup of tea.” Finally, a response – he opened one eye and grunted a barely audible answer, “In a minute.”

I left the room. From the top of the stairs I called down to Molly louder than necessary,

“Hey sweetie, do you want to go to the beach?”

I knew I was foolish to think this might provoke a reaction from Neil. In my imagination, he heard me and thought what a great idea it was to go to the beach with his darling daughter and beloved wife. In my fantasy, he sprang out of bed to join us. I tried to will this response into the bedroom, into his head, but in reality, he did not move. Molly ran up the stairs towards me, excited to go.

“Go get your bathing suit on. It’s in the bottom drawer.” I directed before going into my room and intentionally bumping into the bed en-route to the dresser. I changed out of my jeans into shorts before shoving the drawer shut with a thud. I left the tea to grow cold beside him.

I joined the other adults who watched from the shaded benches as their children climb over the wooden structures and bounce on the spring-toys shaped like animals. A father stood with two little boys, one barely walking and the other about 3 years old, played on the slide. Molly joined them to take her turn. The father hovered over the smaller boy tottering unsteadily on the steps, anxious to follow his brother. The beach, shimmering in the heat, filled with sunbathers and a lone swimmer swam laps. As cars drove through the beach entrance, I looked up watching for Neil’s.

“Mommy! Watch me!”

Molly slid down the pole and hit the sand hard, tumbling over. I moved to go to her but she stood up, smiled gamely and ran around to do it again.

“You go girl!” I applauded her. What a great kid. She didn’t ask where her father was or why he didn’t join us instead of sleeping all day. I almost wished she did so I could tell Neil, as if guilt about being an absent father might be the thing to finally jostle him into consciousness.

He would rouse by the evening and probably make a meal, doing his best to be good company. Would I find him unbearable or as usual, set aside my bitterness so as to not miss the crumbs of attention and affection? This couldn’t go on. But what could I do? I wanted our family to be intact. I wanted the man I married to come back to us.

The father and two boys were leaving.

“Come on guys, Mommy’s waiting!” Carrying the little one and holding the other boy’s hand, the man left to meet his wife. Was she at home in bed? Perhaps lingering luxuriously with a book and a cup of coffee he’d brought to her with a kiss before taking the boys to the park. Everyone else’s life appeared so normal, so appealing to me.

“Mommy, push me!” Molly called from the swings. She wiggled onto the metal seat and held tight to the chains. I pushed her gently. She pumped her legs forward and then behind, as I had taught her. The swings faced out to the water and we could see straight across to Long Island.

“Harder, mom! Push me harder!”

Molly strained as if to reach the sky, her little body stretching, feet pointing straight in her strappy-sandals, the strawberry-patterned dress ballooning around her, then collapsing again, with her eyes closed in ecstasy, she flew back towards the horizon. I wanted to join her.

“OK – one more push then you have to pump by yourself. I’m getting on this one!” I said, motioning towards the swing next to her.

Molly squealed as I gave her swing an extra-hard shove to propel her higher. Sliding onto the swing, I kicked away from the earth, lunging upwards, sweeping back and up again, the sound of Molly’s laughter rushing with the wind through my ears.

 

 

 

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Chapter 15

Connecticut 1997-98

Driving the streets of Connecticut I coveted the grassy yards and picket fences I’d once dismissed. I imagined our little family in one of these charming houses, the screen door slamming behind Molly as she came in from playing in our yard. I wanted a patch of my own to plant flowers and vegetables, to nurture my family in a normal life with friendly neighbors who didn’t harbor bizarre ancient hatreds. After four years in a war-zone I wasn’t even sure if I recognized ‘normal’ and my previous dreams of adventure had been replaced by a longing for stability and a home.

We decided to buy a house while we still had enough for a down payment and quickly fell in love with a white cape in a quiet neighborhood. As soon as we drove up to the corner property just shy of a quarter of an acre set back from the street, I knew we’d found home. Stepping inside the privet hedge that surrounded the property felt bucolic in spite of the drone of the nearby highway. On a September afternoon, the greens erupting into a flame of color, the owner, a woman in her eighties, stood on her small porch pointing out the variety of trees and shrubs on the property.

“What are these?” Neil asked gesturing towards some bushes in front of the porch.

“Azaleas in different shades of pink. And in the back there’s a whole row of peonies,” she said and turned to me, “I’ve lived here for 45 years. There are a lot of good memories in this house. It’s been a very happy home.”

“I hope it will be for our family too,” I said.

With glass doorknobs, hardwood floors and a sun porch, the 1930s cape was an antique compared to the boxy split-levels in the neighborhood. Satisfied that we would love her home as she did, the woman accepted our offer. We became homeowners just in time for Molly’s second Halloween.

 

The house needed an electricity upgrade, the bathroom’s pink sink had to go, the tiny hot water heater barely provided enough water for one quick shower. I paid for these things. Neil still didn’t seem to have money. Since he started selling cars, I thought he would be contributing more but it was never enough. I dreaded the mailman for the bills he delivered.

In life-before-Neil, I had loved opening my mailbox at the end of the day and never flinched at the sight of a bill because I knew what to expect, never had outlandish balances and paid them within days of receipt. Same thing with phone calls. Seeing a flashing light on my answering machine when I came home at the end of the day made me happy. What friend wanted to talk? What invitation awaited me? I hit the ‘play’ button even before taking off my coat.

This was no longer true. Now telephone calls and mail triggered anxiety. Even though Neil now earned more money than I did, his spending continued to be out of control but I could not figure out what he was buying. New charges and eventually, collection notices filled the mailbox. He didn’t seem to care about whether they were paid and hid bills. If I didn’t get to the mailbox first, balances remained outstanding until the following month doubled and with late fees.

When the phone rang, I held my breath, dreading a collections call. One regular caller frightened me but he wasn’t from a collections agency. Neil knew the guy but never picked up to speak to him and the man seemed to know we were there as he snarled out his message.

“Neil! Pick up the fucking phone. Neil! Neil! It’s Chet. I need to talk to you … now! You better call me back. I’m getting sick of this, Neil! I need my money. You better fucking call me back!”

That voice chilled the house. Sometimes I came home at the end of the day to multiple threatening messages on the answering machine and quickly hit the ‘off’ button so Molly would not hear the foul language. One night, after checking she was asleep, I kissed her dewy, toddler forehead and went downstairs to confront Neil. Still in his Landrover uniform of khakis and polo, he was sprawled across the couch watching English comedy reruns. He turned to me with a smile.

“Poppet asleep? Would you like a cup of tea?”

I picked up the controls from beside him and muted the television then walked over to the answering machine and pushed play. As Chet’s nasty voice came on, Neil put a hand to his face, fingers massaging his brow, eyes closed.

“Who is this guy?” I asked, a sick feeling in my stomach.

“He’s no one. I owe him some money – I’ll get it to him soon. He’s fine. Don’t worry, he’s a nice bloke, he just sounds bad.”

“You’re joking – a nice guy? He’s scary and I don’t want him calling here anymore. What do you owe him money for? And how much money are we talking about here?” I was shaking, afraid of his answer.

“Only a grand. Mike, the guy from security in Zagreb introduced me to him. He lent me some cash when we needed to fix the car and I didn’t want to ask you for it.”

“When was this?”

I searched my memory. In contrast to the fancy Land Rovers Neil got to drive, our car was old and needed constant repair – maybe he was telling the truth.

“But why would you go to someone like him for money? That’s crazy!”

“He’s a mate. That’s just how he is. He’s really okay. I made a mistake in borrowing from him but he’ll get his money. I’m expecting a big paycheck next week. I have a few big sales.”

“He’s not a ‘mate’, he’s a wack job. Friends don’t speak to each other that way – this guy’s a creep, don’t you see that? I don’t want him calling here anymore. Please, just get him out of our life.”

“I will, I will! I promise. Now, can I make you a nice cup of tea?”

He kissed the top of my head and hurried out to the kitchen.

 

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Chapter 14

Connecticut 1996-97

We arrived in the States in June and quickly found an apartment in a two family house in a small diverse city less than an hour from New York City. Our first purchase was the biggest bed we could find. We’d agreed on this after years of Neil twisting his 6’4” frame into pullout couch beds that left his feet dangling over the end. The new California King was so large we barely squeezed a bureau beside it. One year old Molly slept in her own room adjoining ours, on a futon spread out on the soft wall-to-wall carpeting. She rarely made it through the night alone, initially crying until I stumbled in to either lay beside her or bring her in to our gigantic bed. She soon found her own way from her room to ours, gently touching my face to wake me so I could lift her up and settle her warm body next to mine, inhaling her sweet scent.

 

Like Molly, I sought out company and delighted in easy conversation. Shamefully, I’d never mastered the languages of my host countries. Happy to understand and be understood, I greeted the cashier while loading my groceries onto the conveyor belt.

“Hi there! How are you today?”

“Good. Do you have a Shoprite card?” Absently, the petite Latina woman with large gold hoop earrings and impeccable makeup scanned my milk, butter, bread, toilet paper and other groceries.

“It’s so great to be able to buy everything I need in one place and not have to run around to 3 different shops to get everything!”

The cashier gave me a puzzled look as she bagged.

“I’ve been living overseas for the past four years and there weren’t any big grocery stores like this.”

“Oh. $76.78 please.”

“And so much cheaper too!” I exclaimed. She didn’t take my bait and ask me where I’d been, counting out my change before turning, I imagine with some relief, to the next customer. Pushing my cart out to the parking lot, I felt like a crazy woman.

I chatted incessantly with the mailman, other parents at the swing sets. Every encounter became a chance for connection. At first, I spoke about Bosnia but that was a mistake. Some listened politely to my war stories but most people looked at me like an alien.

 

Neil had better luck piquing interest with his English accent but his initial excitement about living in America was wearing off and he began to lose patience with the dull life I was reveling in. He struggled to adjust to the lack of helicopter rides, flak jackets and regular adrenaline rushes of danger and risk.

Our friends in Europe shared similar war experiences of shelling, sniper fire, living without electricity and water and spoke the same strange vocabulary of acronyms and military slang. Here we felt disconnected with the ‘civilians’ surrounded by fertilized lawns and shopping malls. Our tales about refugees who fled their homes and lived in chicken coops, sounded hollow in this landscape. Most people only wanted a quick anecdote, a paragraph on conflicts in far-flung countries, glanced at on the way to the Arts and Leisure section of the New York Times. The war was so complicated and our tales too far from any relatable experience – or perhaps, what anyone wanted to believe really went on in the world so when their eyes glazed over, we changed the subject. I began to understand the silence of war veterans including Neil’s reticence to speak about his days as a soldier. No one really wanted a first-hand account of how inhumane humans could be.

 

The Balkans remained in the news and we followed every development, hungrily reading the newspaper on the sunny porch and watching CNN and BBC from our overstuffed couch. We searched the screen, looking for and sometimes recognizing faces. One evening Neil shouted to me, “Bloody hell! Look who’s still there! Quick, come see!”

Leading Bill Clinton through an overcrowded refugee camp of families who’d fled Kosovo was one of our former colleagues. Neil sat close to the television as if he might climb through the screen.

Creating a normal life for ourselves was not as easy as we hoped, especially in the limbo of waiting for Neil’s Green Card. While we enjoyed our unemployment during the early summer months, by the time August rolled around we were both irritable. Neil became bored without a regular structure and steady stream of new faces to entertain. He smashed the metal mailbox closed when there was still no news on the Green Card that would allow him to work.

“I hate this country. Why the hell does everything take so bloody long? Maybe I should just go back into the field. I could call someone at UNHCR and see if they would take me on and this time, get a good job with a proper contract.” He couldn’t stop watching the grim scenes of the newest humanitarian horror in Sierra Leone on our television screen. Some of our friends were there too and I felt a surge of panic that Neil might consider joining them.

“I thought we’d agreed we’d had enough of war zones – at least while Molly’s little. That we wouldn’t take jobs that would separate us?”

Neither of us had been inspired by the lives of colleagues with families on crazy international assignments. They often went months without seeing their children and we agreed, it put way too much stress on a marriage.

“I don’t want to, but I’m going mad not working. And it’s frustrating here watching these disasters on the telly when I know I could be doing something useful. You know I get things done that no one else thinks is possible. I should be there.”

“Go ahead and make some calls,” I said, shifting closer to him on the couch, nuzzling against his chest while doing my best to sound encouraging.

I didn’t want him to go to any of these terrifying places, or anywhere away from us, but his darkening disposition distressed me. Maybe life in the suburbs just didn’t suit him.

 

Unlike Neil, I was not chomping at the bit to return to work. I loved watching my toddler discover the world and wanted to prolong full-time motherhood as long as I could. But one of us needed to get a job before my savings completely disappeared and as long as Neil had no Green Card, it was up to me. I hoped for something close to home and flexible that didn’t require me to sit on my ass in a carpeted cubicle for eight hours a day and I found it, my perfect job: an community relations and events coordinator position at a Barnes & Noble Bookstore less than fifteen minutes from home.

At first, leaving Molly was difficult but soon I relished being back in the adult world, focusing on and actually completing tasks by the end of the day, something rarely possible as a mother. Walking into the store everyday and seeing all the new books (in English!) made my heart skip a beat. Life felt like it was coming together. We lived a stone’s throw from the beach, libraries, movies and good friends and Molly was growing into a cheerful, animated little girl.

 

Neil cared for Molly while I went to work and as far as I could tell, their days were often spent in front of the television and maybe worse: shopping. A day didn’t go by without a shopping spree. By the weekend, up to a thousand dollars might be gone from our joint account. When Neil picked me up at the end of my workday, the back of the car was always full of bags from Walmart, Bed Bath & Beyond and other stores he haunted.

“What did you buy now?” I asked, making no effort to hide my irritation as I pushed past the heap of plastic bags to kiss Molly in her car seat.

“Some bits and pieces for the kitchen and a little outfit for Molly. Right sausage?” He reached back to tickle her leg. She giggled, a box of sugary candy clutched in her hand.

“Don’t worry, everything was on sale,” he said.

“I know, but it adds up. We’ve got to be a bit more careful.”

I looked nervously at the bags. America was a shopper’s paradise compared to the dearth of things to buy in Bosnia and Croatia or prohibitively expensive Italy. I understood how Neil could get carried away. We did need a lot of things starting from scratch in setting up our lives here and Neil was making the apartment cozy and comfortable and he always had dinner ready for me. He was doing a great job of taking care of things at home and I should be appreciative. But the stress of his spending and unemployment grew. I constantly needed to shift money from my savings to our joint account in order to keep it open – my bookstore salary was not enough to support us.

I had no idea what Neil spent so much money on. The house-wares and nick-knacks he bought didn’t seem to account for what was going out of the account.

 

Even in the early days, money had been a touchy subject for us since Neil made less than me yet spent extravagantly. I felt like a tightwad. One evening in Zagreb, not long after quitting his job in Sarajevo, he called out to me from the bath. I was curled up with a book on the sofa in the living room.

“We should open a joint bank account!”

I pretended not to hear him.

“It’s part of being in a relationship together,” he continued, somehow knowing I heard him. I also heard the water sloshing about and imagining the flooded bathroom floor, resisted the urge to go mop it up, not wanting to engage in this conversation.

“Why? I mean, your money is your money and my money is my money. We both contribute to living together as best we can and this seems to work just fine.” I said diplomatically, because the truth was I paid the bills. But surely he would contribute once he had a job.

“It would just make a lot of things easier. And it’s a commitment. It’s what you do when you are in a committed relationship,” he said as if this was obvious and everyone but me knew it.

This was my first time living with a lover and Neil had been married and lived with girlfriends over the years and crowned himself as the relationship expert. I bristled at being patronized.

“Yeah, but I don’t feel comfortable with that. Not just now. Don’t take this the wrong way, I am happy to lend you money if you need it but I think we should keep our accounts separate,” I answered.

“It’s a trust thing. Don’t you trust me?” he asked. I heard the water splash again, definitely soaking the floor.

By the time we moved to Connecticut, I had set up an account in both of our names.

 

Neil finally received his Green Card in March and immediately, landed a job as a Land Rover salesman. He’d always bragged he could “sell ice to Eskimos” and “charm the knickers off a nun” and indeed, outfitted in his Burberry jacket, ascot knotted at his neck, he was perfect at pitching English luxury cars and soon came home announcing sale successes. I looked forward to the revival of our bank balance and Neil’s good humor.

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