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.