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.