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.