England – February 2004
February in England is surprisingly less dreary than Connecticut. During the two-hour drive from the airport to the West Midlands, I marveled at the green fields bordered by daffodils shimmering in the odd flash of sun. We would not be seeing these sunny flowers in Connecticut for many more weeks. The warmth of the morning burned off the fog and a soft light glistened over the landscape. Molly’s nose was pressed against the window with excitement while Neil pointed out landmarks, sheep and cows. He seemed shy as if we were distant relatives come to visit as he suggested plans for the day. I made listening noises, keeping my jet-lagged gaze on the fields, crisscrossed by stonewalls and hedgerows.
“I’ll take you back to my flat first. It’s not much, but I think you’ll like it. You can have a kip first and take a nice, hot bath. And then we can go over and visit your sisters and meet your new little nephew – would you like that? You haven’t really been around babies have you sausage? And I thought we’d go to the pub tonight for dinner.”
“That sounds good,” I answered.
“We’ll wait tomorrow to see my mum – the old bag,” he said with tenderness, laughing at his own insult.
“Everyone is excited to see you. Later on this week we’re going to do a nice dinner at the pub with all of the family. That is, if you want to…”
“Sure. Moll should meet all her relatives, right sweetie? Makes up for what she doesn’t have from my side of the family,” I said, turning back to at her with a smile. She ignored me.
My mother died when Molly was two. Through much of my adult life I’d kept my distance both physically and emotionally from her, frustrated by her excessive drinking. I avoided what often turned into maudlin phone conversations weeping about a friend’s real or imagined tragedy, by only calling her in the morning or early afternoon. Our relationship changed when we returned to the States with 1 year-old Molly. She fell in love with her only grandchild. I welcomed this warmer dimension in our relationship and looked forward to living close by for the first time. When she was diagnosed with lung cancer less than a year later, I felt cheated. My emotionally icy father and his wife migrated to a warmer state where he succumbed a few years later from Lewy-Body Dementia without any real connection ever materializing. None of my siblings ever had children so Molly had no cousins in the States. She couldn’t wait to romp around with a bunch of English relatives her age. At least she’d be busy here.
We pulled into a narrow street of neat, stucco row houses, stopping at the only one with a garden and a gate in front.
“Here we are!” Neil announced proudly.
We climbed out of the car, dragging our bags and coats out of the trunk. I pictured myself climbing into bed for a nap, but Molly was raring to go. Neil read my mind.
“I’ll make you a cup of tea and you can have a sleep. I’ll take Molly down to the pub and she can see her uncle and anyone else who is there. And maybe we can stop and get you a sweetie while we’re at it, would you like that poppit? English candy?”
Molly nodded vigorously.
We followed Neil into the narrow house, charming and inviting with pillows on the settee and flowers on the mantel. Just beyond this front living room were steep stairs leading to the bedrooms. As promised, he delivered me to a bright room looking out over a small, already-green patch of garden.
“This can be your room,” he said. I felt him watching me as I put my stuff on the beautifully made up bed.
“Thanks. It’s a lovely room.”
I pretended to search through my bag rather than note what I imagined would be his disappointment that I didn’t argue that the room was ours, not mine.
“I’ll go make your tea while you get settled.”
He disappeared down the stairs with Molly, on her second wind, rattling on behind him. A few minutes later he delivered tea and a few biscuits. “We’re going now. Everyone’s anxious to see Mollster.”
He looked nervous and made no attempt to embrace me.
“Yeah. Say hi. I’ll see them later.” I fake-smiled from across the room.
When I heard the front door shut, I climbed under the quilt and burrowed into the pillows. The bedding smelled of laundry detergent mixed with the familiar scent of Neil. Closing my eyes, I wished I could stay hidden here for the rest of the week. Beyond jet lag, I was exhausted by the part of cordial spouse. I needed to get through the week without fighting, without any emotional scenes. He had promised to do the same, although his promises were worthless. And he was so jittery: Using? Withdrawing? I needed to stop speculating, to stop asking that question. There was nothing I could do.
I woke a few hours later and lay in bed looking around the room, out at the garden. On the wall was one of the only paintings I’d done in years: our house in a snowstorm. I stared at the smudgy image of our little cape wishing myself there in front of the fireplace with the dog on my lap and Molly beside me. I sat up in bed and listened carefully for voices and heard none. I was still alone. Descending carefully down the steep stairs, I went into the kitchen and filled the kettle. How strange to be a visitor in my husband’s home – the man that up until a few months ago, I’d intimately shared space with for a decade. Resisting my urge to search the flat, I curled up on the couch, the mug warming my hands. If only I could fast-forward the days.
Molly reveled in being the center of attention of her newly discovered relatives. Older, doting cousins and younger playmates were all eager to spend time with their American cousin. Neil continued to be on his best behavior, acting the wonderful host. I disappeared up to bed by myself each night, leaving Molly and Neil to watch movies. He looked pained as I airily said goodnight before quickly retreating up the stairs alone. I tried not to pay attention. I could not share a bed with him.
Yet there were moments that reminded me why I’d fallen for Neil almost a decade ago as he showed us around, engaging and charming strangers everywhere we went, sharing his glee with new discoveries, entertaining us with anecdotes about old haunts. Watching him striding ahead with his daughter in tow, conjured countless trips together when we believed the world was ours. This is the man I fell in love with. I still wanted this man who, at least superficially, was taking care of us, who knew the best way and brought us there with adventure, good humor and warmth. Always generous, he paid for everything as if he’d all of a sudden come into money. I didn’t argue although I knew it was a charade: at his flat I’d found letters from his landlord demanding back-rent. Someone from a bank left messages with me saying it was urgent Neil returned the call. Collections were more polite in England, but the intent was unmistakable. I didn’t know what he was up to, where he had gotten the money he spent on us, and I didn’t ask. As we played a family of tourists, I tried to enjoy the moment, pretending again, for Molly’s sake. But clearly he had not changed; he was digging himself into another mess.
A bottle of anti-depressants sat on a shelf above the kitchen sink. This was his place and in trying to detach from him and his demons, I did not snoop for other substances. Lucy said she had put the word out on the streets of this small town asking nobody to sell him anything. She believed he was clean. He and I circled each other warily, Neil solicitous and me, the perfect guest. I did laundry and dishes, my clenched-jaw-smile in place. We spent the days visiting Molly’s sisters and their kids and lived the typical life of this West Midlands town, meeting up with relatives for lunch and sometimes dinner at the pub and drinking endless cups of tea on the settee while watching ‘Coronation Street’ and ‘East Enders’ and other favorite English soap opera reruns. I admired the Neil who left so many years ago to find a world and challenge beyond this world. What a waste that cocaine destroyed his dreams, our dreams.
Molly came in to the bedroom where I lay reading. Only two more nights to go.
“Mommy, Daddy is downstairs crying. Can’t he sleep here with you?”
“Please, Mommy. Can Daddy sleep here with you? He’s crying, Mommy.” Molly repeated, her big eyes imploring me to do something.
“Honey, please don’t do this… I’ll go talk to Daddy. You get into bed now and I’ll come up and kiss you goodnight.” I took her hand and led her into the other bedroom that Neil imagined as Molly’s. One of his adult nephews assigned by the family to watch over him, used this room. Neil hadn’t bothered to clean it up. The floor was strewn with clothing and the odd girlie magazine.
“Please Mommy, go to Daddy,” she pleaded.
“I’ll go talk to him. You know this isn’t simple, right? I can’t just fix this.”
I knew she knew – we were on this roller coaster together, her and I. And I needed to show her there was a way off. From a young age, Molly’s empathy was off-the-charts, rushing to comfort anyone crying. When we argued, she conceded the minute my eyes welled, embracing me before any tears could fall. It must horrify her to see her father weep and I knew, he knew the best way to get to me was through her.
I pulled the quilt up to Molly’s chin and braced myself as I walked sideways down the treacherous stairs lit by the glow of the muted television. Neil lay with his face in a pillow, muffling the sobs shuddering his body. I knelt beside him and put my hand on his back, watching myself as if it was someone else touching him. I knew Molly was straining to hear us from upstairs so I needed to do this, to reach out to him, to try and give him comfort – for her. I wanted to run back upstairs and put my head under a pillow and sleep. Instead, I whispered sharply, “Neil! Please stop crying. Please. I’m doing everything I can. Please try and stop crying, it’s really upsetting Molly.”
He took a few breaths and looked up at me, his face streaked with tears.
“It’s hopeless, isn’t it? You’ll never love me again!”
We had been doing so well avoiding any scenes, I didn’t want one now. I took a deep breath and for a change, thought carefully before lying,
“Nothing is ever hopeless, Neil. We’re here, aren’t we? You just need to do your thing. We’re always going to be in your life, it’s going to take time. I’m sorry but there’s just been a lot of damage done. I just can’t share a bed with you right now. It’s too complicated…” my voice trailed off.
“I know. I’ve lost you. I’ve fucked up and I’ve lost you.”
“Neil, come on.”
He reached up and took my hand, clutching it to his chest.
“Please, for Molly’s sake, please stop crying. Listen, I’ll stay down here on this other couch tonight and we’ll watch television together, ok?” I offered.
“I’ll take what I can get,” he said, his despondency cutting.
Molly appeared from around the corner and climbed onto the couch between us. Neil let go of my hand and shifted over so she could scoot in beside him.
“I’m sorry I was upset, honey. Daddy’s better now. I love you sausage,” Neil said.
“I love you too Daddy.” Molly looked at me expectantly as she said this. It was my turn. I said nothing. I wouldn’t go that far. Mustering a cheerful voice I said,
“All right! What’s on television anyway?” I searched the floor for the controls and took my spot on the opposite couch, numb.
The next day Neil hosted a family get-together at his brother’s pub. I made small talk, continuing the charade that everything was fine. Only the girls knew my side of what was going on between us. This was Neil’s world and I didn’t want to meddle with it. They had their own histories. My story was not necessary for them to know, they just needed to be there for him. And Molly. Watching her dancing around the pub with the other children, I knew I was right to make the trip. Molly’s English family would definitely love her and take care of her any time she visited. Neil’s family was huge – brothers, sister, their offspring, aunts, uncles and cousins galore. While I hated the idea of sending Molly off for a month to be with her dad, at least now I would picture where she was.
Neil arranged for Molly to drive to the airport with her sisters while he and I drove alone.
“Could you see yourself living here?” Neil asked.
“Oh, I don’t know. Please don’t ask me that now. It’s lovely, there’s no doubt, but it’s not about the place… you know that.”
In another time not even so long ago, I would have been completely seduced by the green fields we were passing. I would have embraced the chance to live on one of these country lanes. And to be with Neil, growing old together and seizing all our imagined adventures. But those days were done. He frightened me now. My dream was simply to stay in the little house in my Connecticut suburb and be boring. Boring sounded wonderful.
“I want to feel safe, secure and supported. That’s all I want anymore,” I said.
And I’ve finally gotten it through my dense skull that I’ll never, ever have that with you, I thought to myself.
“I am working on becoming that man for you again. For me! I really am. You have to believe me!” he said as if reading from a script.
“Good, Neil. I am really glad about that”, I answered as if reading from mine. But I thought: Believe you? I can never believe anything you ever tell me again. During the week I answered phone calls from the bank and seen collection letters fall through the mail slot each morning. I knew they were also piling up in our mailbox at home. He had always been like this, hadn’t he? Neil needed to live on the edge of someone else’s crisis – the bigger the better – like the war in Bosnia where he channeled his ‘ducking and diving’ nature into helping people rather than conning them. I still completely believed his heart to be good and more generous than most — but his addiction and the dense web of lies and deception he created in his world had overwhelmed his love for Molly and me. I no longer believed there would ever be enough room in Neil’s troubled heart and mind for us. I had given up on a miracle.
We pulled into Heathrow airport and met up with Molly as planned. I was glad for the time bonding with her sisters who both reassured me they would always look after Molly when she visited. We neared the departure area and I felt giddy, anticipating an end to the oppressive feelings of the week, it was all I could do not to break into a run to the gate. Airport security was tight and Neil could go no further. He hugged Molly, repeatedly kissing her face then turned to me, grabbed my arms and planted a kiss on my lips and said forcefully, “I love you!”
“Yeah. Thanks for everything. We better get going!”
Grateful to the people trying to get by us with their luggage, I pulled away from Neil. He continued to call after us as we passed through the automatic doors to the security gates and into departures,
“I love you! I love you both!”
“I love you too, Daddy!” Molly blew kisses back to his. I waved again and hurried through the security barriers out of sight, the doors shut behind us.
Buckling into my seat, I took a deep breath and felt all my muscles relax. We made it. We were going home. But Molly was agitated.
“I don’t want to leave Daddy! I want to stay here with him! I want to get off the plane and stay here – I don’t want to go with you!”
Not sure if my obedient daughter might bolt off the plane, I held her wrist and said,
“I know it’s hard to say goodbye, but Daddy will be coming for a visit in April and you can come back here in the summer and other times as well.”
She glared at me, twisting out of my grip. I wanted to wrap my arms around say: I’m the one you are safe with me. It’s me that looks after you and loves you more than anything. I’m sorry you have a father that can’t do that for you. I’m sorry he needs more attention from you than he can give you — even though you are only eight. I’m sorry he manipulates and uses you. I’m sorry I have to protect you from him.
Instead, I spoke to her gently,
“Why don’t you write Daddy a letter and tell him how you are feeling now and we can mail it to him as soon as we get back? I know he’ll want to hear how you are feeling.”
I sounded like a fucking television shrink. Molly was ignoring me anyway, now fussing with the controls to her screen. The crisis was past. The airplane’s engines kicked-in and the noise and tension of departure filled the plane.