At home in Connecticut, I woke to bird song, the light lingered longer and brave crocuses pushed through the rotting layers of the seasons. Usually I couldn’t wait for winter to be over but this year I felt only dread: Neil’s visit in April loomed ahead. Without him in the house our days unfolded peacefully. He still made manic phone calls, ranting and weeping until I unplugged the phone at night. Molly said she missed her Dad but not the crazy. This taste of what our lives could be like all the time, cemented my decision to serve him with divorce papers while he was here.
I made an appointment to meet with a lawyer who wouldn’t break my limited bank. His office was a storefront space in a seedy looking strip mall and smelled of mildew. I chitchatted with the secretary then pretended to read celebrity gossip in the outdated magazines. Easy-listening piped-in love songs provided the odd soundtrack to my anxiety and sweat trickled down my back. An office door opened and the lawyer, a slight man with battleship gray hair and thick glasses, ushered me into his cluttered office.
“So what can I do for you?” he asked.
“I want a divorce. I need to have full custody of my daughter and I want to keep the house. He has a serious drug addiction and I just can’t battle it any longer,” I blurted out my laundry list, barely taking a breath. I sat on the edge of the sticky vinyl chair.
“Well, the thing is, Connecticut is no fault divorce,” he said.
“What does that mean?”
“In some states, the court will take into consideration who is at fault in making their decisions. In Connecticut, that’s not the case.”
“So you’re saying there’s no guarantee I’ll keep my home or that my daughter will be safe? Even though he barely contributes anything and in fact, took money from me?”
“Well, let’s just say the scenario was you were a stay-at-home mom, you would still be entitled to receive half the house. That’s the flip side of this.”
“Are you saying that somehow being a stay-at-home mother is comparable to being a drug addict? That I could end up paying him? He was not taking care of his daughter – he was taking care of his habit. What about his drug addiction? Isn’t this taken into consideration?” My voice was cracking. I swallowed hard. I refused to cry here in this office. I needed to take care of business.
“Has he been arrested? Are there any legal records of this? If not, it’s hard to prove. It ends up being ‘he said, she said’.”
I needed a meaner guy. This lawyer may be a bargain but I didn’t want a by-the-books lawyer, I needed someone to go for the jugular. A few years ago, I’d hosted just such a lawyer for a book signing. I knew he had a reputation for winning his cases, especially custody issues. I made an appointment and a few days later, was sitting at a sleek hardwood table in an office so cool I wished I’d brought a sweater. Large woven tapestries hung on the office walls.
“So what’s going on?” he asked.
I repeated what felt like my shameful script. “My husband has a drug problem and I just can’t do it anymore. I don’t want to lose my house and, at least for now, and until I know he’s clean, I want to have full custody of my daughter.”
Sitting back in his chair, arms akimbo behind his head, he listened to me for a few more minutes before springing forward and standing up. The cold office air was perfumed with his cologne.
“No problem. You’ll get your house and you’ll have custody of your daughter. I need you to write me a timeline of events with whatever details you can. And your financial records – you need to have those in order – everything you paid for in your marriage, all your bank records. You can email this to me. I’ll need a $3000 retainer – if you can give that to me now, great, otherwise, just pop a check in the mail.”
“Wow. You’re sure? I mean you’re so confident.” I told him about my meeting with the other lawyer and he waved his hand dismissively.
“Don’t worry, with me, you’ll keep your house and your daughter.”
My heart in my throat, I took out my checkbook. Three thousand dollars would almost decimate my savings.
“So there are a few ways to do this. Since he’s not in the country, if you want to serve him in England, we’d have to track down a constable there. Or you could do it when he’s here.”
“I think we should probably do it when he is here, although I dread his reaction. He’s been pretty unstable.”
“Keep a record of everything and email me.”
I felt like I just hired a guard dog to protect me – this guy was not going to let anything get by him. But he would cost me. Yes, I would be able to keep my house — if anything was left after paying him.
The important thing was to protect Molly. I didn’t doubt that Neil loved his daughter more than anything in the world – as much as he was capable of in his white haze. I hoped he would get himself together and stay in his daughter’s life but I would not count on that happening. I couldn’t let him put her in jeopardy any longer or to use her as a weapon against me. When I thought of him sending her up to me in England to try and get me to share the bed, my blood still boiled. He had lost his sense of right and wrong even when it came to his little girl. I would do whatever it took to reclaim Molly’s childhood. Neil had become my enemy and I would fight to win.
I sifted through the paper history of my marriage stored in plastic bins at the back of my closet, examining years of bank statements. Accounts in his name were rarely worth more than a few hundred dollars and overdraft charges quickly outweighed the balance. Withdrawals from my bank account, $500 at a time from my bank in New York, appeared as far back as nine years ago. How had I missed this? I packed all the statements back into the plastic bins ready to bring to a neighbor’s house for storage until I needed them. I didn’t put it past him to destroy my evidence and wanted them out of the house.
Neil was scheduled to arrive on the first day of Molly’s spring vacation but we did not know his arrival time. Strangely, he had not phoned for days. Molly chewed her nails as I set up a bed for him in the little room adjoining hers. In the past, I retreated into this little alcove to escape Neil – but I was no longer in retreat – he could stay there.
“Please don’t fight with Daddy, Mom,” she said.
“I promise you honey, I don’t want to fight. I’ll do my best not to argue. Anyway, I’ll be working a lot and you guys can hang out together.” I tried to sound like I thought that meant fun.
Now that I knew his license had been suspended, he would not be driving my car. Stuck at home, he and Molly would probably spend the week watching too much television. I would find refuge at work, putting a bright face on for the customers, venting to my friends in the back room. They’d been following this drama for years and were supportive, especially now I’d committed to ending it.
Late in the afternoon, I was poking around the garden at the back of the house, searching for Lily of the Valley blooms while our Cairn terrier, Tetley sniffed around the hedge. A car door slammed and the dog took off, tail wagging towards the driveway. Of course Neil had splurged on a taxi again. I waited to hear a squeal from Molly – a “Daddy’s here!” but instead, her head appeared out the back door looking for me. Was she also afraid to face him alone?
“Mommy! Mom, Come on!” She took my hand tugging me towards the front of the house. Through the glass door of the sun porch, I watched him bend to pick up his bags. His hair looked grayer than the last time I saw him. Not even gray – white, like an old man’s. As we came towards him, he glanced up nervously. His eyes were sunken and he’d lost too much weight. Molly stepped back towards me until he said, “Hello sausage. You’ve gotten so big.”
She went to him and hugged him around the waist. He held his bags close, barely returning Molly’s hug as he stood there in the driveway. Finally I said, “Let me take something.”
Neither of us made a move to embrace or even air-kiss.
“No.” He pulled back from me as I reached for one of his bags. “Maybe I should go to a hotel.”
Yes you should! I thought, and as if she could hear my silent wish, Molly looked at me in alarm and took her father’s arm.
“No, Daddy! Come on, come in the house.”
“I’ll put the kettle on. I bet you’d like a cup of tea,” I offered.
In the early days of our romance, Neil tipped me off about how to make peace: the offer of a cup of tea can defuse any conflict. He nodded his acceptance.
“I’ll just put my stuff here for now.” He lifted his bags off the drive and set them in the corner of the breezeway then walked back outside and around to the front of the house to sit on the porch. He did not seem to want to go in the house. His hand trembled as he took out a cigarette and lit it.
“Are you hungry? Would you like a sandwich or something?”
“No, I’m fine. Just a cup of tea.”
Molly, now with Tetley in her arms, followed him to the front porch while I went to make the tea. My teeth chattered, and the kettle shook as I filled it with water. I rinsed the teapot, got two cups, put just enough milk in the bottom. Neil taught me to make tea the English way but he never thought I got it quite right. For heaven’s sake, I always thought, it’s just putting tea bags in a pot! What can you possibly do wrong? But it was true – he made a better cup of tea. Molly came running into the kitchen with tears in her eyes.
“Mommy! Go talk to Daddy! His whole body is shaking and he says he is going to go back to the airport, get on a plane and go to England and never come back! He’s sitting there crying. Mommy – go talk to him, please!” she pleaded.
The craziness had begun. I walked through the living room and stepped out on the porch but felt my body still in the kitchen. I wanted to be at least that far from him. I didn’t want to see him, didn’t want him here, I wanted him gone. Trembling, tears streamed down his face, his cigarette burned perilously close to his fingertips.
“I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I should go. I’ll go back to England,” he said, not looking at me.
“I thought you came here to see Molly? And now you’re upsetting her. Please try to pull yourself together at least for her sake.”
In fact, I wanted him to turn around and go right back to where he came from. I knew it was over and looking at him, I thought, he knows it too. If only we could skip this part. What comes next is not going to be pretty and chances were, Molly would witness it all.
“Don’t be silly. You are welcome to stay here. I set up a bed for you. Molly has been excited about spending this time with you.”
“Yeah – what about you though? You hate me.” He looked at me, his eyes hopefully searching mine. I looked away.
“Neil, I don’t hate you. Please, just have a cup of tea now and calm down.”
Molly was listening from behind the screen door and came out tentatively walking towards Neil.
“You’re not going to go, are you Daddy?”
He flicked his cigarette into the bushes and reached out for her. Molly let herself be embraced and implored,
“Please stop crying now, ok?”
I went back to the kitchen to finish making the cups of tea that would not make everything all right. It was going to be a long two weeks