We called the little alcove off of Molly’s room the private room. The big oak’s branches scratched at the window making it feel like we were in a tree house. I anticipated Neil would blow up when I directed him away from our bedroom to this tiny room with only space enough for a bed pressed against the wall. He made no complaint, perching on the edge of the mattress like a punished child as I turned away mumbling something about checking the laundry and left.
For hours he barely spoke, smoking on the porch, lighting cigarette after cigarette, flicking the butts into the hedge as he watched Molly spin on her rope swing. It seemed to calm him, watching her twirl around and around, her body parallel to the ground, the rope wrapped around her hands, spinning until she was dizzy. I busied myself cooking and cleaning frenetically. Tetley followed me closely as I moved through the house, as if he too was avoiding Neil.
Molly came into the kitchen, her brow furrowed. “What’s wrong with Daddy?”
“I think he’s just really nervous. It’s hard for him to be here after everything that’s happened. He’ll be ok.”
But I wasn’t sure. After an awkward dinner together, father and daughter retreated to watch television and I disappeared upstairs for an early bedtime, pulling what used to be our bedroom door, firmly behind me.
The next day he still acted like an awkward guest, as if he knew he was disturbing us. I made chatty conversation, steering the discussion to what we would have for lunch or an errand I needed to run. Again, Molly twirled on her swing and Neil sat on the porch and smoked. I stayed outside for most of the day, preparing the flower and vegetable beds for planting. Neil found me by the side of the house.
“I’d like to buy some flowers for you to plant. I remember you said that you couldn’t afford to buy flowers last year because of my habit and, well, I’d like to make it up to you.” he chewed his lips between sentences and looked over my head as he spoke.
“Oh. Well, that’s nice – but you don’t have to do that.” I pulled on a stubborn dandelion root.
“I’d like to. There is so much you didn’t get to do because of my addiction and I’m sorry. At least I can do this for you.”
“Okay… thanks then.”
I agreed he owed me. Why did I feel irritated by this offer? The gesture was only a drop in the bucket and typical of him: he wasn’t offering to do something I really needed like paying the oil bill – there would be no visibility, no proof of his contribution. If we planted flowers they may only last a season but that garden would be ‘his’. Still, I accepted. We drove to the garden center and bought flats of petunias and impatiens. I left him and Molly to plant them together, creating a wave of purple, pink and red beside the house. Their banter and laughter drifted through the garden. My breathing relaxed and for a moment, I felt guilty. Why did I have to be such a bitch?
On day number three I went to work leaving Molly with whispered instructions to call me for any reason whatsoever. But Neil seemed better – he wasn’t shaking as much and continued to be polite. Occasionally he made comments that intimated at a future together; I immediately changed the subject. The lawyer was awaiting my cue to serve the divorce papers. I didn’t want Molly around for any eruptions. Spring break ended next week and she would be out of the house. Neil’s ticket back to England was for May 5 – Cinquo de Mayo – the Mexican holiday of independence and I hoped, my own day of freedom.
I wanted to give him a heads up about what to expect so he didn’t lose it completely when he was served. But he still seemed too fragile and delusional that a life together was possible. There never seemed a good time and I was getting nervous but also more resolute. I could not live on tenterhooks any more, sharing a life with someone who lived by deception. It was another sunny day and I stood barefoot in the warm grass, using the hose to water the flowers Neil and Molly had planted. Molly was inside watching television. Neil came and stood beside me.
“I know I was a real prat for these past years. I promise on Molly’s life, I am getting better and I will be the man you married again.”
“Good. I’m glad you’re committed to your recovery.” I did not turn my gaze from the water pulsing out of the hose.
“All I want is to be back here with you both.”
“We’ve talked about this. You need to get yourself together first. For you and for Molly.”
“What about you? Don’t you want this anymore?” his voice cracked.
“Neil… I don’t want to do this anymore.” I gestured with the hose and the water sprayed wildly around the garden. “Please stop asking me that question. Honestly, I can’t… the honest answer is: I can’t do it anymore.”
Even as the words left my mouth, I wished I’d swallowed them. His demeanor changed in a flash, his eyes went black, filled with fury.
“What do you mean? What exactly are you saying?” He sidled up closer to me. “Are you saying you are divorcing me? You are, aren’t you? You’re fucking divorcing me aren’t you? All right then! Bring it on! Come on! Do you want to fight? I’ll fucking fight you!”
He picked up a plastic garbage can and threw it against the garage. It bounced off the asphalt and hit the side of my car. I flinched but a bizarre detachment settled over me. I looked at the can in the driveway and thought, it’s a good thing the garbage was picked up this morning otherwise I’d be cleaning up a big mess. I waited, clenching the hose as puddles formed around the now-water logged petunias. It went through my head that I needed to get away from him – but not into the house – Molly was there, hopefully oblivious. I shouldn’t get trapped inside. I remained beside the garden watching the torrent of water drowning the plants so cheerfully planted by father and daughter the day before.
“You know what? I never loved you anyway and you weren’t even any good in bed! I’ll be glad to divorce you, to be rid of you. But I’ll fucking fight you on everything. You won’t have anything left. You’ll lose the house and Molly. I’ll give you the fucking fight of your life!”
My dripping hand trembled so I was surprised at how firm and steady my voice sounded.
“Please stop screaming at me. Molly is in the house. She doesn’t need to hear this.”
“Let her hear, let her hear what a bitch her mother is. That you want to destroy her family! Let the whole neighborhood hear! I don’t fucking care!”
I kept my eyes lowered away from him but his face was so close, his spittle sprayed me as he yelled. In all our years and some terrible fights, I’d never felt Neil would lift his hand against me until now. I wasn’t sure. I stayed focused on the stream of water now pooling at my feet. Finally, he turned away, stomping in the direction of the front porch throwing the other garbage can across the drive as he went, this one crashing into the hedge, the lid spinning down towards the street.
Where should I go? I couldn’t leave Molly alone with him. I feared she might come outside when Neil started yelling, but she was nowhere in sight. Surely she heard everything. Poor kid. I needed to check on her. I walked around the house to the back door.
Molly sat sunken in a corner of the couch, eyes glued to the set.
“I’m sorry, honey. I’m sorry you heard that.” What else could I say?
“Go away! Just go away!” She remained determined not to take sides against her Daddy. I leaned over and kissed her head. I put my hands in my pockets so she would not see them trembling.
“Everything’s going to be fine. Maybe in a little while we can work on your science project together?”
She’d brought home an owl pellet from her third grade class and had asked me earlier when we could open it. Her face brightened at the prospect of dissecting it, her anticipation like opening a present: she couldn’t wait to find out what unlucky creature met its fate in the owl’s gullet.
“I’ll go get the things we need,” she said, springing into action.
“Put some newspaper down and we’ll dissect it on the table right here.”
I motioned to the dining room table pretending I felt normal, as if this was one of those blissful regular days Molly and I shared in Neil’s absence. I washed my hands in the sink, letting the cool water run over my trembling wrists. Molly joined me in the kitchen, her arms full of newspaper and a little foil wrapped pellet held out like a precious egg.
“What else do we need, Mommy?” Her eyes were wider than normal. How must she be feeling? I wanted to step out onto the porch and clobber her father once and for all. How dare he wreck her world like this?
“Um.” I tried to think of what we needed to pull apart and extract remains. “If you can find something really small to pick through the pellet with. Needles maybe? “Can you find the sewing box?” I hoped she couldn’t tell how nervous I was, my teeth chattering between words.
Neil sat on the porch. He peered at us through the screen. I moved to the table and set everything up so our backs were to the door but we knew he was there, watching us. Molly and I sat side-by-side, heads bent over the teeny mass looking for fragments of bone. The screen door opened.
Neil leaned over us and hissed at me, “I will fight you on everything! And I want my fucking bed back. I’m sleeping in my own damn bed and I’m not leaving this house. You better get used to that. I’m not going anywhere, I’m staying right here in this house. The only way I’m leaving this house is in a box! Do you hear me? In a box!”
Molly kept her eyes on the pellet. I tried to get her to look at me as I said quietly,
“Molly, I want you to come with me now. Let’s go for a ride honey.”
I needed to get her out of here.
Molly didn’t budge, still poking around at the mass, her eyes glassy and unfocused. Neil stepped behind her chair, his voice loud.
“You’re not taking my daughter any where! You stay right where you are, Molly! Don’t think you can take her either! Oh no! This is going to be the mother of all fights, so get ready! You will lose everything.”
“Okay, Neil. I get it. Can you please stop this?”
“In a box, do you hear? In a box! That’s the only way I’m leaving!” he said, his teeth bared like an animal.
He went back out on the porch, slamming the door hard behind him. I murmured to Molly in as comforting a tone as I could muster,
“It’s okay, honey, it’s okay.”
Molly’s eyes never left the tiny pile of fur and bones on the table in front of her.
It wasn’t okay. Neil moved all of his things back into the bedroom that we once called ours. When he returned to his post, smoking on the porch, I chose the clothing I needed for the next few days and set myself up on the little bed in the private room. It actually was better there, closer to Molly. With the door open between the two rooms we could whisper to each other. That night after reading to Molly, I climbed into the little bed and tried to lose myself in the pages of my own book, the telephone beside me, just in case.
The next morning, the two of us slipped out of the house quietly, not wanting to wake Neil. That wasn’t difficult – I suspected he had sucked down sleeping pills with his beer. Empty bottles were strewn all over the living room. After dropping Molly at school I went to work, immediately emailing the lawyer a report of the events of the evening. In his response, he urged me to move ahead with getting the divorce papers served. But I just didn’t feel safe. Molly and I might need to leave the house first. Climbing into bed with the phone beside my pillow, I rehearsed finding 911 in the dark. The lawyer suggested we try and stay in our home but agreed we should do whatever was necessary for our safety. But where could we go?
That afternoon, after I picked Molly up from school, I drove with her to the beach. Strangely, I hadn’t heard from Neil all day. Usually he called me at work multiple times, trying to be sweet and then, sometimes only minutes later, abusive. It was windy at the beach. Molly wore only a light sweater and I found an old sweatshirt behind the car seat and pulled over her head, the arms drooping long. We walked down to the water to search the rocky sand for beach treasures, stepping between the shallow puddles left by low tide.
“Mommy, I liked it better when it was just you and me at home. It was easier, wasn’t it? Daddy’s acting really crazy. It’s like he has a devil in him.”
She looked up at me with her big blue eyes as we walked out to the gently pulsing waves, jumping away as the water came perilously close to soaking her shoes.
“Yes, he is and that’s a good way to describe it, sweetie. I’m so sorry Molly. Listen, I need to talk to you about something.”
I guided her away from the water, drawing her down next to me onto the sand, still warm from the heat of the day. Yes, a devil in him, this from my eight-year old girl. What damage was being done to her by this ‘devil’? Molly sat close to me and I put my arm around her little shoulders.
“I know you love Daddy and are concerned that he not think that you don’t love him, but you can’t worry about him. It’s true he’s not well right now but he’s the only one who can make him better – not you. You need to take care of you. And let me do that too. So I need you to do something for me: the next time I say to you that we need to leave, I don’t care what’s going on, you need to come with me, okay? Immediately. I need you to do what I say right away. Please Molly, this is really important. I’m the one who is going to keep you safe. You can’t worry about being nice to Daddy when he is acting like he has been, okay? Do you get that?”
Molly stared out to the horizon, tossing rocks at the water as she listened to me. She nodded her head.
“I didn’t know what to do yesterday. I mean I didn’t want to make him feel bad. And then, I just couldn’t move. It was like I was stuck to the chair.”
“I know, honey, really I do. Don’t feel bad about yesterday – I understand how you felt and you did absolutely nothing wrong. It’s just in the future, please, if something like that ever happens again, we will go somewhere safe until we know that he’s calmed down. You are right, it’s like a devil is in him – not Daddy.”
The sun dropped low on the horizon, the wind picked up rippling across the water. Slowly, we made our way back to the car, Molly’s warm hand in mine.
“I love you, Molly.”
“I love you more.”
“No. I love you more!”
We climbed into the car for the short drive home.