The next day after work, I picked Molly up from her after school program. The drive home took about 3 minutes from there. I pulled in the driveway, stiffening as I caught sight of Neil in his usual spot on the front porch, cigarette in one hand and cheap beer in the other. I’d been wishing he might miraculously disappear but he was still there. He’d made it clear to me yesterday he wasn’t going anywhere. Nodding to him as I unloaded the groceries from the backseat, I slammed the car door shut and headed to the side door to delay contact as long as possible. Molly trailed after me. Neil called out. “Hello poppit! How was your day today? I missed you. Come tell me about it.”
“Hi Daddy.” Molly veered off towards the porch to greet him. Moments later I heard her squeal, “ Yech! You smell like beer!”
I couldn’t make out Neil’s response but took a deep breath. I need to keep my cool and just get through each day, however days, weeks or months that may be. I put the bag of groceries on the table. The kitchen smelled like bleach. The black-and-white tiles of the kitchen floor were spotless, the sink empty and dishes put away. Obviously, he was making a gesture of apology for his horrible behavior. It meant nothing to me – particularly when I opened the refrigerator and saw Neil’s only daily contribution to the refrigerator since he arrived: a 12 pack of beer, always gone by the end of day. I’d bought eggs, cheddar cheese and a head of lettuce. I’d make an omelet and salad. I’d also picked up some first-of-the-season, luscious-looking strawberries for dessert. I closed the kitchen door and concentrated on cooking, grateful he was leaving me alone.
“Dinner is ready, Molls. Turn off the TV and let’s eat.” Mustering an effort to be cordial I called out to Neil still sitting on the porch, “Do you want to join us? I’ve made enough.”
“No. I’m fine. Thank you,” he glared at me through the screen door.
Molly and I sat at the kitchen table. The evening sun poured through the windows and birds were singing and I registered the beauty as if from the end of a long tunnel while chewing my food, oblivious to tastes and textures. I couldn’t remember when I last had an appetite. Like everything else in my life, eating had become a function of survival. Molly wolfed down her dinner in a hurry to escape back to the television and maybe from me. I washed the strawberries and delivered them to her with a kiss, pushing her soft brown hair off her brow.
The screen door slamming hard behind him, Neil came into the kitchen. “What?” he said with a glare at me as I watched him yank a beer from the refrigerator and stomp into the living room. Scrubbing coagulated drips of cheese and egg from our plates, I heard him speaking loudly like intended for me to hear whatever he was saying to Molly. I turned off the faucet and put the last plate in the dish rack to dry, soothed by this normal evening ritual. I’d nixed Neil’s bid for a dishwasher years earlier, not wanting the expense nor minding the chore. Drying my hands with a dishtowel I started as Neil joined me by the sink, sputtering curses and pointing at a dripping red splotch on his yellow, button down shirt.
“Look what your daughter did!” he yelled.
I darted into the living room. Molly sat where I’d left her moments earlier but now wide-eyed with a strawberry oozing between her fingers, red juice dripping down her arm. Neil stormed past us with beer in hand, and taking the stairs by two, screamed over the banister,
“You stay with your mother! You just stay with her then! She has you so fucking brainwashed! Just fucking stay with her! You’ll never see me again – either of you!”
He banged the door so hard it shook the house and the bed groaned followed by horrendous sobbing.
“Honey, what happened?” I sat next to Molly, pulling her close wiping the juice off her arm with the dishtowel.
“He kept saying really mean things about you and I told him to stop and he wouldn’t so I smooshed the strawberry into his shirt and he just went crazy. I didn’t mean to do it.”
Molly began crying quietly, her shoulders shaking under my arm.
“Oh, Moll! It’s okay, honey. He’s just reacting, he doesn’t mean it – you know that.”
Her tears fell faster than I could wipe them but unlike her father, she wept silently, the sound of her father’s sobs both frightening and pathetic. I turned up the television and pulled her tightly against my thumping heart. My mind raced. Now he was targeting his anger at Molly. I stared at the television, seeing nothing, willing him to stop making the awful noise. Finally, it was quiet and we breathed easier until the bedroom door opened. Tetley jumped up onto the couch and pressed his little body against my leg. Neil came downstairs and without a glance in our direction, retrieved the remaining beer from the refrigerator returning to the bedroom, slamming the door behind him. Molly and I sat frozen, staring at the television and seeing nothing.
“Mommy, I’m scared.”
“Me too,” I let slip in a whisper and then quickly added, “We’re okay honey, don’t worry. He’s drinking too much but he’ll probably just go to sleep now.”
I tried to sound convincing although I didn’t believe this myself. The craziness couldn’t go on: I needed a plan. I would talk to my lawyer tomorrow and get things moving to finally end this. Molly and I sat up later than usual watching inane programs before slipping up to bed, praying Neil would leave us alone. I shut Molly’s bedroom door, climbed between her Winnie the Pooh sheets, pulled her warm body next to mine and tried to sleep.
The next morning, I woke nauseous from the memory of last night. Peering cautiously into our bedroom through the open door, I looked at Neil’s back where he lay in the bed. I could tell from his breathing he was sleeping. Still, I tiptoed to the bathroom. As Molly got ready for school, we were careful to whisper. As I was packing her lunch, Molly came in to the kitchen crying, clutching Neil’s yellow shirt from yesterday. She must have crept into the bedroom to get it.
“Mommy, can you get this out? Can you wash it? Will it stain?” She held the shirt out towards me. I took it from her, wanting to shred it, to go upstairs and whip Neil with it, to stomp on it with dirty shoes. I hated him.
“Of course I can, honey! Please don’t even think about that stupid shirt. Daddy was drunk last night – I’m sure he didn’t mean to hurt you and will understand today that you were just expressing your frustration with him. He was being unreasonable – not you. I’ll wash it and it will be just like new.”
I kissed the top of her head, her hair smelled faintly of shampoo.
“Now go get dressed so you won’t be late for school.”
The shirt in my fist, I went down to the basement cursing him as I sprayed stain remover product over the red-smear. The asshole!
“Are you almost ready? It’s time to go.”
I called from the kitchen, anxious to get Molly out of the house to the safety and sanity of school. She appeared in the doorway already wearing her backpack. I quickly ran upstairs to brush my teeth.
“Tricia! Come here! I want to tell you something,” Neil called to me from the bedroom.
I bristled at his orders but stepped towards the doorway and glared in at him, stretched out on his side of the bed, beer cans across the floor.
“What?” I barked.
“When you come home today, I won’t be here. I’ll be out of your life forever so you’ll get what you want: to never see me again and neither will Molly. You’ll have to find a way to explain it to her. I know that’s what you want.”
I glared in at him, not even stepping over the threshold. He barely lifted his head from the pillow. I hurried down the stairs, took Molly’s hand and slammed the door behind us. I hoped it was true. I wanted him to be gone from the house – gone forever. But I doubted he’d go anywhere. Over the years he often threatened to disappear, sometimes leaving dramatic suicide notes behind. Once he even included his wedding ring, and driver license in an envelope. That time, when he arrived back home in time for dinner, he asked for the envelope back. Yes – I wanted him gone. How could I not? I felt terrorized in my own home.
After work, I picked Molly up from the after school program and had her wait in the car while I went in the house, moving quietly, dreading what I might find. Neil lay in bed where I left him this morning, his back to me but I could see his body rise and fall – that was enough for me. Slipping into Molly’s room, I picked out a change of clothes and pajamas for both of us, and left. I would not risk another scene like last night.
I drove over to my neighbor Amina’s house; we had become good friends over the last year and I knew I could count on her. Her house was only a block away, but out of sight of ours. As long as Neil didn’t walk in this direction, he wouldn’t see my car in their driveway. Molly happily disappeared upstairs with Amina’s daughter to play video games and I sank into a chair in the kitchen. Everything in this house was spotless and neat. I marveled how other people’s lives were so well organized and maintained. I longed for such order. My world overwhelmed me – the house, the yard, my day-to-day existence. How could I ever achieve this kind of order in my life? I felt like I was swirling out of control, grasping on to each rung of a ladder in a dark tunnel determined I would make it to the light.
On Amina’s pullout couch bed in the family room of their split-leveled house, I slept better than I had in ages. I felt safe. When I woke the next morning, it took a few minutes to remember my bleak reality and for the iron clamp on my stomach to take hold again. Molly burst into the room, I imagine, happy for this midweek sleepover with her friend and glimpse at normality.
“Mommy! I need my violin today!”
Shit! I would have to go to the house. Well, I couldn’t avoid it forever and I needed to say some things to Neil – to set some boundaries once and for all.
“I’ll go get it now. You stay here and eat some breakfast. I’m sure Amina has some delicious things in that big refrigerator.”
I threw my clothes on and Amina saw me to the door.
“Do you want me to come with you?” She was still in her pajamas.
“No, no. Really, I’m fine. I’ll be 10 minutes at the most. I’m not going to talk to him.”
“If you don’t come back, we’ll come looking for you.” I knew she was only partially joking and gave a nervous laugh.
“Thanks. I hope that won’t be necessary.”
Our house was only three minutes walk away but I wanted to be able to get in and out quickly so I drove. As I pulled into the driveway, Neil immediately came out on the front porch. His white hair stood on end and his eyes, equally wild.
“What are you playing at? Where have you been? I’ve been sick with worry. I called your sister – she gave me an earful. I called everywhere – you’re lucky I didn’t call the police – taking my daughter out of the house without my permission,” he said.
“Don’t be ridiculous. You know you don’t want me to explain to the police why we had to flee our own house. Listen Neil: I’m not coming back here with Molly unless you stop drinking and stop screaming at us and making crazy threats. I’ve had it. Do you understand that? I’ve had it!”
I stood on the bottom step of the front porch. He sat with his back to me as I spoke and then turned to me, his face distraught – a desperate look that in the past would have me forgiving him, pretending to believe all was better. Such forgiveness for him was no longer possible. This morning, I felt only fury.
“Molly and I don’t feel safe with you anymore. That’s why we stayed away yesterday. You threatened to kill yourself and when I came home, you were still in bed at five o’clock. What was I supposed to do, wait for the next crazy outburst? I’m not going to do that. No more. No more drinking. I know you think it’s acceptable because it’s not coke and it’s legal, but that doesn’t fly.”
“Did Molly say that? Did Molly say that she didn’t feel safe?” He asked as if he didn’t believe me, as if he had no idea how terrifying he’d become.
“Yes, she did. Of course she’s afraid of you – you’re scary! That whole strawberry thing was awful. You can’t treat her like that! My god – she’s your daughter! Stop using her as your emotional batting ram against me!”
“I don’t want her to be afraid of me. I won’t drink, I promise. And I’ll try not to scream at you. Please, please bring my baby home,” he pleaded.
“I mean it – we’ll be right out of here the minute you get crazy on us.”
“I get it. Please just bring her home.”
I went inside. The atmosphere in the house felt stale, the light dismal – my beloved home felt no longer mine. I grabbed Molly’s violin and hurried out, calling behind me,
“All right. We’ll be back later – but if I so much as smell a beer around here…”
“You won’t! I’ll call Sal and ask him to bring me to a meeting.”
We’d met Sal at an AA-AlAnon couples meeting we had been to a few times. When Sal took Neil under his wing I felt so hopeful, sure this new friend could lead Neil to his own recovery. Now my only hope was that he’d get Neil out of the house for a few hours.
I put the car into reverse and backed out to the road, grinding my teeth. Molly wasn’t the only one living with fear. I was terrified of drugs, drunkenness, violence, verbal abuse, and most of all, that something might happen to Molly. I feared Neil. How had the man I thought I would be my mate for life turn into a threat? We were so in love and full of plans for our life of adventure before it was all destroyed by white powder. I couldn’t beat it – this drug was more powerful than my love, than Molly’s sweet devotion. I gave up. It was just the two of us now – Molly and me. We were out of Neil’s sinking boat and swimming furiously to shore. I didn’t know how far that was but I was going to make damn sure that Molly and I would not drown.