The last few nights of April were rainy but by sunrise the skies cleared and the air smelled of new life. I knelt in the dirt pulling out handfuls of green leaves crowding the flowerbed on the east side of the house. Soon bleeding hearts would droop their split-valentines in this patch, followed by fragrant lilies in the hot summer. Maybe this year the woodchuck would spare the black eyed susans. I loved how they lasted the summer. Sometimes I’d still find blooms up to the first frost. Spring always filled me with optimism and in the garden, as stressed-out as I was, my hope for the future was as tenacious as the roots of the plants I was yanking out. I sat back on my heels, filling my lungs with the scent of the damp earth. Tetley stretched out on his side next to me, savoring the day’s last hours of warm sun. I ran my fingers through his scruffy fur.
A cartoon soundtrack drifted out through the open window. I pictured Molly sitting on the edge of the couch. Across the yard Neil inhaled cigarette smoke. I dug into the earth feeling his eyes watching me – haunted eyes, almost black, sunk deep beneath his over-grown eyebrows. Always a handsome man, he’d navigated the world for most of his life using good looks and charm – now gone – at least in my eyes.
I glanced over at him. His long legs stretched straight, one arm draped across the back of the empty chair beside him, cigarette dangling between his chewed fingers. He smirked back at me. He probably thought I was going about weeding all wrong. Neil always claimed to do things better than me. On this trip, as soon as his mood shifted from meek to mean, one of his first biting comments was noting ‘the state of the house’ as if things had deteriorated since he left. Neil made things look good fast – packing everything into closets or under beds, chairs and sofas. Of course like everything with him, he was a master of illusion. And he thought it enough. That getting the mess out of sight was actually enough, never mind it was only hidden from sight. He must be so frustrated that his smoke and mirrors no longer worked with me.
I checked my breathing – in deeply with my abdomen, release bad energy out, good energy in. I’d been forgetting to breathe, holding it as if to keep my life together, weaving a knot that twisted tighter and tighter in my chest. Release. I needed to let it go, not think about him watching me, about the distance that lay between us. There was nothing for me to say. What could we talk about anymore? The memories, adventures, joys and sorrows of our shared years had disappeared behind the wall of his lies and addiction. I kept digging, wrenching the roots out and tossing the plants in a pile beside me.
We fell in love with this place because of the garden. The privet hedge circling the property made it feel like a secret home tucked away in the country rather than a cape in the suburbs, a stones-throw away from I-95. Our first spring, a bank of peonies cutting across the property created a fragrant swath of delicate color until the first heavy rain when, as if they’d been butchered with a machete, they were reduced to piles of pink petals. We dug a vegetable garden and planted tomatoes and broccoli and for Molly, pumpkins. One year we planted gourds and the vines took off across the yard, climbing a tree where the strange bottle shapes hung out of reach.
I picked up the pile and as I walked past Neil to the compost heap, we looked at each other coldly. He hates me. I hate him. A familiar commercial jingle came through an open window and the screen door slammed as Molly came looking for us; or at least, for me. Molly was wary of her dad. I imagine this enraged Neil and certainly must hurt him terribly. He tried to entice her to be affectionate, calling her ‘daddy’s girl’. Almost nine, Molly always impressed me with her perceptiveness and clarity. Even at a very young age she had a remarkable ability to express her frustration about not getting what she needed from her father. Like any child, she wanted to be the center of attention – but he couldn’t give up that spot – not even to his beloved little girl.
Molly did adore him. At least there was that left in the wreckage of what was once our family. Neil called to her, “Come here poppit, come sit with your Dad.” He pulled his legs in to give her a lap to sit on and she climbed on, putting her arms around his neck. Neil drew on his cigarette and exhaled over her shoulder. I bit my tongue. Breathe. They both watched me as I returned and pulled a few more blades of green from the patch.
“Mommy works hard, doesn’t she?”
Molly didn’t answer, likely perceiving he was not actually complimenting me. As I held a fist of greens and looked at the pile, it dawned on me that this plant I’d been pulling up didn’t really look like a weed nor was it just grass; there was a funny bend to it.
“Oh, what did I do?” I said aloud as I realized I had just pulled out an entire bed of forget-me-knots.
“What’s wrong Mommy?”
“I didn’t know what I was pulling out is actually a flower – not a weed.”
Neil drew on his cigarette, looked at me smugly and as if he had known all along, exhaled a cloud of smoke and said, “I didn’t want to say anything.”
I picked up my tools leaving the last bit of greenery in a pile on the lawn.
Neil kept his word about drinking less and only picked fights when Molly wasn’t home. He was served with divorce papers without incident even reporting to me about the exchange as if it were pleasant. He said he thanked the sheriff as he accepted the papers and they chatted about the weather. Apparently resigned to the dissolution of our marriage, he’d now shifted his focus on angling to get the most out of a shitty situation. He knew he was legally allowed to remain in the house until the divorce went through and planned on doing just that, obviously delighting in my misery. Anyway, I knew he had no money and nowhere else to go but back to England.
One evening after ushering Molly from bath to bed, I retreated to my little alcove-room and curling up under the covers, let out a deep breath of relief. I’d made it through the evening without a scene. This would be my life until the divorce – this excruciating status quo. I needed to stay calm and develop patience. From my bed, I could see Molly already asleep, no doubt also exhausted by these emotionally fraught days, her cupid-bow mouth slightly open. Looking at her peaceful beauty, I began to relax. Although it was just after 8:00, I turned my reading lamp off to sleep. When I heard the floorboards in Molly’s room creak.
“Pssst. Tricia!” Neil stood beside Molly’s bed looking in at me, “I want to talk to you!”
I whispered back, “I’m sleeping – and so is Molly – don’t wake her! We can talk tomorrow. Please leave me alone.”
“I just want to talk to you!” he pleaded.
I threw the blankets aside and got up, following him across the small landing to what had been our room. The gigantic bed was unmade and covered with his clothes.
“Come in and sit down. I need to talk to you,” he said, motioning next to him as he sat on the edge of the bed.
“No, I don’t want to come in. I’ll stand right here. Talk to me from here,” I answered from the doorway.
“What? Now you can’t even stand to be in the same room with me?”
“What do you need to say to me? I have to work tomorrow and would like to get some sleep.”
“I spoke with a lawyer today. I want you to know that. Do you know that Molly will have to have a psychological evaluation if we put her through a fight for custody?”
I didn’t answer him. What did he imagine a psychological evaluation would entail?
“I just want to know that you are going to give me access to her. And the holidays – you’ll have to send her to me for Christmas. You know Christmas has always been important to me.”
Was he almost sounding reasonable? I felt myself soften.
“Oh, Neil, I want you in Molly’s life – a healthy you. Look, both of us had absent fathers and I don’t want that for her. As long as I am confident you are not using, I’d never keep her away from you. The onus is on you. I know your family in England will also look after her so of course I will let her go,” I added.
“Do you swear it?”
“If that’s what you need me to do, yes: I swear it. Now, I’m going to bed. We can talk more tomorrow.”
I went back to my bed and pulled the covers tight, barely breathing until I heard his footsteps down the stairs.
How would Neil pay for a lawyer? I doubted he had any access to money. I bet he had nothing but his ticket back to England. I’d looked through his things one day when he was out for a walk with Molly and found collection letters from an English bank and a notice of overdue rent and an eviction letter from his landlord. It took just six months for him to make a mess of things there, too. No wonder he didn’t want to go back.
I would get through these days. I had to. And Neil would need to behave himself to stay in the house. Eventually we would be divorced and I would have my life back again. For the next nine months to a year before the divorce was finalized, I’d live like this, under siege, forcing myself to keep breathing, to focus on Molly, my garden and job. Distant as it seemed, at least I now saw an end in sight.
When I came home from work the next day, Neil and Molly were out in the yard. I watched from the porch as the two of them kicked a soccer ball, joined by Tetley who kept desperately trying to grab hold of the too-large plastic in his tiny jaw. Molly was laughing. Neil kept glancing over at me as if to make sure his exemplary behavior was being noticed. I made two cups of tea and brought them outside. Molly chased Tetley who had managed to pierce the ball with his teeth and now ran away from her with the rapidly deflating sphere, his tail wagging madly.
“I decided I’m going back to England next week,” Neil said as he took the cup of tea and sat down in the folding chair next to me. I couldn’t believe my ears. I tried to sound matter-of-fact in answering him.
“Really? Okay. It does sound like you have more possibilities there with your brother’s pub and all,” I lied, pretending I didn’t know about the bank and eviction notices.
“You win. I can’t fight you on this. And I don’t want to make it harder on Molly,” he said.
“No, these days haven’t been great for her. Did you tell her yet?”
“Yes. She was fine. Probably looking forward to seeing the back of me as much as you are.”
“Of course not! Don’t say that! You’re her dad and she loves you.”
This reasonable side of him was so unfamiliar. I wasn’t sure what to make of it.
“She’ll go to stay with you in England, I promise you. I will send her.”
Molly ran across the lawn in front of us, laughing. He chewed his nails.
“She will always be part of your life. I will make sure of that.” I wanted to end this discussion in case it turned in a less agreeable direction. “I’d like to go to the hardware store to buy some stuff for the garden. Do you mind?”
It was the first time since he’d been here that I felt some ease leaving him alone with Molly and I wanted to take advantage of the chance to run errands and be on my own.
“Go ahead. We’ll be here.”
It felt almost like the old days when our world appeared to be normal, all of us playing our parts brilliantly. Driving past the privet-hedge I waved at father, daughter and cute dog running across the lawn. So perfect looking, I thought bitterly. But then, as I pulled onto the highway towards Home Depot, I whooped and pumped the air in glee. Instead of the months of battles and oppression I’d anticipated, Neil would be gone in a matter of days.
It was April 30 – my fingers would be crossed until May 5 when his plane left. To no longer live saturated with anxiety and fear! I couldn’t wait. I wished him the best, that he would get his life together. But that no longer could be my concern. This year we would be married for ten years but our time was up. Almost that many years had been haunted by addiction. A decade of living together like this seemed insane to me, not an accomplishment. Why had I waited so long? Why did it take me until now to realize I was losing this battle, to realize that it wasn’t even mine to fight? I had been as high on hope, on delusions about the power of love, as Neil was on coke. I pulled into the Home Depot parking lot and went in to buy stakes for the vegetable garden.
By the time I returned to the house, Neil and Molly were inside watching television. Since it was Friday night, Molly would be allowed to stay up past her usual bedtime to watch a movie.
“A Bug’s Life is on, Mom!”
“Great, honey. I like that movie,” I said.
“Do you want to watch it with her?” Neil asked. “There’s an English mystery on I wouldn’t mind seeing. The two of you could watch upstairs and I’ll watch my show down here.”
“No. I’m going to read,” I answered curtly.
He was leaving in a matter of days and couldn’t sit and watch a kid-movie with his daughter?
“Okay sausage, I’ll watch your movie with you,” he said, realizing I would not give him an out.
“I’m tired so I’m going to go up to bed now and will probably conk out pretty early – so, goodnight.” I bent to kiss Molly.
“Good night” I nodded to Neil.
“Good night,” he said pleasantly.
A breeze blew through the little room, rustling the new leaves of the oak tree gently against the window screen. I’d need to get those branches trimmed this year. For the first time in weeks, I felt calm. Everything was going to be all right. I ran through the logistics of our future in my head. How would I get Molly to England? At least for a couple of years, I’d have to take her there and back. I couldn’t imagine putting her on a plane to fly over the ocean alone.
I read until I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer. Just as I turned out the light, Neil came to the doorway and called in to me,
“Would you like a cup of tea?”
I glanced up. “No thanks. I’m going to sleep now.” I burrowed into my pillow.
“Okay.” I heard the door shut behind him.