I am eight years old. I can hear my mother sobbing in my parents’ bedroom. I walk hesitantly down the hall towards the bedroom at the back of the house, wondering why Daddy hasn’t come home yet. The clock on the VCR says it’s five; he should be home by now. He always gets off work by four.
“Mom?” I open the bedroom door. She’s sitting on the bed with her wedding ring in her hand. Her face is red and blotchy; her mascara is running. She can’t stop crying. “Mommy, what happened?” She’s so strong and beautiful, and my eight-year-old mind can’t understand what could have hurt her so much. “Mommy, why are you crying?” What happens when you’re mother is hurting so badly that she can’t even take care of you?
“Daddy’s leaving,” she sniffs. She’s sobbing so hard; it’s like she can’t breathe.
“Where’s he going, Mom? He’s coming back, right?” He has to come back. He can’t leave forever. He’s my daddy. If he leaves, who’s going to fix tacos for us on Fridays? Who’s going to open the swimming pool this summer or change the light bulbs in the dining room ceiling fan? Who will I have snowball fights with? What happens if I can’t reach a toy on the top shelf in my closet? No one can do the stuff he can.
She explains what happened through her tears. “It’s for the best. For all of us.” I can’t understand. The word “divorce” stands out in my jumbled brain. The best for who? Not for me or my sister. Not for my mom. If it was the best thing for her, she wouldn’t be sitting here crying. I know one of my friends whose parents got divorced. They live in different houses. My friend said it meant they didn’t love each other anymore. How could my mommy and daddy not love each other anymore? When people got married, it was for forever, right? Like the happily-ever-after in Cinderella. Families were supposed to love each other. Mommies and daddies weren’t supposed to fight or stop talking to each other and trade their kids back and forth every other weekend like they were some kind of toy. I start to cry because I don’t know what else to do.
I am nine years old. My mom, my little sister, and I are decorating our Christmas tree. The multi-colored twinkle lights are reflected in our living room picture window. My favorite Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer stuffed animal is sitting on our couch. I press a button in his ear and he starts to sing and his nose lights up. “Mommy, do we have to go to Daddy’s house tonight? We always watch Christmas movies and look at the pretty lights on the tree after we decorate the house for Christmas. I want to stay home this weekend.”
Her eyes are shining. “Sweetie, you have to spend time with your dad, too. You’ll come home Sunday night just like always. And you can call me before you go to bed tonight.” Headlights light up our driveway, and a few moments later, the doorbell rings. I don’t understand why Daddy doesn’t just let himself in the house like he used to. But everything’s different now. Mom kisses the top of my head and hugs me tight. I grab Rudolph and my purple backpack, and I head for the door.
I am twelve years old. Mom and her boyfriend are screaming at each other in the bedroom. Ashley looks at me, and I can see she’s about to cry. “Sissy, why doesn’t Mommy just make him leave? I’m tired of all the yelling. I miss Daddy.” She sniffles and wipes her nose on her sleeve. Her curls seem to droop with her face. I want to cry just as badly. But I can’t cry. I am not a baby.
I’ve been angry lately. Really angry. I can’t help but snap at my mother and back talk her. And whenever this happens, he turns to her and whispers something about puberty. That’s the excuse for everything now, isn’t it? He thinks I can’t hear. He thinks that I’m some stupid idiot kid. Well, guess what. Puberty’s about over for me. And that’s not why I’m a moody bitch all the time. I want to run away and never look back. But I can’t leave. I have to go to school tomorrow. If I don’t make good grades, I’ll get in trouble. I have to go to my piano lesson tomorrow night. Mrs. Horseman will wonder where I am if I don’t go. I have Girl Scouts on Wednesday. Who’ll feed my hamster if I’m not here? Who will sneak Heidi table scraps? If I leave, no one will be here to take care of my mom.
“Why you no listen to me, Jodi?! I no like you talk to Mike. You my girlfriend! You listen to me!” I can hear the jealous bastard’s broken English coming from the bedroom. I hate him. We’ve been miserable since he moved in. He embarrasses me around my friends. He’s so loud and obnoxious, and he can’t talk right. No one cares about me anymore. He doesn’t like having dogs in the house. So my beautiful beagle puppy and our greyhound, Checkers—who we’ve had since I was three—are being forced to live in the back yard. And Checkers is sick. Whatever he wants he gets. What happened to what I want? No one will listen when I tell them how I feel…Even if I would tell--scream--what's happened...”Everything is going to be all right,” they say, “You just need time to adjust.” I want my mom back.
“Bera, he’s the girls’ father for Christ’s sake! I can’t just ignore him. We’re both parents in this situation.” Her voice is desperate. She sounds so vulnerable. And tired. Why doesn’t she just make him leave?
“Fine. I go then!” I breathe a sigh of relief and then think better of it. This is exactly what happened last week. He stomps down the hall and out the door in a huff. It slams behind him. I hear my mother crying again, and I go to her.
“I guess it’s just us girls again,” she says, and I squeeze her tight. “Why doesn’t anything ever work? What’s wrong with me?” But I know it’s not just us girls. He’ll be back. Probably within the hour. He doesn’t have money to find a place to live. He’s become accustomed to having someone at his every whim. It won’t ever be just us girls again.
I am seventeen years old. It’s Friday afternoon at 3:15—thank God. I toss my bag in the back seat of my car. Mr. Kelly—my English teacher—drives by in his truck and waves at me, so I smile and wave back at him. He’s a pretty awesome guy. I slide on my sunglasses, start the car and roll down my window and open the sunroof. The sun is out today, and there’s a cool breeze blowing my hair around my face. I turn up the volume on the radio and back out of my parking spot, ready to get home. The dogs are probably anxious for me to let them out because the weather’s finally so nice. But I know Heidi’s happy that she gets to come back in.
I turn right at the on ramp to get on I-70. I cuss at the semi that cuts me off. Oh well. I guess I should respect him. He could run my car over. As I pull into our driveway, I smile because the dogwood tree that my parents and I planted so long ago is blooming. My phone rings as I open the garage door to go inside. “Hello?”
“Hey girly, what’re you up to?” It’s Dad. We talk for a few minutes, and I laugh as he tells me the latest antics of his crazy English springer spaniel. “See you next Friday,” he says, “Love you, Tiff.”
“I love you too, Daddy. ‘Bye.” I sigh. It’s still not right without him in this house. It’s okay, though. I know he still loves me. And his moving out really was for the best. Everyone gets along a lot better now. He and my mom are friends. It’s nice.
I sit down in our big cushy chair with Heidi, who licks my face as if she hasn’t seen me in ages, and our little three-year-old dachshund barks at me. So I pick her up so she can get some attention too. I open my book, glad for the quiet.
Then the landline rings, and on the caller ID is the hospital's number. My mom’s calling from work. “Hey, Tiff, how about you, me, and your sister go see a movie tomorrow night after church, just us girls?” I smile to myself. “Sure, Mom. I’ll see you when you get home.” I hang up the phone. And I know that no matter who becomes a part of our lives, it will always be just us girls.