On our marks, we’d line up evenly on the blue-speckled plastic tile of my pre-school’s playroom, complete with a fake kitchen, light pink toddler-sized dollhouse and shelf upon massive shelf of board games like Candyland, Trouble, and Chutes and Ladders stacked under plastic bins of blue and red plastic building blocks. We would get set, eyes fixed on the elm wood door leading to the classroom where all of my peers woke up from their naps, exhausted from the five hours they’d already spent playing house and riding the tricycles in the playground. I was special–my dad brought me to pre-K after lunch every day because he didn’t work nine to five like my mom and the other kids’ guardians did. Instead, he went into work around 1:00 p.m., and after he dropped me off, I wouldn’t see him until the next day. I’d spend the afternoon with my friend Victoria, stacking up tall towers of blocks in the same color until my mom picked me and my younger sister, Mari, up at six. She’d take us home and angrily prepare three meals: something gross like lasagna for her and my dad, something Mari and I would actually eat (spaghetti, more nights than not. And only spaghetti. Once, she tried to give me bowtie pasta, and I freaked out), and further split our pot of pasta into two, because Mari would eat sauce or butter on her noodles, whereas a heap of parmesan cheese was adventurous as I would get. Mari and I would each get a bath after being yelled at for running around in only our towels, singing, “I’M NAKED! I’M NAKED!” delaying bath and bedtime like relentless hyenas, relishing in our little-kid stench and unwilling to cooperate. At the end of the night, we would grow tired and I would fall asleep, sitting on the floor between my mom’s legs as she propped them up while she watched Friends and folded our socks. All the while, my dad would be writing or editing or doing whatever he did at the newspaper (which I now know was, in fact, all of the above AND page design, as he’s worked probably every position in his nineteen years at the paper) typing away at his keyboard until midnight or later when he finally drove home to fall asleep immediately, exhausted from his twelve hour work day. The next morning, Mari and I would wake up long before he would, eat the breakfast my mom had prepared for us before she went to her nine-to-five and wait for our dad to take us to pre-K again. Mari would go off with her teacher as soon as we walked in the door of the red-roofed building, leaving my dad to walk me to mine. On our marks, we’d get set, and GO! We raced towards my classroom door, walking on only our heels as fast as we could, like two penguins speed-waddling to the other side of the glacier. Sometimes he would let me win.
Before saying goodbye, we’d do our handshake. Fist bump, rotated ninety degrees to a thumbs up, sealed with a high five. I’d walk my pink Payless shoes into the classroom and he and his New Balances would head to work, one of us high off the victory, both high off the fun of it. Until tomorrow’s race.
“I have something to tell you two.” My mom perches her body as light as her words on the other side of the full-sized bed Mari and I are lounged on. It’s ten in the morning, I’ve just woken up and am waiting for the restroom to be vacant. As my sleepy brain registers her words I freeze, forgetting that I have to brush my teeth, my urge to pee gone. I know what she’s going to say.
It’s Saturday, December 28, during the winter break of my junior year of college and the three of us are in San Antonio, Texas, celebrating Christmas with my mom’s side of the family: a tradition we’ve held every year since our family moved to Texas. The night before, we gathered in my aunt’s formal living room under the warm yellow glow of her lamps as my cousin Dena played Santa, sorting the massive pile of presents below the tree and delivering each of them straight to the lap of the person whom they belonged: me, Mari, my mom, Aunt Kristine, Aunt Rosa, Uncle Phillip, Uncle Rob and my cousin Connor. She gave all of my dad’s presents to my mom so he could open them when we got back home. He never comes to Christmas in San Antonio.
“Your dad has been fooling around with other women for fifteen years.” She takes a deep breath and tries to read our faces. I try to read hers but can’t even distinguish her eyes from her mouth; I don’t have my contacts in and the world is swirls and fuzz. I tune into my other senses instead: her voice calm yet heavy, the air still and silent. No one cries.
“I decided I’m not going to Houston tomorrow and I’m not going to make you go either,” she continues. Also as tradition, every December our family loads up our car with presents and drives four hours North to visit my dad’s family for the holidays. Every December we sit through uninterested conversation about my twenty-one-year-old cousin’s two children, my grandma’s arthritis, bad hip, and high cholesterol, or the similar health problems of her weenie dogs (“It’s not his fault he’s obese. He’s food obsessed!”) while my sister and I, in college, on teams and in clubs, with jobs and apartments, go unasked about. And every December my sister and I protest, tired of wasting our break visiting his family as a formality, but every December we go anyway, including my mom––in fact, she’s usually the one who makes us go, for my dad’s sake. Clearly, this December is different.
“Why?” my sister asks with grey indifference, finally breaking her silence. Her apathy has always astounded me. I, on the other hand, am calm, but speaking only one word could release the tears that I didn’t realize until now have been stewing for years and years. I’m not ready for that yet.
“Because, we were all sitting around last night, opening presents and eating dinner, and everyone kept asking me, ‘Where’s Ross?’ like they do every year and I just had to keep telling them he was working and he’d be here if he could, but I know he wouldn’t. And every year we go to Houston and they all have this image of your father that isn’t real. And I’m tired of playing the wife. I’m tired of playing ‘happy couple.’”
When I was in elementary school, my mom worked for a state-run healthy marriages program that offered relationship counselors and classes to struggling couples. She was the supervisor of the program and had little to do with the actual coaching but still she would bring home lime green trinkets and office supplies handed out by her company. Our drawers were filled with pens, magnets, keychains and USB drives stamped “Twogether in Texas.”
Always the actress, I would pretend to be my mom at her job. Though I had no clue what her position really entailed, I imagined it was similar to what I saw in movies: a therapist with a clipboard, nodding her head as she took notes on the conversation between the couple sitting slightly apart on a loveseat across the glass coffee table.
One day I sat on the toilet of my mom’s bathroom, door open as she sat on the bed in her room because I was afraid to go to the bathroom alone. I must have been talking to my mom about her job because I told her, “I’ll be you and you be a couple,” casting her in my great performance, showing her what I pictured she did from nine to five. In my tiny, deepened Serious Voice I launched into my script. “So, I see you two are having troubles with your marriage. What seems to be the problem?”
She laughed at my phony adult voice for a second and then became serious. Her thin brows furrowed, eyes hard with concern. “Emily, do you ask that because you see your dad and I fighting all the time?”
Shocked that she would interrupt my performance with such a heavy question, I shook my head. I was just having fun. I knew my parents fought but they tried to keep their arguments as private as they could in our thin-walled home. Mari and I heard the shouts and sometimes even watched if the fight never made it to their bedroom, but wasn’t that normal? I saw it on TV all the time. Honestly, I hardly even thought about it.
She sinks a little lower on the bed, like she’s easing herself into the conversation. “I’ve been pretending for fifteen years. I don’t want to pretend anymore. So I texted your dad last night and told him I wasn’t going to go and I wasn’t going to make you either. And I told him I decided to finally tell you.” Her voice sounds like it’s being squeezed through a tube of toothpaste, held and high-pitched, the same way it always sounds before her tears.
“So you’ve known for fifteen years. When did you find out? Did you talk to him about it? How do you know it kept happening?” I find my words. I have questions. I want answers.
“Remember that camping trip we all went on? When we stayed in the cabin? You were really young.” I nod. I remember nothing specific from the trip except the cabin itself, with its golden wooden walls and tiny staircase and the pastel green couch in the living room. At age six it felt huge to me, although in hindsight it was probably rather small. Much like our home in Texas, it offered little in the way of privacy.
“It was then. He brought his laptop for work and I needed to use it for something, but he forgot to log out of his email. I saw all of these messages to all of these women . . .” At the same time her voice fills with disgust, my stomach empties to nothing. I could vomit.
“Did you say anything to him?” I ask. I have no recollection of the conversation and despite her knowing about his cheating, they’re still married. I wouldn’t be surprised if she went without bringing it up.
“Of course I did!” my mom exclaims, like I’m ridiculous for thinking that she wouldn’t call him out for cheating in front of her six and five year old daughters. Sue me. “I asked him right then and there.”
“And what did he say?”
“Nothing. He just walked away.” She pauses for a minute, then recounts, her voice tight once again, “I’ve asked him so many times. Over and over. There have been times where I’ve screamed at him, trying to get him to listen while he walks out of the house and drives away. I always wondered: Why don’t you just tell me the truth? I already know.” Mari stays silent, fiddling with the comforter. My mom’s fuzzy figure hasn’t shifted but I know that her tears have fallen.
“Anyway, we stayed married because of money. We couldn’t afford it. You two know that.” We do. I picture myself on my fourteenth birthday, sitting in the passenger’s seat of my mom’s car as she drove us to my birthday party after she and my dad had just gotten into a screaming match about something or another. I stared out the window as we drove across the highway, my mom launching into yet another tirade about my dad. I must have tuned most of it out because I don’t remember the specifics; I had heard it plenty of times before. But word for word I can still recall her cold voice asserting, “If it weren’t for you and Mari, your dad and I wouldn’t be together.” We passed the Everhart exit. I watched all of the big chain restaurants in Moore Place move behind us–On the Border, TGI Friday’s, Macaroni Grill. I didn’t say anything. I didn’t cry.
My mom breathes deeper now, reeling the tears back in as she tells her story. “I seriously sought out a divorce when you two were in middle school. I got a divorce attorney and everything but he told me we should wait until the two of you were older, until you had moved out. Then, you wouldn’t have to choose who you lived with, it wouldn’t put you in that position. You’d already be gone and it wouldn’t matter.” She sighs once, as to punctuate her decision. “It was the right choice. And someday I will leave him. You both know that. But for right now, we’re okay. I’ve had fifteen years to learn to live with it; I just decided I wanted to tell you now before you found out from anyone else. I thought it should come from me.” We would later learn that the woman my dad had most recently been seeing had reached out to my mom on Facebook, and my mom was afraid she would do the same to me and Mari.
Silence again. The air feels blue but in different shades; Mari’s is a cool sky blue, unconcerned and relaxed. My mom breathes a deep indigo, expelling bits of the heavy color every time she breathes. I feel everywhere, emitting blues on every end of the spectrum, from deep navy to bright robin’s egg as I fight between relief, anger, hurt and resolve. The one emotion that never comes is shock.
“Do either of you have anything you want to say? Or ask?” My mom is an open book, always has been. My sister and I can detail her entire life, every place she lived (San Antonio, Hobbes, Seattle, Caracas . . .), all of her friends (Peter, Bernard, Rebecca, Jamie, Brenda . . .), each of her many jobs (The News-Sun, the Department of Energy, the United Way, author of her own book . . .) and every one of her trials and tribulations, except for this one. Finally, we could talk about this, too.
“I knew,” I say, and no one bats an eye. Instead, my mom nods her head. We’re all immune to surprises at this point. “How did you find out?” she asks.
“The same way you did. I read his emails.”
In still images I picture a chunky black laptop (the only computer my family owned) and the yellows and whites of a Gmail inbox. I was a snoopy child. I won’t deny the moments I spent poking around my parents’ room when they were elsewhere, rifling through drawers and shuffling through papers. I searched in the hopes of finding something juicy and private, but all I found were books and junk mail, pens and pins, things that meant nothing. Still, I was never rid of the suspicion that my parents had to be hiding something. If snoopy was my first quality, skeptical was my second––I didn’t believe in Santa, hardly believed in God and couldn’t believe that there existed any person without skeletons in their closet. One day at around seven or eight years old I found the skeletons I had been looking for all along: on the screen of the laptop were cloudy pictures of women in lingerie and the usernames they made up to chat with their online suitor: my dad. I was too young to understand sex or put words to what I witnessed, so I didn’t; I was too young to fully comprehend what I now knew, so I didn’t do that either. I have no thoughts, no emotions tied to this very pinnacle moment; sometimes I’m unsure it even happened. I don’t remember what I did after, but I’m sure I didn’t cry. I’m sure I didn’t tell. And I’m sure that I’ve known for a long, long time and carried that knowledge with me through my childhood and adolescence and into young adulthood.
“Why didn’t you tell?” Mari asks.
“I figured if I knew, Mother knew. There wasn’t a point,” I lie. The truth is, I don’t know. Maybe I was afraid of getting in trouble. Maybe I was afraid of opening a can of worms I didn’t want opened. Maybe it was just too big. At twenty-one years old and fully moved into my own apartment across the country, I speak with my father twice a month at maximum and always over text: a gray chat bubble that reads, “How was your first week?” followed by, “Good! Very tiring” in green and then silence until two weeks later. But still, even now the weight of what I found in his inbox feels too large to sit on my shoulders.
“I don’t want this to ruin your relationship with your father. I’m telling you for me. To get it off of my chest,” my mom says earnestly. Her voice drips with kindness. My mom has always been the most selfless person I know.
Mari pipes in, her tone matter-of-fact. “Well I never had a relationship with him anyway, so I don’t feel like anything was lost.” My sister has always been the toughest person I know.
I try to think about my own relationship with my dad but am instead confronted with his absence. If my childhood memories are a box of pictures, they exist in images of my mom as she cooked us dinner and gave us baths, drove me to rehearsals and picked me up from after-school care. My dad is featured in the family photos taken at holidays and at get-togethers, but few exist of him without my mother, or with him and me alone. At the bottom of the box, hidden under pictures of family vacations and birthday parties are photos of the fights, between him and my mom or him and Mari, myself always out of the frame, hiding in my room or cowering in the background. It’s always been easier to pretend these things don’t happen. I realize: Maybe I didn’t tell because I didn’t want it to be true. Maybe I wanted the man who dropped me off at pre-K and raced me on the heels of our feet to be that man forever. But maybe he’s both men: the one who would announce, “On your marks, get set! . . .” right before we’d go, and the one who was never around enough to declare anything else quite as loudly––not even, “I’m sorry.” Even if I didn’t want to believe it, I guess he always has been.
Finally, I start to cry.