Margaret sat on the carpeted floor of her daughter’s bedroom. Amelia sat next to her, idly toying with a doll’s hair while Margaret absently thumbed through a Highlights magazine. She was trying to read a story, but the words came out as a distant drone that she knew was boring and she could tell Amelia was drifting away as she became more involved with her doll. The girl stroked its hair, bent the arms and legs into impossible gestures. Margaret imagined that before too long, the girl would try to do surgery on the damn thing.
Margaret kept reading, struggling valiantly to put thoughts of her husband’s rash departure out of her mind. If he could see her now, see how upset she was and how it was ruining what should have been an evening of reading and playing with his own daughter, would he finally understand what she had been trying to tell him?
She groaned a little as she remembered calling him selfish. It was an ugly word, because it lured men into fits of cavernous defense, but also because it was the truth. Did he not see how his delinquency rippled through his own family like waves in a pond?
Amelia’s slightly lisped voice pried its way into her consciousness. “Mommy?”
Margaret laid the magazine down and watched Amelia twisting her doll into oblivion.
“Yes, sweetie, what is it?”
She wanted to reach out and stroke her daughter’s hair, but she knew that Amelia would just scrunch up her face in annoyance at being distracted from her task.
“Why is Daddy mad at us?”
Margaret’s heart sank. She and Harold had gone around in the same circling battle more times than she could count, but somehow her daughter’s question still brought her to the brink of tears. Some part of her wanted to believe that they could find a way out of that circle, somehow fling themselves onto a rocky shore somewhere and catch their breath. But she couldn’t let go of that part of her that had to defeat him, either. Because he never would see, never would understand.
“I don’t know, honey. But he’ll be home soon. And everything will be fine.”
And that was the other part she dreaded – the worrying. She couldn’t help worrying about him, nor could she quell the white-hot resentment brewing in her chest because of the worrying. It was better that he left, of course, before one of them resorted to unretractable words or that final demarcation of domestic warfare – one of them hitting the other. And that only added to the resentment because she knew she would probably be the one to strike first.
“Is it because of the folding?” Amelia asked.
Margaret really wanted to reach out and touch her daughter, but the child’s devotion to her doll’s contortions was bordering on violence.
“What are you talking about?”
“The laundry. I saw him folding it last night and he was mad. He kept throwing socks at the wall.”
Margaret couldn’t believe what she was hearing. The one thing she asked him to help her with around the house and he was complaining about that? In front of their only daughter?
“I don’t know, honey. Maybe. I guess.” She closed her eyes and slumped down to the carpet. She felt a knot of nausea quiver in her stomach as she saw their six-year-old daughter stumbling into the role of marriage counselor. “Don’t worry about that. He was probably thinking about something at work.”
“No, I heard him say it. He said, ‘and then I have to come home and fold laundry.’ You know, kind of like growling.”
“I’ll talk to him, sweetie. Don’t worry about that.”
Margaret let the silence weave between them for a while. Amelia vigorously pulled and tugged at her doll while Margaret lay on her side, trying to find her way out of a maze that seemed to have no exit.
“I heard you yelling,” Amelia said.
Margaret groaned and lay her arm limply over her head, trying to hide away from the very air she breathed. She knew the yelling had to stop. Or, If they were going to yell, they had to find some place where Amelia couldn’t hear it. That was Mom 101 and she knew better. The swelling resentment grew hotter because her husband seemed to almost enjoy provoking her into it, without taking even a moment to consider that there might be a better place and time. That was Dad 101, too. He never did yell. He just slammed the door and left her stammering red-faced in the foyer.
“I know honey. I’m sorry.”
She really wanted to reach out and touch her daughter, but she would have to wait until Amelia had worn herself out and was half asleep. She could stroke her hair then, but she always wondered – would her little girl remember her mother stroking her hair when she was half asleep?
“I can do it,” Amelia said.
The girl stopped fidgeting with the doll, held it with both hands and stared at it. Then she smoothed down the frazzled mess she had made of the doll’s hair and laid it on the floor.
“I could fold the laundry. If you taught me how.”
Margaret felt her body sinking into the floor, the urge to cry shrouded by too many nights of fighting back tears. She had somehow numbed that part of herself because she was simply tired of crying when it wouldn’t do any good. Instead, she felt the anguish sitting inside her like a rock that would have to slowly dissolve and wash away.
“Come here, baby.”
She sat up so Amelia could scoot across the floor and lay her head in her mother’s lap. Finally, she could reach down and stroke her daughter’s hair. Breathing hurt because she had to fight even harder to keep tears from dripping out of her eyes and onto her daughter’s face. She saw the same look in her daughter’s eyes, her brow furled so that she looked older than her six years.
She struggled to keep her eyes open as she listened for the door. The minutes dragged by. Her heart jumped each time she saw light from the street flash dimly through the foyer’s frosted windows and splash on the hallway carpet just outside Amelia’s bedroom. She swore each time that she wouldn’t yell when he did finally come through that door. He would act like he was just coming home from work, as if she hadn’t driven him out of his own home. And she would hide the lonely ache she now felt, wondering if he wasn’t coming home this time. There would be no words, just furtive glances of apology as they got ready for bed and then slept through the night, feet of air between them like an impenetrable wall.
She shook her head as she stroked Amelia’s hair and wondered why he didn’t love them very much.
©2021 Michael J Lawrence