By Stephanie Land
When we moved to Montana, Jamie stopped calling Mia for months. We had our own place in this old house next to downtown and we’d go for walks to the park and the river. Then he called to say he’d moved to Portland and had a new job which meant regular paychecks. He said a judge would make me move to Portland if I tried to get more child support. He said the money they garnished from his pay and sent to me kept him from living his life the way he wanted. It kept him from pursuing his dream of opening a bicycle shop. It kept him from cross country bike trips. He made over a thousand a week and I got seventy-five. He called and said he couldn’t afford her visit that summer. He couldn’t figure out how to pay for childcare and feed her and pay support and pay rent. He’d told her he’d buy a big girl bike and teach her how to ride on two wheels. The training wheels stayed on her bike at home. I couldn’t convince her to try.
When we moved into our new apartment last fall, I gave her the big bedroom. She hung pictures of her dad all over the walls. She’d done this in the past, hanging the one in the red frame in particular. The one where we’re both smiling in our hooded sweatshirts. He has his arm around me and I’m leaning in. Mia’s sitting in my lap, looking at us. I might be imagining it, but I can see the uncertainty on her four-month-old face. We’d just come from another useless counseling appointment where Jamie confessed he wasn’t attracted to me. He said it like that, out loud, in front of another person. He said he kept seeing this girl riding her bike around town. The girl was skinny and shorter and had a style of dress that he liked and he wanted to be with her. Not me. “The girl on the bike” would be his new phrase. As in “you’re not the girl on the bike.” As in “I want the girl on the bike.” I’d leave the picture where Mia hung it for a while before I moved it back to a slightly hidden somewhere by her bed.
I’d needed him to love me then. I’d just had his baby and we were living together like a little family. I didn’t care that I no longer recognized myself. That I cried. That I didn’t write. That I sometimes snuck outside to smoke a cigarette, peeking in on the baby while she bounced in her chair. I couldn’t talk to anyone. I’d let him take that from me. I couldn’t tell people what went on at night. That he yelled and hit things. That I sobbed on the bathroom floor while he slept. That I’d wake up to him entering me from behind, telling me I better lie still.
Mia’s seven now and talks to her dad through video chat once a week. They’ve been doing it for about a year. She came home from his house last Christmas thinking she’d never see him again and I told him to set a weekly time to talk. She came home mad at me because he’d said it was my fault she couldn’t see him more. He’d told her we couldn’t all live together because I chose to have her too soon.
He enters our home through the computer screen; an intruder in my house during our intimate Sunday mornings. He’s there while I walk around in pajama pants. I wonder if he thinks I’m fat. I guess his opinions on my hair. He’s there when I make coffee and stir in cream and do the dishes and I hear his voice talking to her and it makes his voice in my head that criticizes me all the more real. I hear them talk about what they’ll do that summer knowing he’ll probably find a way to flake out again and I want to reach over and close the laptop and tell her he lies. He lies to make himself feel better.
But she’s only seven. He’s in pictures hung all over the walls in her bedroom. She believes the snapshot. She doesn’t know the history. I want to tell her so he can’t slowly break her heart over a span of years anymore. I want to tell her so she’ll take the pictures down.
So sad, so beautiful. Thank you.
You should tell her. When she’s older of course, and bit by bit. But don’t leave her to figure it out by herself. I remember my mother telling me my father was never going to stop drinking, and while the truth hit me like a two-by-four, I also was incredibly grateful that she said it.