I knock on the door three times, waiting for an answer. Finally, I push open the door – my door – and hear a distinct, familiar giggle. My oldest daughter comes bounding towards me as something flies behind her hitting her. She laughs and picks it up, throwing it back at the unseen person. Apparently they are playing a game. I stand there awkwardly with a tight smile on my face. I try to keep my eyes trained straight forward to avoid really absorbing anything around me. It’s hard to feel both utterly at home and strangely out of my realm at the same time.
I encourage my daughter to get moving, to say good-bye, grab her stuff, let’s go. As I weakly push her to keep going, a woman steps into view. He introduces us. I quickly acknowledge her and then become acutely aware of where my eyes go. I don’t want to appear as though I’m sizing her up so I quickly glance away. There is nowhere safe to look. On the counter is the canister used for sugar that I carefully measured out after I made thick, rich french press coffee many years ago. In the glass cabinets sit the plates I registered for before we got married. The wall surrounding the kitchen window is still the bright orange I painted it while in a fit of depression and anxiety over not being able to conceive the child jumping in front of me. All of these things are mine and not mine simultaneously.
And then she calls my daughter ‘sweetheart.’ I’m sure she means well and it just slips out but suddenly I am able to identify an emotion within myself instead of just the twirling tornado of uncomfortable debris. I am angry and defensive. She can have him – I happily acknowledge their relationship – but she cannot have her. In different times I would have been locked and loaded. This woman – a stranger – has called my daughter a term of endearment. In the moment, I let it pass; treat it like the woman is a waitress with murky boundaries handing my daughter her drink. As I sweep her quickly out of that house, letting the same screen door slam that I had passed through thousands of times before, I clench my jaw.
The contrast is real. The jovial atmosphere of the house and him and her versus the screaming baby and the tension in the dark car with me. My daughter doesn’t seem to notice. This is just something she does. She has bits of her life that happen there and most of her life that happens here. I try not to feel guilty for the stress I perpetually feel; try not to feel resentful for the light-heartedness he seems to always share with her.
It is strange to be back in our real lives remembering that life. Each so distinct; each so concrete in their times. That house is like a ghost town always waiting for me to visit, each item just as I left it, just a few things slightly different offering an unnerving effect. These are times that test where I am now, cause me to reassess and wake up, make changes, rock the boat. They test my confidence and stamina, challenge me to be clear with my daughter, teach me how to smile when she talks about the fun games she plays when she’s there. But I am only human and I can’t help the relief I feel when she tells me, after it’s all said and done, how happy she is to be back with me where she belongs.