A loud bang startles us awake, coming from the kitchen. Our mother is opening and slamming drawers and cupboards like her life depends on it.
She rushes into the room I share with my sister, coat and shoes on, a bag of hastily assembled groceries in her hand, my eldest sister right behind her. “Girls, get your shoes on,” she says in an intense, hushed tone. “You’re not sleeping here tonight.”
Another bang, which sounds like my dad just fell out of bed, followed by the slow creak of their bedroom door opening. He’ll see us if we walk out of our room. A drunken attempt at a rational conversation will ensue. There will be tears and yelling and we may end up staying to appease him.
“Go out the window,” she commands. We obey, opening our window and dropping down a few feet into the grass below, fear passing between my sisters and me as we exchange urgent glances. We don’t dare ask why it isn’t safe to sleep at home tonight.
This isn’t the first time this scenario has played out in my childhood, and it certainly won’t be the last. We end up sleeping in various places on nights like this—my aunt’s house, a hotel, the home of a trusted friend. Sometimes the three of us girls are dropped off one at a time at various friends’ homes, and on those nights, my mom returns to our house to deal with my drunk father. I will never understand why she always goes back.
My favorite escape is the home of one of my childhood friends, Mara. Her parents are fun and loving, their home warm and inviting. Sometimes Mara and I plan to spend weekends together ahead of time, but on other occasions, I am dropped off in a mad rush of tears and confusion. Regardless of how and why I come, I always feel welcome.
I stand in the doorway of my daughter’s room, quietly watching her play with my husband. They didn’t hear me come in the house after I got home from work, so I take advantage of the rare opportunity to be a fly on the wall. They sit huddled together in her little teepee, making up stories and playing with her menagerie of stuffed animals. My husband barely fits inside even sitting cross-legged, hunched over, but that doesn’t stop him from entering her world.
I don’t think the magic of watching her with her dad will ever wear off. I still giggle along with her uncontrollable laughter as he chases her through the house. And I still tear up most times I hear her say, “I lub you, daddy,” in her sweetest, softest voice, turning her head toward his to encourage a kiss on her forehead.
They spend countless hours together each week—just the two of them. They have their own routine and love going on adventures. He takes her to the zoo, and on playdates; they explore new areas of the city, and go out to lunch at their favorite spots. He tells her she is smart and brave and kind, that she can change the world someday.
He is the dad who will move mountains to make sure his daughter understands her intrinsic and indisputable worth. A worth unmoored to beauty or intellect or talent.
Mara and I meet when we are just ten years old, and grow up together watching romantic comedies, playing sports, and talking late into the night. We never talk about my dad or what is waiting for me when I return home.
I don’t tell her that my dad has to find a new job every couple of years because his employers eventually realize he is a raging, dysfunctional alcoholic. We never talk about the fact that he rarely attends my piano recitals, track meets or soccer games because he’s too drunk to get off the couch. I can’t find the words to say that he usually can’t hold a normal conversation over the dinner table, or even bring a fork up to his lips, without slurring and spilling all over himself. I don’t tell her that he embarrasses me, that he hardly knows who I am or what’s important to me. I don’t tell her a lot of things.
But I don’t need to talk. I need a refuge.
Mara’s dad makes me laugh with corny jokes and whips up French toast for breakfast. He kisses Mara on the cheek and tells her he loves her in the morning and at night. Mara’s mom is steady and strong. She has the best laugh and a gift for creating cozy, stylish spaces in her home. She plays music to wake us up in the morning, which I find slightly annoying and endearing all at the same time.
I feel like one of their kids when I’m there—they laugh at my dry sense of humor, take me to the movies, teach me how to wakeboard in the summer, and bring me along on their family vacations. They show me more kindness than I will ever be able to repay. They embody family and home and love.
It is always hard to go back to the chaos after the calm and safety of their home. Back to upheaval and shattered promises. Back to a father who cannot help me understand my worth because he does not know his own. Back to a childhood where I often do not have the luxury of being a child.
“Mama!” my daughter’s sweet, clear voice rouses me abruptly from my memories—I have been discovered. She pokes her blond, curly head out of the teepee, eyes shining. My husband grins at me, waving hello with a hand enveloped by a fuzzy elephant puppet.
I wave back and smile softly. My daughter chatters excitedly about the games they’ve been playing, hugging my leg as she pulls me toward the teepee.
I am profoundly grateful for the peace and safety and joy that define my life. Grateful for the friends and fathers who helped me discover my worth and my identity along the way; for those who continue to walk alongside me and love me. Grateful that my daughter will always know that kind of love.
I wipe away grateful tears and join my family—my home, my haven.
Guest post written by Addie Davis. Addie lives in Seattle with her husband and young daughter. She is a communications professional by day and skilled bedtime routine negotiator by night. She can often be found in deep conversation with a good friend, making music with her husband, or playing make believe with her toddler. She believes in the power of listening well, celebrating small victories, and choosing joy. You can find more of her life and writing on Instagram.
Addie’s essay was the second-place winner of our friendship essay content in our Exhale creative community. For more information about Exhale, visit www.exhalecreativity.com.
Photo by Jonathan Cipiti