Trust is this invisible thing that holds families and societies together. It allows people to count on each other. When you have it, you don’t think too much about it. But when you lose it, you start questioning everything.
Could we trust these strangers in our house?
Could I believe my husband?
And you: Can you trust me? What if I’m one of those unreliable narrators? What if I’ve conjured up one or more of these characters in my head? I promise you I haven’t, but why should you believe me?
When I was a kid, I thought my life was pretty normal. When you feel safe and solid, you don’t think to yourself, I feel safe. You just feel that way. For seventeen years, it never crossed my mind that I might be standing on a rotting foundation.
Sure, I wished my dad were around more. He stayed late at the office a lot and went on frequent work trips. But he consistently showed up for my school choir concerts. He was the one who encouraged me to try out for solos. When I started acting in musicals, too, he was so proud of me and always brought flowers to my performances.
On the day I was leaving for college, my dad was supposed to be there to say good-bye, but he couldn’t get back in time from a conference. My mom sat down next to me on my bed, packed suitcases and boxes at our feet.
“I hate having to tell you this, but I think it’s time you knew,” she said. “Your dad has been having affairs for years. Whenever he’s late or stuck somewhere, it’s usually another woman. He’s probably with the latest one right now.”
“Wait, what?! You’re kidding, right?”
“I should have left him years ago, but I couldn’t. I kept thinking he would come to his senses and stop. But it’s just who he is.”
“How do you know?”
“Oh, Elise, I’m not going to present you with the evidence. But I could. He knows that I know. We’ve fought about it many times.”
How had I missed all this? I felt so stupid. And betrayed.
She went on: “He won’t deny it if you ask him. I told your brother two years ago before he went to college, and your dad came clean to Matt when he asked.”
“You told Matt two years ago?” Suddenly Matt’s emotional distance since going away made sense.
“I didn’t want to tell you then. You had two years of high school left, and it was so important to you when Dad came to your performances. I couldn’t destroy that.”
“So, you just destroyed it in retrospect,” I hissed. Tears were streaming down my face. I was gasping for air and thought I might pass out.
“We both love you, Elise. Nothing can change that. Your dad is still your dad.”
Mom put her arm around my shoulder, and I threw it off.
“You do know that I have friends coming to pick me up for a three-hour drive, right? Great timing, Mom.”
“I think it’s best this way. Now, if you don’t want to talk to me or your dad for however long, we won’t all be under the same roof.”
On the drive to school, I cried and cried to my two best friends. We all shared a dorm room, and they had to deal with me on many a sad, drunken night. I almost flunked out that first year, but eventually I got my act together.
I never really stopped talking to my parents. I refused to confront my dad about it, and he said nothing, either. I did talk with my brother. Matt told me he had decided to cut them both out of his life entirely. He hated Dad and he couldn’t stand that Mom was putting up with this shit, even after we had both left home.
When I was 21, Matt broke off contact with me. He thought I was still trying to win Dad’s approval. He called me pathetic. It’s been a little over ten years since we’ve spoken.
Mom and Dad still live together, but their marriage is over. It’s just a convenience thing, them sharing the house. It’s a miserable place to visit, so I go for a couple days once a year at most. Mom drinks a lot. She often asks about Matt; she can’t believe he’s not talking to me. Dad, on the other hand, seems light and free. I guess he finally has full permission to do as he pleases.
Sometimes I wonder how many half-siblings I might have out there. Is Jocelyn a child of my dad’s, here to check me out? If so, why go to all this trouble? Why not just send me an email, or knock on the door and say, hi there, I think I’m your sister?
When trust has been yanked away from you so unexpectedly, so completely, it makes you suspicious. Anything becomes possible. Everything is on the table.
“Jocelyn, where are the kids?” Dean asked.
“They’re in the den, watching a movie.”
“I’d like to check on them.”
Dean and Jocelyn looked at each other, and after what could have been years, she went over to the bench and helped him get up. He was limping as they shuffled off to the den.
I grabbed my snow boots from the coat closet next to the bench and put them on as quickly as possible.
“I’m going to clear off the steps,” I announced and dashed out the door.
The snow was falling thick, creating an eerie silence. I looked left and right—where was our damn shovel? I gave up and clomped up the stairs as quick as I could. Up at street level I saw one car, maybe an SUV, parked in the driveway of our weekends-only neighbor. The car had a lot of snow on it. Too much snow on the hood for it to have been opened recently, at least in my estimation. And there was no sign of the mechanic’s vehicle.
I had left Jack alone in the house with those people. What if Dean was faking his injury?
I ran back down the steps, almost falling myself.
Jack and the mechanic were still standing there, and Jocelyn and Dean were just coming back into the foyer.
“Elise, did you go for a little walk?” Jocelyn asked.
“I was going to shovel the stairs,” I said, realizing how ridiculous I looked, covered in snow, with boots on, but no hat, coat, or gloves. “But I changed my mind.”
Jocelyn started to say something, and I cut her off.
“I think it’s time for all of you to go,” I said, shaking from the cold and the adrenaline surging through my body. I was afraid to kick them out, and I was afraid to let them stay one minute longer.
“Look, Elise, I can explain,” Jocelyn said.
“Explain what, Jocelyn?”
This time Jack cut her off: “No need to explain, just leave, please.”
“We can’t do that, Jack.”
Dean growled, “Let’s just go, Jocelyn. You’ve messed around here long enough, and now I’m hurt, and there’s a ton of snow on the ground. Let’s get the kids and go.”
“No!” Jocelyn shook her head and scrunched up her face. “We won’t be leaving until I get what I came for.”
Coming Up: Part V, Negotiation