If I divorce her dad, will she still be family?

By Katie Gutierrez
@katie_gutz

He slipped off his ring—platinum, engraved to resemble the filigree of an old cowboy boot or antique gun—and handed it to me. “What does it say?” he demanded.

Around us, white lights twinkled from the branches of thick heritage oaks. Other circular tables surrounded ours, wine glasses winking in the pass of headlights. South Congress bustled on a November evening still warm on our skin, though a cool underbelly promised change.

I looked from my husband to his daughter, fifteen years old to my twenty-seven. She looked nine again, the age she was when I’d met her in Seattle and she’d given me a cool, appraising glance over her father’s shoulder. Later that trip, she’d held both our hands, swinging between us with laughter thrown up to low black clouds.

“Guadalupe,” I whispered, hot with shame.

“What does it mean?” His jaw was clenched, his eyes—so much like hers—fierce with devastation.

“I don’t want to do this.”

“Say it,” he said.

Robotically, as if I had no choice: “To remind us of better times.” Specifically, that afternoon in the Guadalupe River, where we’d draped our clothes like blankets over the mesquite and lowered ourselves by rope into the cool green water, which accepted us quietly, wrapped around us as my legs wrapped around him, and I thought—This. This is our best moment together. As if I were already cataloguing them, already knew that one day, I would need to remind myself. Would need to ask: even if it was the best, was it enough?

“What’re you going to do, Katie?” he asked. “Tell us both.”

*

She’d moved in with us that March, after sleeping on a couch for too long at her mother’s house. The week she started eighth grade, she sent me a text: Omg Katie there’s someone here shooting please come get me. Even now, the edges of my vision blur when I remember it. The panic, the terror, the maternal protectiveness that unfurled like wings, so suddenly and completely that I couldn’t breathe. I’m under a desk please hurry I’m scared.

I texted her back, called, scrambled into clothing (it was morning and I worked from home), called her father, called the school. The woman who answered was perky and calm, which didn’t stop me from babbling, “Yes, my stepdaughter—she, she said there was a shooter, I want to pick her up, is everyone okay, where should I go?” In the silence that followed, I heard myself the way she must have heard me: hysterical. Wrong.

“Ma’am, there’s no shooter here.” Her voice hardened. “Who is your stepdaughter?”

The phone calls came quickly after that: the assistant principal, the principal, a school police officer. She would be suspended. She could be arrested. 

It was April Fool’s Day.

My stepdaughter was fourteen the way I had never been fourteen. At that age, I had never been kissed. She would soon start birth control. My teeth had been freshly freed of metal, but I still struggled with my skin and my flat chest and skinny legs. She was more beautiful, her body more womanly, than any fourteen-year-old has the maturity to handle. Once, she and I went to dinner and the waitress brought her the glass of wine I’d ordered. She’d taken drugs I hadn’t touched, had bounced from the triad of her mother, her aunt, and her grandmother throughout her childhood. Life had made her whip-smart and fearless, with flashing eyes the color of the Guadalupe in sunlight. It was easy to forget, sometimes, that she was a child.

On April Fool’s Day, I remembered.

In the principal’s office, she kept trying to catch my eye. I didn’t let her. I had thought we were close. I couldn’t understand why she would want me to feel so afraid, so helpless, and so very much like a fool. On top of everything, my graduate thesis was due that week. Half a day of work, evaporated.

She was suspended, and we picked up Chick-fil-A in silence. After lunch back at home, she said she was going to take a nap. Her dad said, “Okay, baby,” as though she’d been through something terrible. She had yet to apologize. That’s when I exploded.

“This isn’t a vacation!” I said, meeting her father’s startled eyes. “You’re going to sit downstairs and do your homework and whatever other schoolwork you’re missing today. Do you understand?” I wasn’t sure he’d agree with me, but then her dad said, “Get your backpack.”

Surprised and subdued, she nodded, and I stalked from the house with my laptop. When I returned later that night, I found a note taped to the garage door. A page long in her careful handwriting, explaining that she and her mother always played elaborate pranks on each other on April Fool’s Day. Last year, she’d told her mother she was pregnant. She hadn’t thought about how scared I would be . . . and now she was the one who was scared—scared that she’d ruined everything between us. She’d seen my eyes in the principal’s office. She was sorry. She loved me.

I sighed, lightheaded again with how quickly my anger could fade. She was starting a new life here, with nothing but us as her anchors. My feelings needed to be set aside. Suddenly I wondered: was this what being a mother was like? I thought of the many times in high school that I’d hurt my mother, and how I’d still never doubted her love for me.

I went inside and up to her room, where she looked at me with sad uncertainty from bed. When I sat down and opened my arms, she fell into them with the force of a child.

*

We’d been separated for a month by the night of the dinner. The waning months of our marriage had been an electrical storm of tension and silence, vicious fights badly concealed. Yet, he had been divorced once already. He did not want to be divorced again. It was this desperate desire, I think, that made him do what he did: ambush me with his daughter at dinner. A dinner that should have been just the two of us, but that he perhaps saw as his last chance. As if maybe seeing her would keep me from making the inevitable choice. He wasn’t totally wrong—after all, she was the only reason I hadn’t done this sooner. Four years, I’d found myself thinking. She’ll be out of high school in four years. I can do this. But the state of us. I could not teach this child, this girl so quickly becoming a woman, that to stay was always right.

“What’re you going to do, Katie?” he asked.

My stepdaughter was huddled in her seat, hands wrapped around her glass of Sprite. Her gaze flicked up at mine, and she offered me the ghost of a smile.

“I’m so sorry,” I said, to both of them. “I want a divorce.”

He shoved his chair back, flushed, hands clenching and unclenching, on the verge of splintering. “Let’s go,” he said to her.

She looked between us. “I want to stay here with Katie. Can I?”

His eyes shone with tears. “You’ll bring her home?” he asked me.

“Of course,” I said.

He left, and we leaned toward each other in our iron chairs, holding tight, weeping. I stroked her hair, apologizing over and over again. Afterward, we walked down South Congress for an ice cream cone, our faces puffy in the streetlight glow. When I took her home, we sat my car for a few minutes, both of us gazing ahead at this home we’d forged together.

“I knew it couldn’t last,” she said finally, her voice cracking. She turned to me. “The day you two got married, I just knew.”

The rest hung, unsaid. She knew, but she’d hoped.

We held each other again, and I scratched her back the way she liked. “We’re family, you and I,” I murmured.

When we pulled apart, her eyes were knowing and sad. But I, always too optimistic, still believed it was possible for us to stay that way.

Katie Gutierrez is a writer and editor living in San Antonio, Texas, with her Aussie-transplant husband and two constantly shedding dogs. She has just finished her first novel. 

Image: Cypress trees on the Guadalupe River

This essay is part of our Motherwell original Divorce and Parenting series.