When her teenage daughter’s troubled friend turns up seeking refuge, the writer wonders whether she’s opening a door … or a Pandora’s box.
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It was a Wednesday evening, in early spring. My daughter Olivia, then 15, had a few friends over. I was on my way to hustle those friends out when the doorbell rang.
A girl—vaguely familiar—stood before me, wearing a flowery dress, both girlish and alluring. Mascara streaked down her cheeks in two dark winding rivers, her eyes red and brimming. I asked her to come in, though there was something about her presence that made me want to push away whatever trouble she was in before it could make its way inside. Olivia emerged from her room and swiftly drew the girl into her cave, and the door clicked shut.
That girl looks mature for 15, I thought. Already more woman than child. Must be boyfriend trouble. I stood in the hallway, trying to pick out a muffled word or two from the other side of Olivia’s closed door.
“What’s going on?” my boyfriend, Clark, asked, from the top of the stairs.
“I’m not sure.” I would have answered the same on any day since Olivia had turned fourteen, when I realized that I’d lost my way in a wilderness as bewildering as a forest in a Grimm’s fairytale. In the year that had followed the rupture of a best-friendship, a new group of girls had appeared in Olivia’s life. All of them seemed troubled—that word again. They had absent parents, alcoholic parents, parents who didn’t seem to mind that their kids were out late drinking and smoking weed. They did not attend Olivia’s excellent Brooklyn school where she was now almost entirely friendless. I had offered her chances to leave the school, but she was determined, she said, to “stick it out.” Her new friends were inherited from the previous best friend, a shift in loyalty, much as we adults choose sides in the aftermath of a break-up or divorce.
As I stood outside Olivia’s door, a name popped into my head, the name of the unknown girl. Sophie.* With a prescient flash, I also knew it wasn’t boyfriend trouble.
I knocked before entering, shoving aside a familiar pile of dirty clothes blocking my path. As if on cue, the other girls, except for Sophie, bolted for the front door.
“Sophie had a fight with her father,” Olivia said. “So can she stay at our house tonight?” I appreciated the editing, designed to minimize my maternal anxiety, but I was already alarmed that Sophie’s mother wasn’t mentioned as an alternative. Trouble always comes in brimming dark rivers, not in creeks. I knew that.
As an adult, the biggest trouble I’d lived through was the death of Olivia’s father, when she was 6-1/2. I knew, because my wise therapist had told me so, that whatever stability I’d since achieved in creating a home with Clark in the last ten years was likely to start cracking as Olivia reached adolescence and began to revisit the irreparable loss of her childhood. I knew that the collection of friends in Olivia’s room on that Wednesday night was a manifestation of her search for the meaning of that loss. She felt comfortable in this self-selected group of kids whose families had been also touched by trouble.
We asked Sophie for her father’s phone number and Clark texted him. The father replied quickly, thanking us. A misunderstanding, he wrote. It’ll blow over in a few days. Not the first time. We couldn’t count the number of screaming fights in our own house during the last years. Relieved by his prompt response, we were ready to give this unknown single father our support. Sophie would stay with us for a day, maybe two, things would settle down. She’d go home.
On Thursday morning Clark made breakfast while I packed school lunches. Olivia still appreciated my killer sandwiches and Sophie seemed grateful for the one I made her. That evening, Sophie scarfed down heaping bowls of my lentil soup with a gusto that startled me.
On Friday Sophie’s father texted that he wanted her back home. Sophie, her gaze focused on our kitchen floor, said she didn’t want to leave. Clark and I looked at each other. What was going on here? Neither of us knew. I said she could stay the weekend, but only if her father was okay with the plan.
Clark texted the father. Their text thread, initially a friendly banter between commiserating parents, took on an intimacy as the father began to confide in Clark. Yes, Sophie could stay the weekend. Yes, we could all agree that adolescent girls were a handful. As he relaxed into the safe anonymity of their correspondence, the father shared his disciplinary methods, learned and mastered during a stint in the military. He described his use of physical force to pin Sophie down on the floor during fights. But it is an act of love. Clark showed me the texts and we read them over and over, in disbelief. Later that afternoon Sophie confirmed that this is what had happened on Wednesday night. Though she and Olivia were not best friends, Sophie had remembered where we lived and somehow sensed that we wouldn’t turn her away. If she left our house now, she would be going home to more of the same. Not the first time, the father had written.
Clark arranged to meet the father for coffee, to get a visual: About five-ten, muscular, Clark reported. I tried to imagine how Sophie felt with the weight of this father’s arms restraining her, as if she were an opponent in a wrestling match.
On Saturday, we pressed Sophie and more of her story dribbled out. Because of past abuse in her mother’s home, and the absence of this same father, she and her younger sister had spent time in foster homes. They’d agreed to move back with their father to escape the foster system, and yet, here she was, seeking safety in our house. Given what we now knew, we began to worry about how the father might act against us, but we knew we couldn’t let Sophie go home.
By Sunday, the text thread edged into hostile territory as the father understood that he and Clark were no longer aligned as fellow parents of rebellious teenagers. He accused us of violating his parental rights and threatened to call the police. Bring it on, Clark replied.
I peeked out our living room window, as the police cruiser slowed down in front of our house. The two cops who emerged were clearly surprised by what they found, a well-kept building on a tree-lined block—and a polite man—my Clark—who invited them inside to assess the situation for themselves. I went out to greet them, and this confused them further.
“The father said his daughter was being held against her will by a single man,” one cop said. The lie was infuriating. I admired Clark’s restraint as he led the way into our apartment.
I sat close to Sophie on our couch, with my arm around her shoulder as Olivia watched from the doorway. Four days had changed everything. Sophie had walked into our home as a stranger and now I already had a mother’s urge to fix everything for her, immediately, now. But we weren’t in charge anymore.
After seeing that Sophie was safe, the cops made several calls to Child Services, allowing us to keep her one more night. Once he realized that we weren’t sending her home, Sophie’s father continued to send aggressive texts all evening including threats to pull her out of her high school. We emailed her school principal—amazingly he replied immediately—and arranged an emergency meeting for the following morning. The last call from Child Services came at 2 a.m., interrogating a bleary Clark once again about Sophie’s situation. On Monday morning at 6 a.m., we drove Sophie to school and met with her principal. Now Sophie was officially back in the system she had good reason to dread.
I was able to reconnect with Sophie a few days later, by which time her new caseworker gave me a crash course in the foster care system. I was soon in touch with the mother of Sophie’s sister’s best friend and a new relationship began. I never met this other mother, but for several months we spoke almost every day.
By late summer, now in a more than decent foster home with her sister, Sophie had a court date. The texts Clark had saved provided the evidence that allowed her to sever legal ties with her father, a terrible outcome for any child, but the best one given the circumstances.
I hadn’t seen Sophie for over a year when she turned up in a crush of party-bound girls at our house one summer evening, dwarfing me in her high heels. When she saw me, she smiled and threw her arms around me in an embrace so forceful I felt the knobs of my spine crackle. And then, amid shouts and laughter and “hurry up, duuude!” she and Olivia and the other girls rushed out again like a flock of birds into the hot night.
*Sophie’s real name has been changed
Photo: Flickr user Sophia D Photography
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