Out the Gate

Like thoroughbreds at Churchill Downs, my ten-year-old daughter Lily and I prepare to surge out the kitchen door. I’m ready first. Sitting in an aluminum chair, I read while I wait for her. Lily darts from room to room, looking for the shoes she has scattered like seeds. When she’s ready, I call up to the third floor: “We’ll meet you in the car.”

We wait in my Honda, older than Lily, in the driveway. A few red maple leaves that resemble her toddler handprint paintings cling to the car’s windshield.

“Is Dad coming with us?”




“Why does it take so long?”

“Honey, it’s just the way he is.”


“Well, not all dads are like this, but it’s the way your dad is.”

Illustration by Anna Hall

I could say, “Because he has obsessive-compulsive disorder.” But he doesn’t agree that he does, and Lily’s too young to understand OCD. The label is useless. It doesn’t capture his three trips back inside for every teasing faux-departure: the alarm armed, the two locks secured, his fast trot through the backyard. He reaches the gate and then whirls: he’s forgotten his wallet, his keys, his glasses, himself. Vinh canters back through the yard, unlocks the door, disarms the alarm. He checks something inside—the stove burner, the lock, his hat, his shoes, his reflection. He wonders: Is his coat warm enough? Each thought is a jockey he can’t buck off. I start the engine, hoping he’ll soon appear.

Every departure is layered, like his stuff in the basement storage room. I could peer through its rectangular window if I crouched in the driveway. I’d see a gold racing bike mounted on top of the strata like a trophy awarded for clutter.

We married and moved into this house a decade ago. At first, I was outraged by the way he stole time, stretched it like Silly Putty until it was amorphous, as if it belonged only to him. But as the years passed, my acceptance weathered like our home. My curiosity is as immovable as its fieldstone foundation; my impatience has mellowed to the texture of our clapboards, softened by rain.

I shut off the engine. Lily and I have learned to equip ourselves for the wait, for the layers of time that will peel back to reveal my husband, her father. I carry a book in my purse, and she brings a pen and sketch pad. I open my book. I hear her pen scratch; she’s probably drawing a dog. Sometimes, if the wait stretches, I’ll pull up a funny hamster video for her on my phone. We are close enough to access our home’s wireless network.

One fall morning, on his way to work, Vinh cut himself in the driveway and came storming back in; he couldn’t find the Band-Aids and slammed the medicine cabinet, mumbling. He stormed back out. I wanted to help, but that morning I’d grown restless at the sound of his feet repeating the three flights, a piano student pounding out “Chopsticks.” Just go, already.

“We’ll call him at work,” I told Lily as we walked up Pond Street to her school. “Make sure Dad’s OK.” There were levels of OK: he worried about infections, germs, parasites in rain puddles. I called the pharmacy Vinh managed. He was free from contagion.

“Dad’s OK,” I said.

In the early years of our marriage, my frustration had escalated and bloomed into curses that steamed the car windows. I Quasimodoed over the steering wheel. “What the hell is he doing in there?”

“Mom!” Lily knew I’d said a bad word. Honking would follow the expletive. I’d slam the horn once with the heel of my hand, a jugular chop. If that failed to produce Vinh, I’d call him. If I got voice mail, I’d hang up. If he picked up, I’d ask, “What are you doing in there?”

I didn’t go back in the house. That never changed his behavior. Perhaps, I reasoned, Vinh’s love for Lily might spur him. I’d send our daughter to knock on the door and tell her dad to get a move on, we were late. I knew it was unfair to put her in the middle, knew how it felt because I had been that girl, too, the little emissary Mom sent upstairs to rouse Dad for dinner. I’d strike the mattress with the heel of my hand and watch it bounce; he’d wake with a snort. Dad would stare at me with wild, bloodshot eyes. I blamed myself for his failure to recognize me, for the way he stayed in his room, unknowable, his earbuds nullifying my existence.

I used to think I could read Vinh’s mind. Now I sit in my car, unknowing. Sometimes I sit so long I imagine I hear the gates of time creaking shut. It’s not too late, I think. I will save myself from this man. And that’s when I see him. My husband. He is hurrying out of the gate and down the driveway toward the car, and he looks worried.

About the Author

Kristen Paulson-Nguyen

Kristen Paulson-Nguyen (@kpnwriter) is a cofounder of Tell-All Boston, a series of real stories read live. Her writing has appeared in the New York TimesHeadspace, and the Boston Globe.

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