American Contemporary

This story contains sensitive content

Triggers: mention of mental health, drug abuse, child abuse

Jean reached into her clutch purse and pulled out a box of Pall Mall cigarettes. Aside from the occasional alcoholic drink, cigarettes were the only “bad” thing that she allowed herself to have since she completed a stint in rehab. From the front pocket of her purse, she retrieved her favorite lighter – a little metal horse that shot a flame from the end where its tail should be.

After lighting up and taking a drag, she offered a smoke to her estranged husband Doug.

Unlike Jean, Doug had not been a habitual smoker in his youth. That all changed after he got deep into his therapy to address his chronic depression and anxiety. An occasional smoke helped him relax so that he did not have to take a pill.

Doug took a clumsy pull from the cigarette and handed it back. The smoke went up into his nose and layered the back of his throat, but he managed to keep from coughing. Instead, he took a quick sip from the soda he had in his right hand.

The couple was standing between their cars in the far corner of a local strip mall parking lot. Nearly half the stores were now vacant, and most of the others had signs on their windows advertising multiple sales and “Now Hiring” promotions. Only a handful of cars were spread out on the lot, most of those belonging to store managers who would be locking up soon.

The sun had sunk below the horizon, leaving the evening sky streaked with deep oranges and reds. The only other light was coming from the light poles spaced out around the strip mall parking lot and the glaring lights from the fronts of the various shops.

Although the air was becoming cooler, it was still perfectly comfortable. If there was any chill seeping into either Jean or Doug, it would have come from the fact that the estranged couple were together for the first time in almost two years. A court order had been issued earlier in the day and their little girl, Savannah, was being removed from a horrible foster home situation in another town and returned to her birth parents.

“Man, I can’t believe this is happening,” Doug said with a slight shake to his head.

“I know,” Jean agreed through a crooked smile. “We’re getting our baby back.”

Doug stole a glance at her and caught a twinkle in her eye that he had not seen since… well, in a long time, anyway.

“I am just so, so glad that we’re getting her out of there before things got worse for her.” Doug reached for the cigarette and took another, fuller drag from it. “It’s actually a good thing that we couldn’t meet at the house to pick her up. I don’t know what I would have done to those fuckers if I ever met them in person.”

Jean looked over at her former partner and smiled to herself. She knew that this scrawny auto mechanic didn’t have a mean bone in his body. But it was nice to hear him express such an interest in Savannah’s well-being. Almost like he was ready to be a parent who could be present in her life.

“I know what you mean,” Jean agreed. “Locking an 8-year-old in her closet because she didn’t do the family’s laundry? That’s just messed up.” Jean took a pull from the cigarette. “And spanking her because she asked if she could have something other than green beans for dinner? That’s just stupid. Where does the State even find these foster families?”

Doug shook his head again.

A set of headlights came down the local highway that ran along the front of the parking lot. The two watched it until the car passed by the last driveway of the strip mall.

Doug began to say something, thought better of it, took a drink from his soda, and then stared at the shops on the other side of the parking lot.

“I’m sorry that I wasn’t better when we were together,” he said finally.

“Oh, look, honey -” Jean protested.

Doug put out a hand to interrupt her.

“Waitaminute, let me get this out.”

Jean instantly recalled that one of their previous points of contention was that he claimed that she never let him talk. She clamped her lips shut and looked off into the distance.

Doug took a big sigh.

“But like I’ve said over the phone, I think that this therapy I’ve been doing has really helped with my anxiety and stuff.” He swallowed and turned toward her. “I know that it wasn’t fair that I would just close you off and be all inside my head, all depressed and stuff. And I want to say that I am thankful, really grateful that you called me out on it. I never thought of it as depression when I would act like that. I just thought…. I don’t know. I just thought that you wouldn’t understand how I felt. Or that you didn’t care, even when you said that you did. I just tried to keep my stupid thoughts away from everyone.” Doug waved his hand towards her. “And I ended up shutting out you and Savannah. Not being the husband or father I had the responsibility to be. So again, I want to say ‘Thank you’ for making me really look at how I was acting.”

Picking up on the cue that he was done, Jean reached out and touched his arm.

“Doug, I am really happy for you. I can tell, just from the last few times that we talked, that you’re so much better. More open about talking things over. And not so down about everything. That really means a lot to me.”

She dropped the smoldering cigarette butt and stepped on it. It was her turn to take a big sigh.

“And I want to say that I am really, really sorry about what I put you through. What I put you and Savannah through.”

Her eyes started to well up and she took a step backwards while clearing her throat.

“When I was taken to jail, and they said that they couldn’t turn her over to you because you were on medication and seeing a therapist about… well, about how depressed you were.” She paused for a moment, wanting to make sure that she hadn’t said the wrong thing. “That’s when I realized how fucked up I had let things get. My own daughter – our daughter – had to go live with someone else because I was trying to avoid reality and be all hopped up all the time with drugs.”

Doug started shaking his head, but she stopped him from speaking by tugging on his arm.

“I mean it. I know that you were struggling, but I was too. It was hard, hard for both of us. Being a parent for the first time. Trying to figure out how to be a mom. Trying to figure out how to be a good wife. Wanting to do things differently than my mom, just because I’m so headstrong and I think I know everything.” Now Jean was shaking her head. “And then when our neighbor started offering me stuff so that I could join her on her little trips. It was just too easy. Too easy to escape.”

Jean stopped for a moment, fighting the urge to dive into the pit of self-recrimination and bitterness against everyone around her.

She took out another cigarette and lit it, while Doug took another sip from his soda bottle.

Another vehicle came from behind their vantage point and turned on to the parking lot. It was a gigantic black GMC pickup truck. The driver drove over towards one of the shops that was still open and parked. Whoever it was, they left the engine running, apparently waiting for someone to come out of one of the stores.

“Look,” Doug started, “We could both stand here all night and, like… beat ourselves up. But that’s not going to help right now. Maybe later we can sit down and honestly review what we need to work on together. Where we could each be better, to make our family work.”

Jean knew that was the therapy talking, but it was better than Doug not talking at all.

“I mean, I’ll definitely not go sleepwalking through life anymore.” Here he turned to Jean with a mischievous smile on his life.

“Hey,” she said, raising her hands up and smiling in return. “I only said that to you because that’s how I saw it.”

“Well, you were right. That’s pretty much what I was doing,” he said with a chuckle.

They stood in silence for a moment.

“I missed your smile,” Doug said abruptly. He couldn’t take his eyes off of Jean.

“Thanks,” she responded, with a hint of embarrassment. “I missed your goofy sense of humor.”

He nodded and looked away.

The two stood there, awkwardly shuffling their feet in the manner of people who wanted to continue a conversation but were at a loss of where to go with it.

Both of their phones buzzed with a text message. They read their messages simultaneously. It was from the social worker, Mrs. Crydon. She was going to be at the parking lot in a few minutes. Jean stamped out her cigarette.

“I bought Savannah a new nightgown to sleep in tonight, and some new clothes for tomorrow,” Jean said. “I figured she should have something new right away so that she could feel like she was totally removed from that other home.”

“Oh, that’s a great idea!” Doug said enthusiastically. “I got her a new stuffed animal to sleep with. Like… a new friend to help make her feel comfortable, being back in our old apartment. Like… to let her know that she’s safe and things are going to be better.”

“That’s really sweet!” Jean said as she touched his arm again. “The place looked really nice, by the way, when I dropped off my stuff earlier.”

“Yeah, Mrs. Crydon gave me a pretty good talking to about how clean it needed to be.”

“Oh, is that all it took?” Jean said with a mischievous arch to her eyebrows. “A good talking to?”

Doug tilted his head back and laughed.

“Yeah, yeah – I know,” Doug replied. “Hey, you’d be proud of me. I even cleaned under the toilet seat.”

“Oh! Oh, my gosh!” Jean said as she pretended to sway a bit. “Under the toilet seat?”

“Well, I used to think that I was the only one who saw that part of the toilet….”

Whatever words Jean instinctively thought to say, she held back. Instead, she leaned into Doug and nudged him with her shoulder.

“Thanks, Doug. I do really appreciate all the effort you’re putting into this.”

“Hey, I’m gonna try being an adult who pulls his own weight this time.” He looked down into her eyes. “And cleaning the apartment is nothing compared to what you did to prepare for this.”

Jean took a deep breath and looked off to the storefronts.

“My going to therapy is just learning to think about things,” Doug said quietly. “But you – getting away from an addiction? That takes strength. I always knew you could do whatever you wanted to do.”

“Yeah, well,” Jean said with a tightness in her voice. “I wouldn’t say I’m totally out of the woods yet. It’s this whole process.” She stopped there.

“You can do it,” Doug assured her. “And I’ll be there to help you do it.”

They looked into each other’s eyes. She leaned into him and pressed her head on his chest.

“You know I never really stopped loving you,” he said just above a whisper. “I didn’t get quiet all those times because I was mad at you. I was just upset about how much I felt like I was failing… at pretty much everything.”

“You were never failing,” Jean said as she took hold of his shirt and looked up into his eyes. “Like I said, it was tough for both of us being new parents. It’s just taken both of us time to figure out what to do. How the hell could we possibly know how we would feel about ourselves as parents until there was an actual little human there who needed us every minute of every day?”

Doug simply nodded.

“But we’re figuring it out. Getting our heads right, in our separate ways. We can do this. We will do this.”

Another set of headlights came down the highway. A light gray SUV turned into the driveway closest to them. It was Mrs. Crydon. The top of a little person’s head could be seen through the window of the back seat. Jean and Doug stepped forward together, holding hands. As the vehicle turned their way, the upper half of a little girl’s face could be seen peering out at them.

Savannah saw her mommy and daddy, walking towards her together. Holding on to each other. And they were smiling, really big smiles.

Which made her smile a really big smile, too.

August 12, 2022 17:31

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