Thank you for visiting Book Club Mom’s Friday Fiction. Below is Chapter 3 of Jessica, a story about a nineteen-year-old woman who is trying break the pattern of loss and unhappiness that has defined her childhood. What Jessica wants most is to build a life with her boyfriend, Jimmy, but Jimmy is trapped in a dangerous family dynamic. When Jessica learns the truth about Jimmy, it’s up to her to save him. To do this, she must turn to the one person who has hurt her the most, her father. A series of events pushes Jessica beyond anything she can imagine and forces her to define happiness and love in a different way, and at a heartbreaking price.
Chapter 3 – A Photo and a Letter
I keep a picture of our family, the way it used to be, in my dresser drawer. I had turned eight the summer Dad surprised us and rented us a house for a week at the Jersey shore. The days were hot and we spent them playing on the beach and swimming in the ocean. Mom and Dad sat in their chairs on the beach while Stevie and I dug in the sand and rode our rafts in the surf. Their chairs were close together and sometimes they would talk or laugh and sometimes I would see Mom’s hand drop between the chairs and play with the sand in her fingertips. At night we walked the boardwalk and played miniature golf, went on the rides, shopped and ate ice cream. We were doing the things that every family around us was doing and sometimes I would catch the eye of a young girl or boy walking along in another family and I felt connected. I felt like I belonged to a larger group and that we all understood this same thing about belonging.
Mom and Dad were so happy on that trip and Dad kept surprising us with things to do. One morning we rented a surrey to ride up and down the boardwalk, Mom and Dad in the front and Stevie and me in back, the striped awning covering us. I was laughing and Stevie was teasing me. But in the front Mom and Dad were laughing over something private. They would pedal and laugh and then I think I was mostly laughing out of the pure joy of seeing them that way. I felt safe.
We rode to the end of the boardwalk and then we all got out to look at the ocean. Mom had always been the one in our family to say, “Here, let’s get a picture of us,” but this time Dad said it and we laughed because that was our inside joke the four of us shared and I felt good being in on something. Mom and Stevie and I sat on the bench with our backs to the ocean and Dad snapped the picture.
I pulled that picture out of one of our photo albums after Dad left. I had been trying to figure out what had happened to us and when I looked at that picture the first time, my throat felt tight as I stared at the three of us. Dad was not in the picture, but he was just as much a part of the moment because I knew Mom was looking right at Dad. Her smile was broad and open and her blue eyes were gleaming. Stevie and I were giggling and we looked just the way we had felt that day. I swore we were happy then and I felt raw with anger when I realized that the moment in the picture had been long gone and I had not noticed.
Mom threw herself into house cleaning after Dad left. I couldn’t understand. I wanted to ask why, but Mom was closed to Stevie and me. I felt helpless. I was sure that if I could do something, it would help. If I could reverse the time, maybe I could do something different so he wouldn’t leave. Mom didn’t talk. She only cleaned.
I told Stevie I wanted to get Dad to come back and he laughed. “Jes, why do you want to go back to those days? Dad got out of here when he had the chance and he’s not coming back. Why would he want to?”
I tried to shout at Stevie, but when I opened my mouth I could only say, “Because we’re still here. He forgot us.” I said it in a string of choked-out words, and they hung there waiting for Stevie to do something to make me feel wanted.
“He didn’t forget us, stupid. He doesn’t want us. You or Mom or me or any other part of what we have here. Forget about him. He’s gone.”
Mom went on cleaning until there was nothing left to clean and Stevie and I went to school and acted like there was nothing different about us. Then Mom got a job in a bank and made Stevie and me house keys so we could let ourselves in after school and I learned to cook dinner.
I used to jump when the phone rang during those days, still hoping it was Dad. And when the mail came, I was the first to look through the letters, hoping for something from Dad. My heart raced the first time I saw the envelope, addressed to Mom and written in Dad’s handwriting. No return address, but the postmark was from New Jersey and, in a wild fantasy I thought that maybe Dad got us a house in New Jersey and was writing to us to tell us to come there so we could start over.
Mom was still at work and I wanted so much to see her open the letter and was sure she would tell us the amazing news about moving or Dad saying he was sorry or just something good that I could hold onto. I made an extra nice dinner for us that night, thinking it was a night to celebrate and I put Dad’s letter on the top of the mail pile in the letter basket we used so Mom would see it right away. I thought about putting it on her dinner plate, like it was an award or a present or something because I was sure she would open it and smile and tell us something wonderful and then we would laugh and eat and talk about our new life and what it was going to be like.
Mom came home from work and I looked for her to see the letter at the top of the pile and she saw it but didn’t even open it right away. She went upstairs to change and I thought, well, she wants to get out of her work clothes so she can enjoy the letter and so I waited and I wasn’t worried. I just thought she was doing things her way because she wasn’t a kid anymore.
She smiled when she came down and saw the nice dinner I had made and I thought maybe she’d open the letter then, but she didn’t. We ate our dinner and it was nice and Stevie sat with us a little longer than usual. He had seen the letter from Dad and maybe he was hoping too that there was good news from Dad inside and maybe he was excited about Mom opening the letter and telling us something good.
Mom acted in no hurry and I couldn’t stand it any longer so I finally said, “Mom, are you going to open the letter from Dad?” I almost burst out more of what I had been thinking and I would have if I hadn’t looked up at Mom just then and seen her face. She looked sad even though we were sitting at a nice dinner and had been talking about nice things. And she smiled a smile, but it wasn’t a happy one, I’m not sure it was even a smile except that her mouth was formed the right way, arcing up. She made that strange face at me and said, “I’ll open it later, Jessica. It can wait.”
I wanted so much for Mom to open that letter in front of us, but I know now I was stupid. I should have known then that she wanted to do it when she was alone because the letter wasn’t good news. It was barely a letter at all, I realized because most of what was inside was what came every month from that day on, without celebration and mostly with resigned sadness.
I asked Stevie about it later that night. I wanted so much for Stevie and me to be joined together so he could help me survive whatever this was that we were going through and I never learned during those years when Stevie was still home that he had nothing to offer me except the ugly truth about our lives, how we were never going to be anything other than three separate people that used to be a family of four.
Stevie said to me later, “That wasn’t a letter from Dad. Is that what you thought? Jes, you are so stupid. That was a check, child support. He has to send us money. He doesn’t care about us anymore. Get over it.”
I couldn’t get over it. I didn’t want to believe that Dad would only send us money because he had to. I thought, well, maybe he’s getting settled and maybe he’s sending us money to help us pack up and go to him.
It took me a long time to realize that the checks that came every month meant nothing else except that Dad was sending them because he had to. I waited for them and held them up to the light, straining to see if there was a note inside, but always, it was a thin letter and if I shook it, I could hear only the check sliding back and forth inside, hitting one side of the envelope and then the other and if I shook it the right way I could make the check slide back and forth and make a sound, a click-click sound that almost ticked at the same beat as the clock in our kitchen, marking the time as it passed through our lives.
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