Thank you for visiting Book Club Mom’s Friday Fiction. Below is Chapter 23 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 23 – “Separate and Icy”
Jimmy lay passed out in the front seat of his truck and I wondered if it was the beer that knocked him out or the plain exhaustion of grasping the trouble he was in. I let him sleep while I gathered the rest of his empty beer cans and threw them in the trash. Then I closed up the back of the pick-up, dragged Jimmy over to the passenger side and drove him home.
I didn’t want to sleep at Jimmy’s that night. I had a vague sense of this change in my thinking and was surprised to feel comfortable with it. I got him inside on the couch, put his keys on the hook in the kitchen and left quickly.
Mom was home when I pulled into the driveway and I could see the light shining from her bedroom window. I wondered if her door would be open and if it would be strange for me to poke my head in and say hi. I climbed the stairs and saw that her door was open slightly as I had guessed, and I could see Mom sitting up in bed. She had a magazine in her lap and she looked up just as I reached her door on the way to my room. Our eyes met and my heart ached for a time when I could have told her things, but hadn’t. “Hey Mom,” I said and Mom called out “Hello” and I kept walking. That was all I could handle at the moment, but a glimmer of possibility ran through me. Maybe it wasn’t too late for Mom and me.
How much my life had changed! How impossible to return to the time when everything was good.
Long after Dad left, when the feeling of rejection had faded, I tried to figure out just why he left. Mom and Dad had argued a lot during that last year. I knew the coolness that was there between them after they fought, the chill that would run through our house and reach me and Stevie. I could feel an iciness that made me tense my muscles, draw my shoulders in and I stared at the wall until it blurred.
Before there were problems, when I was nine and Stevie was eleven, we took a road trip to Maine. We had only been on the road a couple hours and we had just crossed the George Washington Bridge and were headed on the Cross Bronx Expressway. Mom was nervous about the ride. She didn’t like the area. She had wanted Dad to take a different route. “Why didn’t we take the Tappan Zee Bridge, Steve? I hate going this way.”
“The Tappan Zee takes longer, Jen. This way is fine. I go this way all the time when I have to drive to Stamford.”
“But what if we break down? I don’t want to get stuck here.”
“We’re not going to get stuck. We’re passing through. Don’t worry.” He smiled. The radio was playing, Dad was whistling. His hands held the wheel loosely, confidently.
I looked out our car window. Mom was afraid of bad neighborhoods. It didn’t seem so bad to me. I liked driving through cities and it was exciting to feel Dad snake his way through the traffic. I’d felt safe in the back of our car, feeling its movement as we changed lanes. I looked at the buildings, at the people. I didn’t think Mom had a reason to worry.
Mom was not convinced. “We break down anywhere near here, one block over, we’re in trouble, Steve.” Dad was patient with Mom. They were still in love, I guess. He reached across the seat and touched her arm and she looked at him and smiled weakly. And then Dad started talking, joking with Mom, teasing her. He had a way back then of pulling Mom up and out of something, like she was a child at the beach and he was reaching down to pick her up, lifting her off the sand before the wave came, to keep her safe. And that’s what he did in that car. He was driving and weaving through the underpasses, shifting lanes. We were cruising at what seemed like only inches from big trucks and other cars so that you could see right into them, see the people sitting there just like us, flying across the expressway and all the while Dad was doing that and he was laughing and telling jokes so that all four of us were cracking up in our seats. And I thought, if the people in the other cars saw us they would think we were crazy, but so happy because my Dad was making us laugh this way.
We cruised through and made our way through the Bronx and out of the city and when we made it to the Thruway, Dad brushed his arm across his forehead and called out an exaggerated “Whew! Glad that’s over!” and he looked over at Mom who had forgotten that she’d been worried. She was beaming. I felt the joy of the moment as it spread to the back seat over Stevie and me and I felt safe and loved in that car with Dad at the wheel.
I thought of that trip to Maine and I remembered Dad joking and Mom smiling and, even at nineteen, I wanted to go back to that day and all the days like it, to sit in the back seat of our family car and cruise through our days, Dad at the wheel, Mom by his side, and Stevie and me in the back, two kids trusting their parents to steer them through the rough spots.
I don’t know what changed or when it started. I could think of other times like our trip to Maine that were just as charmed, of waiting in long lines at the movies, but laughing even if the show was about to start and even if we knew we would be squeezing into the very back row, bumping past people already sitting with their drinks and snacks, or worse, in the front row so that we knew our necks would be sore from leaning back to see the show. We would laugh then at the silliness of our predicament, and we would remember it with happy details. Stevie would say, “Remember when you made that guy’s soda spill all over the floor Dad?” And Dad would laugh and say, “Oh, that was such a disaster,” and Mom would smile. And we would all quietly, privately, remember how Dad missed the first part of that show because he went out and bought that man a new soda and brought napkins and did his best to help clean up the mess.
The fights began when I was in sixth grade. Dad began working more and traveling and I missed seeing him on the weeknights at dinner. Mom was busier then, keeping our family going with Dad away, but I barely noticed the strain. I was deep into my own middle school life and Stevie, his. It was the beginning of what ultimately became just the three of us, then two, Mom and me, and we were already separating.
But on Friday nights, Dad would burst in and I could feel the tension ease. And our house was fun again. I didn’t know then that Mom and Dad were starting to crack from the strain. I didn’t know what they said to each other, when it was just the two of them sitting in the family room or upstairs at night. I could feel something different in the mood of our house the mornings after they fought. I’d come down in the kitchen and would expect to see Mom and Dad sitting at the table, but instead it would just be Mom.
“Where’s Dad?” I’d ask innocently, not yet sensing the coolness. And at first, those first few months, Mom would cover up, protecting me and Stevie, I guess, but also in self-defense. As if she knew that we would blame Mom for Dad not being there, since Dad always took care of situations.
Mom would answer, “Oh, Dad, he just went out to get the newspaper,” or she’d substitute newspaper for something else, something innocent and believable that I wouldn’t question.
I had no reason to question anything because I had no idea what had started. I had not understood that Dad had met someone and that this woman was forcing our family to break apart, that I had no control over its destruction. I don’t know if even Mom knew at first. How do you know that something is lost if it’s still right there in front of you?
But the change continued and I listened at their door at night to try to understand just what was happening. I strained to hear some kind of reason, something to explain the pit in my stomach, Mom’s jittery hands as she worked in the kitchen. I tried to ask Stevie if he noticed, but Stevie just shut me out. “Get real, Jessy, we’re not little kids anymore. Not everything is nice and sweet.” He’d blow it off and grab something to eat and sit in front of the TV and act like the show he was watching was the greatest show ever and leave me to figure the change.
Dad would come in and smile at me and I could tell he was trying to bring me back to where we had been, but he was trying then and that’s what was different. And if Mom was in the room, they’d be trying, always trying, at first to get back there and I didn’t know it exactly but I knew later that back when everything was good, there was no trying. It was all just easy and good and we didn’t think about how it was happening and what we were. We just were.
I wanted to get back to that feeling. Back to the feeling of just being, cruising through my life, protected by a blanket or a car that I was in, or by someone who could cheer me through.
Dad was gone. Stevie had escaped. Mom had survived but she had done it alone. We hadn’t banded together. We had left each other. And I wondered what I would find in Jimmy, once he escaped from the mess of his life, if there would be love and security of if we would come out of it separate, just like my family. Separate and icy.
Thank you for reading – all comments are welcome.
Click below to check out earlier chapters.
Chapter 1 – “Jimmy”
Chapter 2 – “Stevie”
Chapter 3 – “A Photo and a Letter”
Chapter 4 – “The Life Within”
Chapter 5 – “Jimmy’s Truck”
Chapter 6 – “The Springs Diner”
Chapter 7 – “Dinner and a Game”
Chapter 8 – “He Made Me Nervous”
Chapter 9 – “I Called Dad on My Thirteenth Birthday”
Chapter 10 – “Connections and Time”
Chapter 11 – “The Reverse Apology”
Chapter 12 – “Empty Bedrooms”
Chapter 13 – “Job Description”
Chapter 14 – “The Car I Saw”
Chapter 15 – “It’s Not What You Think”
Chapter 16 – “A Different Route”
Chapter 17 – “Choosing Balance”
Chapter 18 – “A Mother Sees”
Chapter 19 – “Taking More”
Chapter 20 – “Robbing the Future”
Chapter 21 – “I Thought I Didn’t Need Her”
Chapter 22 – “It Was Up to Me”
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