Mom's Story, Stephanie Estep


May 1984

            It was Thursday, double coupon day at the grocery store on the corner.  The heat of the pavement pulsed against the soles of Jessica’s shoes.  A rusted blue Chevy pulled along the side of the road.  Jess shrugged and pushed her long dark hair out of her face; beggars can’t be choosers. Almost an hour had passed since exiting her front door. She needed to get herself gone while she still could.  She winced over the pain in her left ankle as she climbed into the cracked passenger seat, noticing the squeak of springs as she settled in, hunching into the ache at her side.
            “Where ya headed, honey?”  The white ball cap was pulled low, shading the driver’s eyes from the glare of the Arizona desert.
            Ben’ll be getting off the school bus soon.  She shook off the thought.  The kids’ll be okay. She could almost feel the shackle unwinding itself from her throat.  “East,” she replied.  “I’d like to get to Virginia.  Eventually.  So really anywhere between here and there’ll work just fine.”
            “What’s in Virginia?”
             The blue of his shirt reminded her of sheets.  She brushed that thought aside as well.   Not my problem anymore.  “My sister, her husband.  Just, people.”
            “I can take you as far as Texas.” 
            Jess settled into the seat, “That’ll be great.  Thanks.”
            “That all you got?  Just the one purse?”  He looked at the bag slung over her shoulder.  He would have been dismayed at the meager contents: a tube of chapstick, a pack and a half of cigarettes, a purple lighter, and a twenty dollar bill.
            “Yep.”
            “Kinda young to be hitching aren’t ya?  All kinds of crazy on these roads.”
            “Not so young.  Don’t worry, I’ll be careful.”  At twenty two, Jess hadn’t felt young in some time.  Couldn’t even remember what young felt like. 
            She took one last look at the mountains in the distance which were jutting up from the barren landscape, almost encircling the city she’d called home for the last five years.  The knot balled tight in the bottom of her gut.  Superman sheets fluttered through her thoughts.  Then she focused on the road ahead as it unspooled before them in a never-ending line.    Jessica ignored the echo of the crying baby in her head.  The shackle fell from her shoulders and the seats squeaked under her as she shifted her weight.


February 1983 - 16 months earlier

            Jessica was sure of her third pregnancy while standing at the counter of her kitchen, or what she had mentally labeled the “closet with an oven/fridge.”  But they were all closets to her.  One was “closet with a shower/toilet,” another was “closet with a TV/couch.”  Her twenty years of life felt like a series of these closets, with nowhere to run but into another tight space. 
            It was now time for lunch and the smell of chicken noodle soup made her wrinkle her nose in disgust.  She hadn’t wanted to believe it, but as Jessica stared down at the congealed grease floating at the top of the can, a wave of nausea overwhelmed her.  The salty odor was creeping into her nose like a living thing.  Her period was three weeks late and her breasts had been sore for two.  Dammit.  Not again…  But she’d known this would be the outcome the moment Lonnie found and trashed her pills.  That had been such a very bad day.
            Jessica looked out the kitchen window to her husband sitting on the concrete back porch, but her eyes were pulled to the horizon of the jagged red Arizona mountains. Fat clouds were lazily wandering across the cornflower blue sky and she had the sudden urge to reach up and grab one, hitch a ride away.  How easy would it be to just go?  Where would I end up?  What would I do for work? Who would I wind up with? “Hey, Lonnie.”
            He looked up, his switchblade form folded into a plastic lawn chair, sandy blond hair brushing the collar of his t-shirt.  “Lunch ready?”
             “I’m pregnant.”  At least he’s nicer when I’m knocked up. One of the few perks of growing to the size of a Jersey cow. 
            “What?  You sure?”
             “Yep.”  She couldn’t even work up a smile at the news.  All she felt was the sudden urge to go curl up in a bed somewhere and pretend this wasn’t her life.
            “It’ll be a girl this time I bet.”  He resettled into his copy of Rolling Stone.  The charming smile spread wide, all teeth.
            Jessica went back to fixing lunch, dumping the contents of the can into the waiting pot on the stove.
            “Mommy, I’m hungry.”  The mantra floated in from the two boys on the stained, tan  carpet in front of the TV.  A sound that wouldn’t quit until some form of food was set in front of their waiting mouths.  “I’m hungry, I’m hungry, I’m hungry, I’m-hungry-I’m-hungry-hungry-hungry-hungry!”
            She ignored it as usual, focusing on the simple task before her that would quiet the din, puttering about the tiny kitchen, bare feet slapping against the avocado paisley linoleum. Turning her new predicament over in her mind, she briefly touched her lower belly, lip curling in disgust at the remembered distorted shape that part of her body would take on in the coming months.  She thought about the diet pills she’d relied on in the past, but after glancing to the twisted upper lip of her youngest son, she discarded the thought.  Nuh uh, not again, just in case it wasn’t the stairs. Outside, Lonnie whistled the opening notes to Afternoon Delight, the tune slinking into the kitchen through the window.
            Caleb and Ben, ages two and four, blond and brown headed, skinny and chubby, scarred lipped and perfectly formed, littler and bigger brother, both grew quiet at the sound long before the soup reached them. Jessica could only muster up relief at the stunted screeches. The shrill peal of the corded phone hanging on the wall of the kitchen erupted into the new quiet.
            She picked up the phone.  “Hello?”
            “Sis, I lost the baby…”  The words dissolved into jagged sobs and Jessica immediately switched to sister mode.
             “Calm down, it’s okay.  It just wasn’t the right time, Sweetie.”
            “But, I was three months along.  I was so sure this one would take. I-I- oh, you have no idea how much this hurts!”
            Jessica stifled the eye roll.  Who the hell am I supposed to go crying to? “It’s gonna be okay, Sissy. You can try again soon.  And you’re young.  You’ll get there.”  She glanced at her boys waiting so patiently now since Lonnie had started whistling.  They wouldn’t stay patient for long.  The soup began to bubble.  “Sis, I’m sorry, I gotta go for now.  Call me back in half an hour?”
            And that was that.  Another baby on the way. Sheets fluttered in her mind.

 

April 1982 - 10 months earlier

            Jessica found the white crusty something while changing the Superman sheets of Ben’s toddler bed.  It wasn’t milk.  He wasn’t allowed to have drinks in his room.  She scratched along the material with her thumbnail, noting the easy way it simply flecked off.  It didn’t look like a snot smear either; too close to the foot of the bed, and too narrow of a smear.  She remembered a similar stain on her own pink sheets when she was nine, only those had been smeared white flecks with dried blood.  No, Ben’s only three!  And Lonnie wouldn’t do that.  He’s got me. 
            But she couldn’t help the compulsion to check the moons and stars sheets on Caleb’s crib against the other Crayola covered wall of the small room.  Nothing, see? Wait, is that—spit-up.  It’s just spit-up.  It didn’t matter that her seventeen month old was far too old to spit up. She went back to Ben’s bed and continued to change the sheets.  Why does Lonnie always stay up so much later than me?  Superman was replaced with sky blue.  And why do the boys hang on me so tight when he’s around?  She pushed away the thought. Paranoid, Jess.  Snot and spit-up, that’s all. All men are NOT like Daddy was.  But she really wasn’t sure if there were men out there who weren’t like that.
            She was shaking the pillow into the new case when her youngest began to wail.  Dammit!  If Ben woke his brother up I’m gonna smack him!  “Okay, okay!  I’m coming!”
            She balled up the dirty sheets and stomped off to the livingroom of the apartment.  Ben was sitting quietly on the coarse, plaid couch, hunched into the arm.  His dark hair was turned to the TV where Sesame Street was analyzing the letter N.  Caleb was standing in his playpen peering over the yellow top of his mesh walls. His blond hair stuck up in disarray after his nap, and his scarred, puckered mouth opened in a constant shriek of indignity over not having his milk yet.  On sight of his mother, the screams grew louder, hands reaching up, grasping to be brought out of his cage.  She ignored him.  Instead she made her way to the tiny kitchen attached to the back of the livingroom, and trudged to the fridge for a bottle of milk.
            A letter from Monica lay opened on her mustard colored kitchen counter.    Before opening the fridge, Jessica glanced over it once again.  It was full of her sister’s typical overenthusiastic gushing about Easter egg hunts, and how amazing Monica’s husband still was, bringing breakfast in bed at random days.  Without asking herself why, Jessica crumpled the letter into a ball and tossed it in the waiting trashcan beside the fridge.  The baby was still screaming.
November 1980-17months earlier
            Recently in labor, eighteen year old Jessica refocused on the doctor’s words. “—No one is really sure why some children are born with cleft lips.  Some doctors think it’s genetic, some say it’s more about chemicals ingested during pregnancy, others believe it has something to do with possible physical injuries to the mother during gestation.  But that’s not what we should be worrying about right now.  The specialist will be here sometime tomorrow to let you know when we're looking to schedule the first surgery.”
            She fisted the sheets of her narrow hospital bed, the words physical injuries and ingested substances on a loop in her head.  The diet pills?  No, definitely not.  The image of a set of stone steps floated to the forefront of her mind.  Physical injuries. “But when can I see him?  And when can he come home?  And how many surgeries will he need? And what about later?  Will he look normal when he heals up?”
            The doctor briefly touched her clenched hand.  “He’s gonna be okay, Ma’am.  Lots of kids go through this very same thing and come out of it just fine.  Do you have anyone to come and stay with you?”
            “Just my husband, and he’s at home with our other son.”
            The doctor began moving to the door, “I understand.  I’m sorry, I wish I could stay and give you a more in depth idea of what’s going on, but I have a lot of patients to see on this floor, and I’m sure the specialist will be able to answer your questions.  In the meantime, just try to—” The last of the sentence was lost as the door closed behind his receding form.
            Jessica looked around her cramped room and wondered if Lonnie would remember to feed Ben back at the apartment.  He was such a little thing, not even three yet.  Well, he knows how to get spoons of peanut butter if Lonnie forgets him. That much she had made sure of before calling a cab for the hospital. She took in the Catholic props on the walls, a picture of the Virgin Mary hanging adjacent to her son bleeding on a cross.  Physical injuries.  She bit back the shuddering gasp of air and watched the minutes tick slowly.

 

March 1979 - 20 months earlier

            Jessica was sixteen and naked, staring in the bathroom mirror of their new tiny apartment. The four month old baby in the next room had destroyed all the soft curves of her body, turning gentle swells into sags and stretch marks.  But the pills were going a long way toward helping her reclaim her body. 
            But that wasn't what she was looking at.  Her fingertips traced the blue outline of fingers on her upper arms.  She lightly touched her lower lip where the skin was split and raw.  The tears rolled down her cheeks.   He's never done this before.  Just gotta keep the coke outta the house and we'll be fine.
            The baby began to scream from the next room, the paper thin walls doing little to mute the sound. Good god, can't I even have five minutes? Heaving a sigh, she threw on her robe and wandered to Ben's room. “What's the matter this time?  You just had a bottle.  Oh, please don't tell me you pooped again!” 
            This last six months had been so difficult.  When she'd agreed to uproot and move three thousand miles away, she'd had no idea what it would mean to be pregnant and then giving birth in a strange city.  She'd thought Lonnie was all she needed.  And he is.  He's enough. But sometimes, she thought she would kill to have her sister come breezing through the front door, just drop in for a nail painting session or something.
            Ben was on his belly in the crib, head pushed up from the mattress to watch his mother approaching.  His cries became quiet on sight of her, knees gathering under his belly as if to launch himself out of the crib and into her arms.
            “What's the problem?”  Jessica scooped him up and settled him on her hip.  She couldn't help but be charmed by the toothless grin that spread across his face.  “Just bored?  Me too.  Let's go watch some TV.”  Thoughts of where her old friends might be came into her head.  Geometry?  World Literature?  At least I don't have to do homework anymore.  One bright bit of happiness in a world she felt closed in by.

 

July 1978 - 8 months earlier

            Jessica was hugging her mother in the sweltering bathroom of a church in Yorktown, Virginia.  Her dress was handmade by the pastor's wife, the white, scratchy, polyester expertly gathered at the waist to hide her slight bulge. Lonnie had been so excited to hear about her pregnancy.  His eyes had lit up, and he'd proposed to her on the spot.  If nothing else was reassuring about all the changes in her life, that in itself was proof she'd found the right man.  “Love you.”
            “I love you too, honey.”  Jessica’s mother lifted the short veil on her hat, and dabbed at dry eyes with a tissue.  “Time moves on.  Just yesterday I was yelling at you to stop climbing trees in your Sunday dress, and now you're getting married and having a baby!  I'm so happy for you.” After extricating herself from the embrace, she smoothed her purple satin with perfectly manicured hands, looking herself over in the tiny mirror over the sink.  She settled on the lid of the toilet.
            Jessica angled herself around the small space for her turn at the mirror, then glanced back to her mother, sitting so prim with her ankles crossed.  But even happier to be rid of me, right?  You sure signed me over to him pretty quick.  The thought was held in.  Nothing could ruin this perfect day, with her prince charming patiently waiting in the sanctuary in his powder blue bellbottomed suit.
            “And he's such a nice man, too!  A bit closer to my age, well, at twenty six he's really close to my age, but still, you know what they say.  Love doesn't see numbers.  Now if I could just get a man like that for myself.”
            Jessica took the soft hand in her own and squeezed.  “I'm sure you'll find the right man soon, Mom.”
            The words slipped out before she remembered who she was talking to, “I wish I had someone to walk me down the aisle.”
            Her mother huffed from her perch, “Be glad I got rid of that pig when I did.  I still shudder to think of what he did to you poor girls!  No, no more talking of such unpleasant things.  And walking alone is perfectly fine, and you’re going straight into the arms of your soul-mate!  Can’t get any more perfect than that.”
            Her bridesmaid sister pounded on the door. “Sis, coming out?”  Jessica shuffled around her mother to open the particle board.  As soon as it was open, Monica pulled her into a tight hug.  “Isn't this just the best day ever?  Well, no, tomorrow'smy best day ever, but still, today's pretty great, right?”
            Jessica let the words wash over her.  She let herself think for a moment what it was they were both escaping.  The endless sitting at home, twiddling their thumbs, waiting around for a mother who would likely call from work with a “Don't wait up!” message.  No more strange men at the breakfast table, no more having to call Mom by her first name in public because she didn't want to give off the “mom” vibe.  The girls were marrying their prospective husbands a day apart.  Although if Jess were being uncharitable, she thought Monica's was more of a “jump on the bandwagon” thing after hearing about Jess's impending wedding.  But, here they were, getting married.  Tomorrow they'd trade dresses and walk down the aisle again.  Jess playing bridesmaid this time.  In the meantime, it was her day.
            It's gonna be great, sis.  Now get out there!  Lonnie's waiting.”  Jessica turned her sister by the shoulders and gave a gentle shove, then readjusted the veil over her shoulders.  She ducked into the bathroom one last time to check in the mirror that the veil hung straight down her front.  “Coming Mom?”  The out of tune piano began to play.


May 1976 - 26 months earlier

            It was the middle of the week and there the girls were, skipping middle school and standing on the side of the road.  Like hippies!  Jessica thought gleefully.  Monica was scuffing her shoe on the shoulder of the dirt road.  “We're gonna get picked up by some crazy people!  They're gonna cut us up into little pieces, or shoot us with their guns or something!  And it's gonna be all your fault!”
            “Shut up!  Nothing bad's gonna happen, and anyways, don't you ever get bored?”
            “We do stuff, we do plenty.”
            Jessica looked at her sister, “Mom's got a date tonight after work and it's the perfect chance!  Please?”
            Scuffing her shoe a little more in the gravel, Monica finally relented.  “Fine, we'll go, but, I wanna go home in just a little while, okay?”
            Jessica cocked her not yet curvy hip out expertly (she'd been practicing in the mirror), and stuck her thumb out.  The first two cars that stopped they waved on.  Yeah, they were young but the weren't that stupid.  No dirty old men, thank you very much.
            Monica piped in again all too soon.  “No one's gonna stop for us.  Well, no one we wanna get in a car with anyway.  Let's just go back. C'mon, please?”
            Jessica tuned her sister out, thumb still cocked out to the open road, staring hard at the slight crest of the hill, envisioning the sleek and shiny yellow car that would appear from over the top.  There would be a man in it, blond haired and blue eyed and rich.  And he'd instantly fall madly in love with her.  Maybe he'll work for a modeling company in New York and get me a job at Teen Beat.  It could happen.
            Then he pulled over.  Somewhere in his mid-twenties, his sandy blond hair and startling blue eyes immediately made her cock her hip out a bit more and make the most of her not yet there cleavage.  Apparently he liked something he saw, because as he pulled over, she saw him checking the rearview mirror and shaking out his shaggy hair before casually stretching his arm across the back of the passenger seat.  Jess began to hop to the van even as her sister grabbed her hand.  “You can't be serious.”
            “What do you mean?  He's perfect!”  Jessica finger waved to the man with a smile.  Just a sec!
            “He's almost as old as mom!  If there were a psycho, he'd be it.  It's even a creepy old van!”
            That was when the door to the “creepy old van” opened.  Out stepped the man in question and over the groan of the door hinges he tossed an opening line over the roof.  “Hey, girls.  I'm Lonnie, need a ride?”


May 1984 - Present

            It happened because of spilled milk, but the irony of this “last straw” moment never did sink in for Jess. 
            “Let's play with the blocks today, Mommy!”  Caleb said.
            “After breakfast, Honey,”  Jessica replied.  After calling in sick again to his latest in a long line of jobs, Lonnie went out back with Sarah.  Jessica could see him through the window singing to the bundle of joy in the bouncer at his feet.  Sarah was dozing, Lonnie wouldn't bring her in until she needed changing. Ben was already at school, so once again it was just her and the four year old.  Measuring her steps to the kitchen, she favored her left ankle.  God, he's gonna kill me one of these days if he goes too far.  Wincing slightly at reaching so high over her head she brought out bowls and spoons for the cereal. 
            “What do you want this morning?”
            “Frosty flakes!”
            “Of course!  Why did I ask?  Frosty flakes it is.”
            She hadn't known until she was on the floor that her ankle had slipped out from under her.  She'd been so careful with her steps, ensuring that each footfall landed her solid.  But still, somehow, that single step to put the milk on the counter had landed her on her butt.  The milk lay on its side, contents gurgling onto the cracked linoleum.  Caleb scooted back to avoid the spreading wetness around his mother.  And Jessica glanced to the screen back door, her first thought one of blinding terror.  But all was well.  Lonnie was busy puffing on a joint, tinny radio spitting out soothing dulcet rock tunes.
            Sitting there, the cold wetness spreading across her rump, Jessica knew that it was enough.  No more.  She was finished.  And then she tidied up the mess she'd made.  She noted that there was just enough milk left for cereal.  And that would be her last breakfast within these four walls.
            After breakfast, she washed the dishes, placed the bowls back in their specific spot in the cabinet, then scrubbed the counter.  She double checked that the floor was once again pristine. Next she brought the blocks out into the living room to play with.  I'm just gonna go.  Really this time.  I can't keep waiting for him to let me run an errand with all the kids, it's never gonna happen.  And we'll never all get out of this mess until I do. 
            “What are we building today?”
             “A castle!”  With that declaration, Caleb picked through the box for the pieces he needed.  Soon he had constructed four walls of a decent size.  Jessica could already see there weren't enough blocks to create such an ambitious project.  From the cracked window, the musical sounds of her daughter's giggling drifted into the quiet. Blue sheets fluttered through her mind.  They'll be fine.  He only ever hurts me anyway, so they'll be fine with him for a while till I can come get them. 
            Caleb played quietly with the few toys in his possession, the blocks, some matchbox cars, a few marbles he methodically took out one by one to look over and then put back in the bag.  Jessica flipped through magazines and chain-smoked.  Her mind kept coming back to the fantasies she'd kept tucked away.  A two story house, a simple job in an office like Monica had.  A handsome man that fixed her breakfast in bed.  She couldn't focus on the latest fashion advice of the season with these images so seemingly in her reach.  When I get a good job, good house, good man, I'll be back for the kids. 
            After lunch, she gathered the dishes from her husband, “I'm gonna run out to the store on the corner.  Don't wanna miss double coupon day.”  The grunted reply and outstretched twenty dollar bill was taken as approval and she kissed the blond hair of the baby tucked so comfortably in Lonnie’s lap.  Superman sheets floated behind her eyelids.  She shook it off.  “I'll be back.”

            It only took five years to keep that promise.