The old women clucked their tongues as they eyed the towering cottonwood sheltering the homestead.
“That tree attracts lightning. Best have your man remove it,” they’d warn. “It’s because they hoard water.”
The cottonwoods grew plentiful on the prairie. Deep grooved bark allowed small fingers and toes to gain purchase as they climbed to escape the grownup world. June provided cotton snowstorms, dancing swirls of fluff, as the heat of the season crescendo. The waxy green leaves became a crunchy yellow path to winter’s door. In a fairytale world, a barrier of cottonwoods would protect the homesteaders from the future.
Age and heartbreak alter vision and one takes notice of the burnt hollow trunk framed by a heart-colored red.
Did greedy thirst make the trees susceptible? If factual – was a heart vulnerable to lightning if it loved too much?
Leave it to me to focus on a matter as banal as where to pack the divorce papers. The movers left yesterday and my trusting children buckled themselves into the back seat five minutes ago. Excited, they welcomed the prospect of this life changing journey. Me? I stood stupefied, holding an official tome of papers permitting me to alter my destination.
Earlier, I woke up from my Tylenol PM-aided sleep and walked through the marital home I relinquished. While coffee brewed, I touched the items chosen to be left behind. My fingers bunched up and stroked the grey-blue material of the living room drapes. In the den, I said a tearful goodbye to my books, too numerous to haul halfway across the country. Formal sequined gowns, in my bedroom closet, belonging to a world I chose to walk away from. Let the ex haul them to Goodwill. Better yet, task the new girlfriend with it. She could keep the half-melted candles and wine glass rings on the edge of the jetted bathtub, my favorite reading place. I left untouched, a gourmet kitchen, designed for show; neither the ex nor I cooked. Instead, I pointed to the packaged recently-purchased cookware and dishes for the moving truck.
The barren children’s rooms hurt my heart. I spared no pillaging when packing. They didn’t deserve to leave anything behind. Familiar objects might buffer the drastic changes ahead.
None of these matters helped with the decision of what to do with the papers. I resisted ownership. I didn’t want to pack them – neither in the box labeled “office” nor relegated to the one with “miscellaneous” scrawled across its surface.
I aspired, in hindsight, to carry out a last defiant act. A revengeful Thanks for the memories written on the front page of the documents in my favorite lipstick. The ultimate hope Amy, his wife in waiting, finding them first, centered on the kitchen table. He loved the neatness of symmetry. Or, I’d run them through the paper shredder and construct a broken heart Papier-Mache sculpture. Hidden in the house décor, I’d spy via my children’s visitations to find how long it stood testament.
In the end, an anti-climactic event; I shoved them into the glove box and embarked on the journey before the children grew restless. Before I regretted the sheer foolishness of my decision.
The drive over twenty-four hours from Connecticut to my hometown in Nebraska loomed as a feat to conquer. The fear of what awaited me, cutting all strings of my married life, and raising the children alone, drove all worries of the journey to a secondary status. While I traveled this road of “what ifs”, I fought the urge to blame my ex-husband for our failed marriage.
Did the decision to return home root in the convenience of falling back into a life where I need not pretend? A desire to go back to the beginning and fix the earlier mistakes? The avoidance of questions such as these initiated the obsession with my divorce papers in the first place.
Could life be as simple as following the directions of my ruby Camry’s GPS?
“I gotta use the bathroom.” Sara tested a stop-the-car tactic.
“Honey, do you really have to pee?” I attempted to stick to my self-imposed at-least-one-hundred-miles-between-stops. Thirty miles shy, I hesitated to find an exit.
“Maybe not.” Sara swiped away at her tablet.
I checked the rear-view mirror to watch her play a game with enough lights and noise to distract her.
The tires sang across the interstate. Entertained by their electronics, the kids lost count of the minutes of entrapment in the car. I set the cruise control at an acceptable five-miles-per-hour over the speed limit, and suppressed curses when I needed to brake. Billboards and fellow travelers testified I wasn’t alone seeking a new destination.
I practiced patience on our breaks and let the kids explore the rest areas. I pulled in at truck stops instead of consuming meals in transit. A few tired-looking men stopped by to say hello to the kids. Before they even confirmed my suspicion, I surmised they missed children waiting for them at home. How would Matt and Sara handle the absence of their dad?
Back on the road, loud and raucous sing-alongs to the Disney radio station stopped sibling bickering. In Chicago, the kids burned off their stored-up energy in the hotel’s pool, and then we all slept in the same bed.
I welcomed the frequency of the farm reports on the radio; it meant we neared our destination.
The interstate exit loomed which would lead me back into the past. On my left, a gleam of Interstate 80 Lake sparkled. To my right, the road into town. Matt knocked his head against the window when I made an impromptu decision and an abrupt left-hand turn.
“Mom!” He rubbed the tender spot where he’d smacked the glass.
“Sorry, honey, thought we might swim before we checked out the house.”
“Swim? Where are our suits?” Sara’s pale eyebrows pinched together.
“This is Nebraska, sweet pea; out here we can be hicks and swim in our underwear.” I half-laughed at the precursory dig at my hometown.
“What are hicks, Mom?” Matt asked as he hopped out.
“Hicks are fun people, today.”
I encouraged a hesitant Sara out of the car and raced a quicker Matt to the water’s edge. I stripped them down to their underwear.
“Jump in.” I laughed at their hesitancy. Used to the sanitary condition of private pools, they hesitated to dip their toes into the murky waters of nature. Not ready to go native myself, I removed my socks and shoes and rolled up my jeans. The cool water excised the travel lethargy. Matt found a rope hanging from a tree. With a swing Tarzan would envy, he splashed in beside me as I waded. After asking if they’d sting, Sara chased dragonflies up and down the banks. The water licked my cuffs.
“To hell with it.” I walked out of the lake and shucked off my jeans. Then I trotted back into the cool water.
“Sara, come on in.” I coaxed her. Her scrunched up face betrayed fear. I jotted a mental note to toughen her up; just as hasty, retracted it. I yearned to create a world where my children would determine the adults they matured into. A path is easier to walk when one chooses it oneself.
“Stay where I can see you.” I left the water to find a sunny spot, inhaling deep breaths of the summery day.
“Mom, it’s snowing.” Sara caught cottonwood seeds, examining this novelty.
“It’s just the cottonwoods sending their babies out into the world.”
I loved this lake. Russian olives competed with the cottonwoods, hiding the lake from the interstate. The cattails, happy to just wade in the lake, hugged the sides. Their billowing seed released in fall. Out-of-staters flew by at speeds of eighty-miles-per-hour, and complained of the empty Nebraska landscape. I smiled, without an urge to share these hidden treasures. “Keep moving, folks. Nothing to see here. We don’t wantcha anyways.”
Here kids swam free amongst fish and turtles. Families picnicked. Rebelling teenagers snuck away to drink or fuck, dodging the occasional bored cop.
Such a teenager myself, I cringed at my children repeating my mistakes. My plans for appropriate parenting might save them from partaking in such behavior. Or it might not. The worst part of raising children is the knowledge you’re just a guide. Swatting a horsefly, I visually checked on the kids.
Toasty in the sun, everything dried but my bra. Soaking wet, it clung to my goose-bumped skin. I reached inside my sleeves and pulled it out, flinging it in the direction of the car.
Darryl Lundvall complimented himself. “I must say, even with a crippled hand, that was a nice save.”
Sunlight glinted off his shotgun-shell choker. He held my bra like a game-winning football. A slight receding of his loose brown curls told the passage of time since our last meeting.
“People in these parts usually wait till nightfall to skinny dip, or at least find a more remote place.”
Shocked mute, I stared at him. I wondered if my face betrayed the heat of emotions stirring inside.
Recovering, I played along. “Thanks for reminding me. You keeping my bra for your tackle box?”
He draped it on the side view mirror, his face scrunched with his struggle not to make a blue joke. Instead, he sat beside me. We observed the children play. I peeked at those broad shoulders underneath his Hard Rock Café T-shirt. Focus. The bright, sparkling, enjoyable day dulled, as I waited for him to resume the conversation. I combed my fingers through my hair, willing myself not to speak first.
“Damn, Darryl.” It left my lips and floated in the air.
“Is that Damn period Darryl period? Or is it Damn, Darryl, didn’t I escape you a hundred years ago?”
“Neither. Let’s start over.” I fluttered my lashes and splayed fingers over my heart. “Darryl, it’s wonderful to see you again. How ya been?”
“Well, Meggie, it’s been peachy. Just came over to see who was scarin’ my fish away. I take it those rug rats are yours?”
“Yes, Matt and Sara.”
“You done good. You get lost on your way to some fancy mall and end up in Brady? You’re in Nebraska, ya know.”
“Thank you, Mr. Atlas. I got D-I-V-O-R-C-E-D this summer.” I sang with a Tammy Wynette twang.
He stumbled with his smile before shining it up a notch. “Home is where the heart is?”
“Home is where the free house for the single mom is.”
“No shit.” The smile left. “You’re moving back into your grandparents’? People wondered about your plans for the house.”
“Of course they did.” My cool-edged tone caused him to look puzzled.
Little prepared for running into him, I longed for a painless reunion. What thoughts darted in his brain?
Sara ventured into the water, up to her knees. It rested on me to make the transition a smooth one. They demanded my attention. A ghost from my past could wait.
Darryl stood and stretched as if he woke from a dream. As though satisfied with his effort to clear away cobwebs, he patted my drying shoulder.
“Welcome home, Meggie. Be seein ya.” He sauntered off, kicking a stone as he left.
In the yesterdays, I’d chase after him and start up a game of keep-away. Grown-up issues demanded I stay put. That didn’t keep me from getting an outstanding backside view.
In my hometown of four major streets and a population of three hundred, I lost my way. What the hell?
Barrier gates barred me from crossing the railroad tracks; I imagined they refused my entrance. My thoughts drifted back to Darryl. Passing trains initiated many of our make-out sessions. Unless an interfering busybody in the car behind us honked-an I’ll-tell-your-parents warning.
I found the bypass and drove to our house – a mere inconvenience of a couple minutes but it dampened my homecoming. A future forecast warning me to curb my emotions?
Tears pricked my eyes as I drove down the familiar streets, passing the handful of businesses of my childhood. The abandoned Rusty’s Tavern, instead of serving cold beer, now acted as a non-erasable chalkboard for graduating classes to tag their year of freedom. The hunter green trim of Fischer’s gas station flaked faded mint chips onto the overgrown weeds of disuse. Maple saplings grew in the middle of the Pawnee rental cabins, poking out of roofs which sagged from the weight of time. On the positive side, a new library and community center showed the town hadn’t consigned itself to death just yet.
“When are we getting there, Mom?” Sara asked with impatiently.
“Yeah, why are we driving so slow?” Matt backed up his sister’s complaint.
I’d finish my jaunt down memory lane another time.
Tears again threatened. I pulled up outside a two-bedroom house plunked down on a full basement, unlike its former dirt one on the farm. An attached one-car garage, upgrade with the move, complimented the modest home. Situated on a large corner lot on the edge of town helped the transition from farming to retirement for my grandfather, perfect for me, but how would this compare to the subdivision house I forced Matt and Sara to leave?
Smelling like damp sunshine, we stood at the door. The kids shivered in the fading light as I paused, looking at the doorbell. I used to push it many times, before I darted up the steps, three at a time, leading for the main floor. Once inside, my grandparents would greet me with hugs and kisses.
“Mom, let us in. I’m cold,” Matt whined.
“Shit, keys; I’ve never unlocked this door. Let me find them,” I pleaded to my purse, cursing its tendency to hide its contents.
“Mom said a bad word,” Sara tattled.
“Get used to it, sweetie. There might be a lot more of them before we’re through unpacking.” I found the keys, jingling them before unlocking the door.
The kids bounded up the stairs while I lingered. No one would greet me at the top. My first visit since Grandma’s funeral two years earlier, the wound smarted with pain as if it occurred yesterday. Desolation threatened to pull me under, but the kids waited for me to handle the situation.
“Which one is my room?” Matt demanded.
“Good God, Grandma. I need you now.” I whispered a half-prayer.
“Your rooms will be downstairs. It’s open now but I’ll partition it into individual rooms soon.” I hugged the wall as the kids raced past me downstairs to check it out.
I portioned off each their own space with my footsteps and promised them walls one day. For now, I’d use curtains to separate their areas. After designating their bedrooms, I set up the remaining space in my imagination, into a family multimedia room. I’d hang yellow ducky accessories in their bathroom. We’d have to share until I installed a shower upstairs.
Once back on the landing to the stairs, I opened the spacious closet and fought back the loneliness of finding it bare. Our coats and shoes would give it purpose again. With a step up, the inviting eat-in kitchen greeted me. Ghost wafts of the ever-brewing pot of coffee teased me-the hub of all social calls back in my grandparents’ prime. I imagined the kids and me working on their homework at the table. The opportunity to enjoy the upstairs bathroom’s steel tub, built to keep water steaming for hours, awaited me, for those few moments of time for myself.
I stepped outside to get an armload of essentials packed in the car. The descending dark surprised me. Accustomed to the light pollution of my suburban Connecticut home, I’d forgotten the black ink of nights on the prairie. A wealth of stars painted twinkles on the canvas and the smell of the air weaved a promise of co-existence with nature. The Union Pacific announced its contribution to the folks of the town with its warning horn. I returned to the house. Later I’d share with the children the magic of Nebraska nights.
Inside, the living room stretched before me, long and skinny. The furniture lined up against the walls. I imagined all sorts of designs but stuck with the original arrangement. A deep dusting and vacuuming would suffice for now. Changes I could budget for – paint over the wood paneling and new hardwood floors.
I refused to take my grandparents’ bedroom. I couldn’t imagine undressing in there. It would become a modest library instead, once I found to a place to store their bed. I would welcome the memory of sitting beside Grandma and reading. Snuggled up to her is where I met Little Women, Tom Sawyer, and Huck Finn.
I chose the room which opened onto the deck. Leaving my grandparent’s house, going to college, and moving in with Matthew never afforded me a chance to live alone. For once, I’d set my own tempo.
I unpacked a clean change of clothes and toiletries and thought of ways to keep the kids from underfoot in the morning when the moving truck arrived. Time dashed. The kids complained of hunger, and I yearned for a break, when a booming voice called out.
“Up here!” I’d invite Jack the Ripper in, if it helped me to avoid climbing the stairs again.
No Jack. Only Justin filling the space of the stairwell. I jumped up off the floor and hugged my long-lost friend. He acted embarrassed but his arms held me as tight. Fifty pounds heavier, since I’d seen him last, he oozed boyish charm. He wore the same crew cut and his blue eyes sparked with orneriness.
“Couldn’t believe Darryl when he called. Had to come into town to see it for myself. It is you, ain’t it, Margo?”
“Until you all drive me crazy.”
“Wow, look at your brats!” He smiled as he gestured at the kids peeking down at us.
“I’m not a brat,” Sara scanned this stranger, her eyes narrowed.
“Well then, you must take after your dad, cuz your mamma here was one bad kid in her day.”
“For real?” Matt asked, eager to get the dirt.
“The worst.” Justin grinned as I socked him in the arm.
“Thanks, buddy, the favor will be repaid someday,” I threatened.
“Like I’m stupid enough to breed. I just get to laugh at Darryl and now you. So, let’s get ready,” he continued.
“Ready for what?”
“I’ll take you guys out to eat. Do you have stuff? Or did you travel with hobo sticks?”
I nodded and smiled. “The moving truck arrives tomorrow.”
“Well then, tomorrow we can get you unpacked before you change your mind. You’re not running away from us again, Margo.”
* * *
When we sauntered into the Hitchin’ Post, every head ogled the latest curiosity. With a ninety-nine-point-nine percent chance of everyone knowing the person walking in, the opening door always caught attention. I hustled the kids to a corner booth; Justin greeted everyone on our way. The waitress beat him to the table. I distributed the menus and sent her to wait on others first.
“Damn, we should make this a habit. I haven’t been so in demand since wife number two slept with half the town.” Justin laughed as he slid into the seat across from me.
“It’ll die down in a week. Good God! How many times have you been married?”
“Unless I can talk ya into dancing on the table, we could milk this attention for another month or so. Wife number three left about six months ago.”
“God, Justin. You picking the same kinda girls you chased in high school?” I asked before switching my focus. My hunger demanded immediate attention. “Let me stay under the town’s radar, thank you.” I tapped his menu to focus him. “What’s good?”
“It’s all good here. You shudda stuck around to know that.”
I laughed him off and let the kids order us burgers and fries. Sucking down the much-needed caffeine in my Coke, I paused to watch him consume his monstrous steak as fast as a starving field-hand.
“Eat your vegetables.” I giggled as I rolled out my automatic mom speak. I knew his rebut before he even voiced it.
“Do I look like a damn rabbit?” His reply honored my memory.
“You’re gonna have a heart attack eating like that.”
“Nah, I’ll work it off movin’ you in.”
“Not necessary. You’re cookin’ tomorrow.”
We ate our food as Justin helped me place names to the long-forgotten faces of our dining companions. The kids fidgeted; he set them up on the foosball table with a handful of quarters. Sliding to the back of the wall, I stretched my legs.
“I remember when your grandparents brought their house to town. They moved the power lines even. The newspaper showed up to take pictures.” He laughed at the brush of fame.
“Grandma had no problem selling the farm. She just wasn’t leaving the family home.”
“I don’t think your Grandpa ever told her no, did he?” Justin sighed. “The rose garden he planted for her died. I planned to keep it alive but I guess all I can grow is corn.”
“Dammit, Justin. Don’t make me cry.”
“So, how’s it feel?” He smiled us into the present.
“To be home?”
“No, to eat with such a stud.”
“Hasn’t sunk in yet. Let me get settled.”
“You know Kathy married Paul?”
“Yeah, I came home to be the matron of honor. She’s my best friend.”
“I don’t remember you coming back for that. You sure didn’t keep in touch with us.”
“You were still tanked from the bachelor party the night before.”
“That’s the best part of any wedding.” The look he wore assured everyone he’d drink a cash bar dry.
“This place has changed.”
No longer a dive, the improvements impressed me. I enjoyed the diner-like atmosphere. The bar stocked the usual spirits, though a request for my current favorites, apple martinis or cosmopolitans, might get a snicker. Pool tables, foosball, and a jukebox provided entertainment to the after-dinner crowd. However, the clean and well-lit bar attracted hungry patrons instead of thirsty ones at this time of the evening.
“Times have changed; the town can’t support both a bar and a café. Plus, the law no longer winks at drunk driving.” Justin explained his theory for the improvements.
I yawned as the kids rushed over for more money.
“Let’s get your mom home to bed before she falls asleep on us. Come on, Margo.” He held out a hand and pulled me from the booth.
No protests from me.
Back home, I surveilled as he wrangled the kids into their PJs and tucked them into their sleeping bags. With no “stranger danger” fear, they welcomed his presence. Good God, this man is the Pied Piper of children. I never knew. My eyes kept closing as he prepared to leave; Justin surprised me by planting a noisy kiss on my forehead. An exaggerated display of emotion allowed the buffering of real feelings. A time-honored practice, we’d learned as kids. I gave him an appreciative smile, at least I thought so; I begged my brain to send a signal to my face muscles.
“Night, kiddo. I’ll let myself out.”
* * *
Strained muscles and curse words accompanied the following day, as I helped Justin sort the unpacked moving truck. We wedged all the belongings into the modest house. Curious friends dropped in to see the newest focus of town gossip.
I met the onlookers with expected hugs, studying their faces for silent judgment. Searching, I only found mild curiosity. They waited for no invitation and attacked boxes with an unpacking fervor.
“You know Susie and Mark are still married, but she drinks and he steps out with Carrie,” Sandy, the preacher’s wife, whispered to me as we hung up the curtains in my living room.
I nodded my head at the suggestion we should pray for them.
“No, honey, Mrs. Lynch doesn’t teach anymore. She retired when her husband drank himself to the grave. We’ve never seen her happier,” Lauren, the postmistress, confided to me as we stacked my dishes in the cupboard.
Surveying the unpacked house, I smiled despite my fear of the future. The house needed the shine buffed back into it. Already it showed signs of cheer by the life inhabiting it. It echoed with the next generation’s footsteps.
Once again alone, we ambled into the kitchen to rest at the table, and listened to the house coming back to life. Justin tried to warm up his coffee and discovered the microwave tripped the breaker every time it was started.
“I found which one it is,” Justin called from the breaker box on the landing. “Ya need to run down to the hardware store and replace number twelve. Your grandpa labeled everything.”
Of course, he did. The solid German blood kept his life organized and his upper lip stiff. He demanded nothing but the same from those around him. I counted on my family motto to carry me through this. These thoughts crowded my head when I buried myself under bubbles in the claw-footed cast-iron tub.
Armed with a chore list and a faulty breaker, I bribed the kids with a trip to the park if they joined me in exploring their new town. The truth - an organized outing would soothe the knot of fear growing in my stomach.
First, we trekked to the school office. School started in a month and I scrambled to complete paperwork before the crunch time of the first day. Curious to see if any of my teachers still taught, I looked forward to the visit. Turnovers were low in small-town schools; most teachers grew up in towns close by.
When Matt discovered the journey consisted of two blocks, he informed me of his capability to walk without an escort. I insisted on a “cross your heart and hope to die, stick a needle in your eye” promise to hold his sister’s hand while crossing the street. I studied the houses along our walk. I used to know everyone living in each one. The funny thing about moving away – your memories freeze a place in time, but a living town remains fluid.
An overprotective parental instinct found me looking for any signs, such as a ferocious dog breaking its chain or a shoddy house where unknown dangers lurked. I planned on postponing Matt’s pleas for a couple of days before letting him stretch his independence.
Enthusiastic young staff members greeted us on our arrival. Hungry for additional enrollments, a low-attendance school required constant vigilance to keep its doors open. The western part of the state, where agriculture remained the major commodity, found themselves clinging to children for their survival. Few of my generation stayed in their hometown; most flocked to prominent cities and sizeable incomes. Once these dwindling towns lost their schools, only tumbleweeds traveled down Main Street.
I filled out forms and handed over birth certificates, shot records, and Social Security cards. As the secretary, Mrs. Anderson, copied everything, I peered out the window at the football field. Memories rose like steam from a tea kettle.
“Queen for the day,” I murmured, remembering being crowned, the last year I lived here. Darryl and I reigned as King and Queen at halftime during the Homecoming football game. Justin joined us as an attendant of the court. The stuff of fairytales, happy ever after came next, right? Heady with winning, we wore the titles with pride and optimism. The poor scrappy kids, knighted into a future of infinite possibilities. If God chose to strike me down without delay, I’d have no complaints. Hell, what topped being queen?
“So, how’s the house?” Mrs. Anderson, a stranger to me, asked.
The question took me by surprise until I recalled my current residence. So few secrets remained in this town.
“Great, actually,” I replied. The transition thus far, smooth. Of course, I’d barely gotten my feet wet with the newness of it all.
“The town hated to see it empty for so long. It’s nice, though. It went to family.”
“Yes, I’m glad too.” Without it, I could’ve been homeless or worse, stuck in my ex-husband’s town.
“Welcome to the second and fourth grade, children. You’ll get your newsletter in the mail soon.”
“Oh, I haven’t gotten a post office box yet. That’s my next stop,” I said.
“It’s okay, just your name will ensure delivery.” She laughed before she added, “You must’ve forgotten how it works here.”
How could I forget? Every time I walked into the house and realized my grandparents weren’t there to meet me, I felt a twinge of regret at abandoning them and my hometown. I too, used to regard people who left as traitors. “Paradise on the prairie, who would ever want to leave?” I mumbled.
“This will tell you what school supplies to buy.” Mrs. Anderson handed me a list. “We’ll see you on the 28th.”
Anxiety gnawed my stomach. To distract myself, I convinced the kids to skip with me to the post office.
Matt rolled his eyes in protest. “I’m too old for that, Mom.”
“Suit yourself.” I reached for Sara’s hand and we skipped and laughed down the sidewalk.
Before long, Matt grabbed his sister’s other hand and played another day in childhood.
The worries dulled but remained. With enough money for a couple of months, I’d need a job soon. School supplies, clothes, and everyday expenses would eat away at my meager savings. To find employment in town with flexible hours to avoid affecting the kids-was that too much to dream for? A stay-at-home mom since Matt’s arrival in the world, this change loomed large, for all of us.
At the post office, I bumped into Kathy. We hugged like long-lost sisters-my one true girlfriend. She wore a high ponytail and her jeans’ waistline high enough to keep her belly tucked in.
“I hear you’ve already run into Darryl. And Justin is helping you move in. When did you plan on getting around to me?” Kathy greeted me with a teasing accusation.
“Running into Darryl was just a fluke. Justin, well you know how he gets when he’s trying to be helpful.” I felt the applied guilt. She’d deserved a call. How long since we last talked?
“How’ve you been, Kath? You look good.”
Kathy smoothed down her shirt over her stomach.
“Oh, you know, I try. Mom and I are always on some nonsense diet. Lose a few and it creeps back. Ah, well. Paul says he doesn’t think I’ve gained an ounce since junior high.” At the mention of her husband’s name, Kathy wore the same junior high shy smile.
“How sweet.” I regretted the sarcasm in an instant.
“Are you being a smart-ass, Margo?” Kathy’s pale complexion flushed.
“What? No, I was being serious. Probably feeling sorry for myself.”
The unguarded truth - Kathy lived the daydreams I once entertained. At fault, my envy. The hurt throbbed when I glimpsed at her life, the one I chose to forgo. I struggled to stifle regrets and keep moving forward.
“We’re just on our way to the park. What do you have on your agenda today? Can you pencil in some girlfriend time?” Kathy asked.
I noticed her two boys for the first time. “My God, they are miniature versions of their dad. Did you even attend the conception party?”
“It’s great to see you and the kids in person instead of inserted into a Christmas card. This is Jake and this is Kyle.” Kathy touched each boy’s head in the introduction.
“And this is Matt and Sara.” I restrained myself from smoothing down Sara’s sticking-up hair. She’d reached the age where this annoyed her. “After I’m done here, I’ve gotta go to the hardware store and then the bank. Maybe we could meet you there.”
“Why don’t I take the kids? You can join us when you’re done.”
“I don’t know. I’m not sure Matt and Sara would go with you.” I gauged the kids’ reaction.
Matt’s eyes begged for a yes, ready to do real exploring with boys close to his age instead of his dull mother. Sara tugged on her left braid, telling of her apprehension.
“Hey guys, you want to go to the park with us? We can stop by my house to get more juice boxes and snacks.” Kathy bribed. “Your mom will meet us there when she’s done with the boring grown up stuff,”
“Is there a merry-go-round?” Sara asked.
“Of course. It’s the same one your mom and I played on as little kids.” Kathy bent down and offered her hand to hold.
They parted company from me without looking back. Once again, my children trusted my friends with no hesitation. Why wouldn’t they? As a teenager, Kathy killed it as the town’s favorite babysitter.