Spring 2013, Central Florida
I looked Greg in the eye, but held little emotion. “That’s the beginning of my story. That’s when everything changed.” I looked down at the purse on my lap and toyed with the cloth handles, methodically tucking a package of tissues back into the handbag through the side zipper.
“But that’s not why you’re here, is it?” Greg’s eyes held tenderness. His voice carried empathetic tones.
Glancing around the room, I noticed Greg’s Ph.D.s and various plaques on the walls. “You’re safe,” I reminded myself. “He’s here to help you. The more you open up and share, the more he’ll understand.”
I slowly shook my head, pushing past my embarrassment. “No, but my husband thinks it is. He believes I’m broken—that Calleigh and I aren’t worth coming home to any more. That’s why I made the appointment to see you today. I don’t know how to fix my marriage, but I’d really like to not end up a divorce statistic.” I stared down at my hands, subconsciously twisting my wedding band around my left ring finger. Having spoken the words aloud, my imagined problems suddenly seemed very real. Shame and confusion created a dark abyss.
Shifting restlessly on Greg’s worn tweed couch cushions, I cleared my throat then added, “Calleigh’s our four-year-old daughter. She’s also our only child. Even though Brad’s not here today, we both believe Calleigh deserves better than a mom and dad who are constantly fighting and can’t be happy. Maybe you can start with me.”
“I see.” Greg nodded, taking a moment to jot down some notes.
I inhaled slowly, summoning courage. “Brad blames everything on my past,” I continued. “He says no one would put up with someone like me if they really got to know me.” I lowered my eyes, matching my sagging spirits. “Maybe he’s right. I don’t feel very loveable, and I’m angry all the time. Crazy thing is, I don’t even know why. Let’s face it. No one wants damaged goods.” My voice cracked with emotion. My chin began to quiver. Straightening my back and broadening my shoulders, I willed back the tears. I am not going to cry in front of a complete stranger. I am not.
Greg leaned forward in his chair, adjusting his glasses on top of his nose. Wispy auburn curls teased the rims. “I agree that our past plays a part of our present,” he admitted, “but that doesn’t mean you’re broken. That just means you’ve overcome a lot to be where you are today.” Wisdom of fifty-some years somehow made his words seem credible, so I listened. “Everyone has something they’re dealing with—everyone. You’re not in an exclusive club, though I know it must feel like it.” A gentle smile graced his lips. He looked me in the eyes. “I need you to hear me. Are you listening?” I nodded. “You are a survivor. You are stronger than you think you are, and you are braver than you give yourself credit for. You are not the remains of someone else’s collateral damage. But, most importantly, you need to understand that the world needs Hope. There is only one you. There will never be another like you. Your life matters.” He held my gaze. “Do you hear me? You are not on this earth by accident.”
I nodded again, fighting to keep tears from running down my cheeks.
“I understand why you’re in my office,” Greg assured me, “and I will try to help you get to the bottom of your problems with Brad; but, first, I’d like to meet Hope. Where do you come from? What brings you joy? What makes you tick? Those types of things. Getting to know you will help me know how to guide you in the future. We’ll come back to Brad and your marriage, I promise; but, before we get to all of that, I want to know who this person is in front of me. Sound good?”
I smiled, understanding and agreeing to Greg’s agenda.
He leaned back in his seat and rested his elbows on the arms of the chair. “So, where does the story with Colleen continue?”
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Mid-January, late 1980s
A restless night turned into early morning. As my eyes began surrendering to sleep, the alarm clock reeled me into reality. Jolting to a seated position, I pressed my hand against my heart and noted my racing pulse. “Oh, it’s just that stupid alarm clock!” I sighed, slumping back against the headboard. Leaning toward the nightstand, I swatted at the noise until the loud buzzing yielded to the stillness of morning. “6am,” I moaned. “Feels like I haven’t slept a wink.” Sliding back under the covers, I stretched my body against the mattress and released a deep sigh. Just a few more minutes.
I placed my hands on both sides of my head and squeezed my eyes shut. “Oh, the pain!” Throbbing temples and vivid cached memories reminded me of my real-life nightmare: yelling, slamming doors, threats to our family, criminal allegations. A few short minutes and everything sacred is now gone. Where do I go from here? I pressed harder on my temples, wincing with the searing pain.
A light tapping on my bedroom door caused me to jump, instant fear pounding in my ears. “Who is it?”
“It’s Mom,” a quiet voice answered. “You up yet?”
I exhaled slowly. “Kind of.”
Mom cracked the door, bringing in light from the hallway. “I know it’s early,” she apologized. “Just wanted to let you know it’s time to start getting ready for school. Figured you might need a little extra time getting ready this morning.”
“So much for sleep!” I muttered.
Mom nodded. “Yeah. I get it. I didn’t get much, either.” I sighed and slumped back against my pillow for a second time. “Take a few minutes, if you need, but don’t stay in bed too long. We’ll be leaving in about an hour.”
“OK. Thanks,” I answered, closing my eyes.
I listened as Mom headed down the hall to Julia’s room. Her fingers rapped out a familiar pattern on Julia’s door then Mom’s positive voice rang out. “Rise and shine, Sleepyhead. It’s time to wake up for school.”
Frazzled, disoriented, and more exhausted than when I had gone to bed, I rose and tried to get ready for the day; but, try as I might, nothing went smoothly. First, I endured a cold shower because the water heater wouldn’t kick in. Then, my hair tangled and took twice as long to dry. To add to the already great morning, I must have changed clothes at least three times. “This shirt is too tight. This one appears to have a stain on it, and what is wrong with these pants?” I muttered, having a serious attitude. “They won’t zip up!” I finally settled on a light pink button-up blouse and pair of stonewashed jeans I had found hiding under a pile of folded laundry at the foot of my bed. “At least they’ve been washed.”
Standing in front of the over-sized mirror hanging on the wall above my cream-colored wooden veneer dresser, I fought to loosen the mascara wand from its pink plastic tube. I only succeeded, however, in knocking over a large jar of brightly colored cotton swabs, which landed on the carpet near my feet. Leaning over to retrieve the cosmetic tools, I whacked my forehead on the brass handle that protruded from the top drawer. “Yeow!” I yelped, gently rubbing the tender spot just above my left eye. “I knew there was a reason I should’ve never gotten out of bed this morning.”
Returning to a standing position, I carefully studied my face in the mirror. “I really could have done without this,” I grumbled, “but at least I have some bangs to cover this nice red spot.” I fingered several stray hairs over my injured forehead then swept the rest of my hair into a high ponytail. “Puffy eyes will just have to be a part of your style today,” I consoled my pitiful reflection. “Hopefully, nobody will notice.”
Walking to my desk, I shoved several partially finished papers into my school bag then slung the heavy compilation of books onto my shoulder. Making my way to the kitchen, I dropped my bag at the foot of the barstool closest to the garage door then slid onto the seat.
“Good morning.” Mom tried to sound positive as she stood at the stove scrambling eggs for Julia. Julia looked over at me from her chair, but didn’t say a word.
“Morning,” I managed, adjusting my chair so it would sit closer to the counter.
“What would you like for breakfast this morning? Anything particular sound good?” Mom flipped the eggs in the pan.
“Not really,” I declined. “My stomach doesn’t feel so great.”
Reaching for the empty plate beside her, Mom spooned a large helping of freshly scrambled eggs onto the center then set a warm piece of buttered toast to the side. “You sure you don’t want some?” Mom asked, sliding the plate in front of Julia. “I made extra. You’re welcome to it.”
“No, thanks,” I answered. “I don’t think it would stay down.”
“If you’re sure.” Mom dried her hands on a nearby dishtowel then collected two brown paper bags from the fridge and sat one in front of me, the other in front of Julia. “Promise me you’ll at least eat your lunch today. Nutrition needs to come from somewhere.”
I slowly nodded, aware I couldn’t predict the future. “I’ll try.” The crisp paper crinkled as I placed the love offering inside my book bag. “Thanks for thinking of me.”
Mom’s face warmed with a smile. “That’s what moms do.”
The phone on the kitchen wall began to ring, interrupting our melancholy moment. Mom summoned the proper pleasantries then lifted the receiver to her face. “Hello?” Pause. “This is she.” Another pause then some curious expressions and a lot of nodding. “I see. We would be willing to do that. This morning? Ok. What time?” She nodded some more then released a satisfied sigh. “Sounds good. We’ll see you shortly.” With that, the call ended, and she hung up the phone. Turning into the kitchen, she found me standing by the counter staring at her.
“Who was that?” I asked. “Something to do about me?”
Mom’s head moved up and down. “Yeah. That was Donald—Alicia’s father. Apparently, he just got home from an out-of-state business trip last night, and—as you can imagine—Colleen had an earful waiting for him. He said he’s aware Colleen has a tendency to be over the top, so he’s asked to speak with you in person today before school—to get your side of the story. Who knows? Maybe he wants to explain Colleen’s behavior yesterday—or, maybe, he just wants to offer an apology. He seemed pretty open minded about the whole thing.” Mom finished tidying the kitchen as she spoke. “Of course, I will be there, too. You won’t be alone.”
I stood in silence, trying to wrap my mind around the change of events. Mom sensed my apprehension. Walking up to the counter and placing her arm around my shoulders, she said, “I can always call him back and tell him we’ve changed our minds.”
I shook my head, having no basis for my leeriness. “I’ll talk with him, but I’m not sure what to say. Colleen’s off her rocker. I haven’t done anything to Alicia.”
“I think he knows that,” Mom acknowledged, “and, if I had to guess, I’d say he’s just wanting to hear that from you in person. There’s a lot to be said about body language and reading the truth in someone’s eyes, but you can only do that when you’re face to face.”
I nodded and sighed. “Maybe so.”