She’s Gone Country
I just keep staring at my son. He’s tall and broad through the shoulders, with the faintest stubble shadowing his jaw line. Even at his thinnest, he was never as lanky as his younger brothers. Instead, he takes after John with his muscular build and darker coloring. John, a brunette with olive skin, is still strikingly handsome, and it’s becoming increasingly evident that Hank’s going to look like his dad when he’s an adult.
“I want to go back to New York, Mom.”
He isn’t a boy anymore. He’s becoming that man who’ll head off to school one day and not come home.
He’s going to have a whole life apart from mine.
He’s going to have other people to love. Other people who will matter more.
It’s the strangest realization, and one that hurts. I love my boys. I’ve loved being their mom. Nothing—not modeling, not marriage, no amount of traveling or fine things—has ever come close to the joy I get from being Hank, Bo and Cooper’s mother.
“You want to leave?” My voice shakes. I could use a strong hot cup of coffee.
“I’d miss you,” he admits gruffly.
But he still wants to leave. Me.
My head pounds, and I push away from the table to make a pot. I drink too much coffee—three, four cups each day–but it keeps me going, occupies my hands and keeps my belly warm. It’s either that or back to smoking and I don’t need to smoke.
“I’d still see you,” Hank says to my back as I measure out the grinds. “I’d come visit for holidays,” he adds, “and you could always come to New York and see me.”
“What about your brothers?” I ask, turning on the machine.
He doesn’t immediately answer, and keeping my expression blank, I face him. But Hank’s not looking at me. He’s frowning at the table and nudging what’s left of his bagel around the perimeter of his plate. Finally he shrugs. “I was going to go away sooner or later.”
Later being the key word.
I battle to keep my voice neutral. Don’t need to put him on the defensive. Don’t need to draw party lines. “You only just turned fifteen, honey.”
His head lifts, and he looks at me, his eyes more gold than brown. “You went away to boarding school at sixteen.”
Yes, and I never came home again.
I want to go and wrap my arms around him and tell him if he goes, I will miss him every day he’s gone. I want to tell him that he’s not just my oldest son, but my heart. I want to tell him that I’ve just lost his dad and I’m not ready to lose him, too.
But I don’t. I can’t.
I can’t cry and can’t cling because I’m raising boys, boys that must become strong, independent men.
“True.” I force a smile.
“You made good friends,” he continues. “Aunt Marta and Tiana.”
“And you ended up getting into Stanford, something you wouldn’t have done if you’d stayed here in Parkfield instead of going to St. Pious.”
I nod again.
He stands up, carries his plate and milk glass to the sink and then looks at me. We used to be the same height.
Now he has a couple of inches on me. “So can I?”
My heart is so heavy, it’s a stone in my chest. “Have you talked to your dad about this?”
“Yesterday, when you were at the movies.”
Of course. “And what did he say?”
“That he’d love it. That he misses us kids.”
I’m stunned by the wave of anger that shoots through me. He misses the kids, just the kids. Not me. Not his wife. Not his partner of seventeen years. But why should he? I grip a damp sponge in my hand and squeeze for all its worth.
I am so mad and so confused, yet according to Dr. Phil and every other relationship expert, I can’t say a word about it to the boys. Can’t speak against their father. Can’t show how shattered I am, because kids of divorce already carry around enough guilt as it is.
“So when could I start?” Hank presses. “After Christmas? At the start of the second semester?”
I take a slow, deep breath. “I don’t know.”
“Do we have to do this now?” I joke weakly. I haven’t even had my coffee yet.”
“Be serious. This is important.” Hank’s brow furrows. “It’s not that I don’t love you,” he adds gruffly.
“I know that.”
His expression turns pensive. “Do you?”
I wrap him in my arms then and hold him tight. Who knows how many more chances I’ll have to do this? “I do,” I whisper. “I’ve known that every day since you were born.”
He returns the hug and for a moment I’m at peace. He is mine. Everything is good. And then we let go and step apart and Hank disappears to brush his teeth as Cooper enters the kitchen complaining bitterly about Bo using up all the hot water. Again.
“Morning,” I say mildly, pouring my coffee.
“Hate mornings,” he grouses.
The edge of my mouth lifts. Cooper is not a morning person. “How’d you sleep?”
“Fine. Until I had to wake up.”
The corner of my mouth lifts higher as I throw a packet of sweetener into my coffee. “How old are you again?” I ask as he grabs a box of cereal from the cupboard and a bowl and spoon from the cabinet.
He scowls at me, and the freckles dusted across his nose dance. “Twelve.”
I blow on my coffee. “Good.”
The morning news said it was going to be another scorcher today, with temperatures hovering in the mid to high 80’s, and I believe it as I step outside to drive the boys to school. Even though it’s the end of September, north central Texas is still warm, and the humidity in the air sets my teeth on edge. I shouldn’t be wearing jeans. I should put on a skirt and sandals and at least be cool. But putting on a skirt means shaving my legs, and that’s the last thing I feel like doing.
The fact is, I am thoroughly enjoying country life and dressing down and easing up on my beauty routine. In New York I spent a lot of time on maintenance, but it’s exhausting work and boring besides.
My brother’s blue truck appears in the driveway, bouncing over the deep ruts worsened by last week’s rain. I stand on the top step as his truck pulls up next to me.
Brick’s a big guy, and a good-looking guy, if you like rugged men who don’t believe in doing too much to themselves other than basics like hair and teeth and a once a day shave. I remember how a couple years ago John tried to convince Brick that he should use some moisturizer and eye cream, said it’d really help with all Brick’s sun exposure and Brick looked at John like he was a freak. Moisturizer, eye cream? Not on this brother.
The truck idles and Brick rolls down the passenger window. He’s got his straw cowboy hat pulled low, and the brim shades his eyes. “You might want to check your cell phone and make sure it’s not dead, ‘cause I got a call from your agency in Dallas. They want to book you for a shoot today. Said they’d been trying to reach you since last night.”
I walk around the truck to the driver’s side. “How’d they find you?”
“I guess I’m an emergency contact. Anyway, you need to call them and then hightail it into Dallas.”
“I’ve got to take the boys to school.”
“I’ll take them. You need to do this. It’s always great money, and it’d be good for you to get off the ranch for the day.”
“I’m okay here—”
“Mama’s thinking about moving back home.”
Brick tips his hat back. “She thinks you need her, that you’re in over your head and can’t handle the boys—”
“That’s ridiculous! I’m doing fine. Everything’s fine.”
“That’s not what she says.”
“Because Mama’s a busy body!”
Brick gives me a long look. “Yes, she is, and if you don’t want her taking up residence with you in the next couple weeks, you better pull it together and look like you actually enjoy life.”
“Aw, Shey, you’ve always been thin, but you’re downright puny now. The only thing I ever see you put in your mouth is coffee. If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were smoking again—”
“You’re not taking any pills? Calmers, tranquilizers like Valium, Xanax, anything?”
“No.” I cross my arms over my chest and glare at him. “I’ve never taken anything. You know how I feel about stuff like that, especially after Cody’s problems with substances.”
He reaches out, pushes a long blonde tendril from my face. “Do you know you shake, hon? You can’t even hold a pen without your hand trembling. Mama noticed. Charlotte’s noticed. Even I’ve noticed.”
His protectiveness touches me. “I’m just tired, Brick. I don’t sleep like I used to.”
“Maybe we need to take you out of the office and away from the books and put you in the barn instead. A day or two of hauling hay and mucking out stalls might help you with the sleep problem.”
I crack a smile. “Maybe.”
The front door opens and the boys come tumbling out of the house, voices raised in anger. “They’re at it again,” I groan.
“You can’t be soft,” Brick answers.
He gives me another long look before laying on the horn. The horn shuts the boys up. “Get in,” he orders, “I’m taking you to school today. Your mom’s got something to do.”
My boys look at me with surprise. “What are you doing, Mom?” Cooper asks, at my side for a goodbye kiss.
I kiss Cooper’s cheek and answer that I might have a modeling job.
“Modeling what? Tractors?” Bo snorts.
“You’re such a jerk, Bo,” Hank mutters as he climbs into the truck to ride shotgun.
Cooper grimaces at me as Bo jumps past him to get into the cab’s back seat. “Have a good day, Mom.”
“I will. You too.”
I lift my hand in farewell as the truck door closes and Brick drives off. Cooper turns to wave goodbye from the back. I shake my head. My boys. Hellions, each of them.
With the boys gone, I go in search of my cell phone and find it on the floor of Pop’s old truck. As Brick suspected, the battery is dead, and I have to plug it in the kitchen to retrieve messages. One from Mama and three from Joanne at Stars.
I call the number Joanne’s left for me, which must be her cell since the agency doesn’t open for another two hours. Joanne answers right away. “You finally got my message?” she asks.
“I did, sorry, the phone was in the truck.”
“Are you available?”
“I could be. Where do I go, how long is the shoot?”
“It’s for a Dillard’s newspaper insert the day after Thanksgiving. They’ll pay you your hourly rate. You’re to be on location in Highland Park in an hour—”
“Oh, then there’s no way. I’m two full hours from Highland Park. My brother lives there and I’ve never made it in less than two hours, and that’s without traffic.”
“I’ll tell them you’ll be there as soon as you can.” And then she rattles off the address, and I’m fairly confident I know the house since Blue lives on Beverly Drive, too.
“Make sure they’re okay with me being late,” I say.
“They’ll be fine. They need you.”
Glad somebody does, I think, ending the call.