As he watches his wife’s car pull away with their 5-year-old daughter, Ellie Bee, waving frantically from the backseat, the strangest thing happens.
His chin starts to quiver.
They’re just going away for a couple of weeks to retreat with her side of the family. It’s not like it’s going to be forever. So why . . . ?
He tries to fight a frown, but can’t. Forces himself to wave back, alternating the deep frown with fake smiles he pulls from nowhere. He has to turn away before the tears come.
He starts to . . . but then finds he just must take one last look at his daughter’s enthusiastic face and the slight bob of his wife’s ponytail indicating she’s giving her some kind of instruction. “Turn around and sit down,” probably. Because that’s exactly what his daughter does. She turns her back on him and flops down into the backseat.
He stares at the shape of the taillights as his wife pulls away. Square. He notices the way they are separated.
They’re both leaving. . .
He hustles into the house and forces himself to find stuff to do in his office. That’s the whole reason he’s staying behind, right?
But the tears come anyway. Wracking his body.
“Mommy,” he gulps as giant drops obliterate the text of his latest manuscript, lying directly below him on the desk. Pages and pages of it are spread out upon its surface. He liked to print out everything to survey it - to visualize the big picture – to make sure everything fit. It’s part of his process. But now the big picture is splattered in tears.
As everything blurs, he remembers.
“Mommy!” he screamed as the yelling abruptly ceased and his mother definitively slammed the door of the driver’s seat and revved the engine. Jellybean was in the backseat waving at him with a smile, not understanding what was going on. She probably thought they were just going on a little trip.
He forced himself to wave back and smile – he didn’t want to worry her. But he knew.
He knew Mommy wasn’t coming back. And neither was his sister.
The car took off and he sank to his knees as dust and dirt kicked up from the rear tires and smacked him in the face. He instinctively squeezed his eyes shut as he heard the beer bottle his dad had been holding shatter against the side of the car.
He heard him yell out “Good riddance!” as they sped away into the night, leaving him all alone to deal with his broken father. He was just a boy.
He hears tires on the drive outside. What? They’re back already?
He runs outside to meet Betty and Ellie Bee. He’s never been more relieved. He’s wiping at his eyes, his face, his nose. He doesn’t want his wife to know he’s been crying over something so silly as them leaving on a little trip.
“Hey, Jug,” Betty says softly as he envelops her in a hug.
When they separate, she touches his cheek gently and says, “I saw your face as I was pulling out.”
He nods and looks down.
“I came back because you didn’t look okay.”
He wipes at his nose, sniffs, and looks up, but not at her directly. “I wasn’t.”
“What is it, Juggie?” she strokes his arm.
He remembers her taillights. Her square taillights. Just like his mom’s.
“When you pulled away I . . . I . . .” This is hard to admit.
Betty’s taillights are right there. In front of him. Little Ellie Bee is still in the backseat . . . and it all comes crashing back once again.
Spatters of dirt – tiny pieces of it – assault his cheeks. Dust drives into his face, making it hard to breathe. Yet . . .
“Mommy!” he screams, reaching, reaching out into the dust, grasping at nothing.
He’s grasping at . . .
He feels the firmness of his wife’s hips beneath his fingers, their solidness as he grasps onto her. Somehow, he had fallen to his knees. He hugs her close, buries his face in her belly and cries.
“I’m not leaving you, Jug,” he hears Betty say, her hands stroking his hair, cradling his head to her womb, where she had once carried Ellie Bee, where she was even now carrying his son, though it was too early to tell. “Not ever.”
Suddenly, little Ellie Bee has joined them in the hug, “Me either, Daddy!”
He hadn’t even heard the car door open . . .
He pulls away and takes a really good look at his little girl. “You’re so much like Lil’ Jelly.”
“Just call me Lil’ Ellie then!”
He and Betty exchange a quick smile before laughing lightly.
“We’ll think about it,” he says to his daughter and stands up.
“We can think about it on the road.”
“Betty, I can’t go, I’ve got -”
“Juggie,” Betty says, putting a firm hand on his cheek. “I’m going not to leave you in this state. I had no idea what Ellie Bee and I leaving for this retreat would do to you.”
“You’re clearly not. And I am not going to add to your trauma. Now pack.”
He hesitates. But only for a second.
“Yes, Ma’am,” he says and turns away to go back into the house, smiling to himself.
She came back to get me. . .