The Return – Published in Montgomery Magazine – January 2019
As Rob tossed his duffle in the back of the van, the sound of clinking bottles sent Jen’s antenna shooting into the air. A slight tremor shook her head, and her eyes rose over the top of her sunglasses.
“What?” he asked.
“What’s in the bag?”
“Just a couple of those little glass bottled Coca Colas I like. You want to see?”
“No. It’s okay,” she said slamming the hatchback closed.
Addicts lie, the rehab counselor had warned, but she so much wanted to believe him. It couldn’t be, not after all he’d been through. They were finally going to celebrate his achievement. Let it go, Jen, she told herself, just like Andrew would have said if he were still alive.
It had been a trying year and a half since Andrew’s death, Rob’s arrest and months of detox at Hazelden Rehab. She called it their trek to the top of Everest. There were bad days and worse, days without enough oxygen in the air to breathe, and other days spent trapped inside crevasses so deep she thought they’d never make it out. But she never cried, she had to remain strong. The tears were Rob’s to shed.
And finally six months clean, and having earned his GED, they’d decided to celebrate in in the Adirondacks, the summer place of their past where only good memories had been formed and the stress of academic achievement and work commitments were left behind. It was where they all learned to sail. Where Rob and his dad woke before the sun, trolled the lake in a small motor boat and fished until day break. Where Rob ate his first s’more. Where she read him bedtime stories by lantern light while he licked sticky marshmallow and chocolate from his fingers. Every summer for one month they’d slip away to this cabin in the woods overlooking the lake, this magical place, until Rob no longer thought it cool to vacation with his parents.
That’s when things began to change. At first Rob spent more time with his guitar than he did with them. And later, more time with friends than he did with his guitar. Over time showers were less frequent and stale cigarette smoke lingered in his clothing. And then, there was the call from his high school counselor.
“He’s mixing with the wrong crowd, Mrs. Singer….You should come in…Tell me what day works best for you and Mr. Singer?”
Jen stewed that day, rehashing the conversation in her mind. Mr. Singer, ha. He’d never be available. She knew she’d be going this one alone.
She had seen her son changing, but kept thinking it would pass. Just another phase. He’d be all right. She was a good mother. They were good parents. She was there for every baseball game and soccer match. Andrew even coached Rob’s MSI team when he was able to pull himself away from the office. She was trying to help with college applications, but more fights than progress always ended with Rob’s self-imposed seclusion and his music vibrating the walls.
Jen and Andrew had begun fighting in the mornings after Rob had left for school. She wanted Andrew to be more involved. He told her she was overbearing.
“Leave the kid alone. He’ll figure it out.”
“Oh, that’s typical of you. Leave him alone. That’s all you do.” More angry words ended with Andrew dropping his unfinished mug of coffee into the sink and walking out the door without saying good-bye. Jen was left fuming, with no one to talk to.
And then, Andrew collapsed coaching soccer practice; Rob wasn’t even there. It took hours before a friend found Rob and brought him home wreaking of cigarettes and alcohol.
* * *
Jen buried Andrew, recalling only the love they had shared, his toothy smile, strong hands and warm kisses. All gone. She shuffled through the days unaware of empty passing hours and tossed through sleepless nights. Alone she mourned her husband’s passing and her son’s addiction. Andrew had trusted her to take care of it, but she hadn’t. Instead she longed for the days when things would return to the way they once were. Too much precious time had been wasted fighting, fighting about Rob.
But no more, she couldn’t lose her son too. So, while Rob continued to float through a foggy haze, she steeled herself reading Tough Love, tore his room apart and researched rehabs. Just as the book had warned, she found more than she’d expected. Weed hidden in socks, pills stashed in bandaid boxes and vodka funneled into flasks.
When confronted, Rob cried. “Honest, Mom. I was gonna stop, but then Dad died, and I don’t know, I just…” He droned on through breathless sobs. He was sorry, so sorry. He was done with it. “Trust me.”
She wanted so much to believe him. But she knew she couldn’t. “Right,” she said staring into the toilet, watching the evidence spiral down the drain. Deafened to her son’s continued pleadings by a voice in her head shouting to stay strong, Jen raised her hands in the air and said, “Please, Rob, stop. I can’t listen anymore.”
Three days later they were on a flight to the Hazelden Rehab in Florida.
* * *
But that was then. Now they’d returned to their utopia for one week to enjoy the fresh air and healthy living. Jen sipped her morning coffee on the back deck of the cabin while watching the rising sun dance across the lake. The morning breeze whispered the scent of fresh pine and awakening birds fluttered in their nests. Sounds of life from the kitchen brought a smile to her face. Her first thought was Andrew and good-morning kisses. But that couldn’t be, would never be again. Shutting her eyes to erase the image, she inhaled a fresh cleansing breath and stepped inside to join Rob.
“Morning, honey,” she said standing on tip toes, kissing the side of his head. “Sleep well?”
“Yeah, great,” he said rubbing his hands through his hair.
She could smell the tobacco on his breath and wrinkled her nose. “Wish you wouldn’t start so early.”
“Mom, thought we were going to leave that alone.”
“Right, right, you’re right.” She let the conversation drop but not the thought. “Well, let’s have breakfast. Pancakes?” she said already pulling the mix off the shelf.
Later they hiked the pine carpeted path to the boat rental dock and set sail across the lake with a packed picnic basket. It was a beautiful day, sunny, warm, with a perfect light breeze for sailing. Rob looked so strong as the boat captain, in command, only giving orders to duck when he shifted the boom. They beached the boat on a small uninhabited island where they joined a few other adventurers. Rob sat in the tall grass with two young guys, talked and smoked while Jen spread out her picnic lunch. “Oh, I forgot the soda,” she called over her shoulder to Rob.
“Mom, I’m a Boy Scout, remember? Always prepared.” And he pulled a six pack of canned Cokes from his backpack and tossed one to each of the guys.
“Great.” She smiled and nodded. But it wasn’t great. They were glass bottles she had heard in the duffle. Jen’s heartbeat quickened and refused to settle the rest of the day. While Rob and his two new buddies listened to music and played Frisbee in between smokes, she pretended to be reading. Instead she dreaded over what in the past she’d have ignored. She couldn’t wait to get home and search Rob’s room hoping so much to prove her skeptical self wrong.
Finally, they pushed off from the shore waving good-bye to Rob’s new friends. “Catch you tonight,” he called back as they sailed away. Jen wanted to ask the plan, but couldn’t find her words.
Back at the cabin, she rocked back and forth on the front porch swing for a few minutes listening to Rob singing in the outdoor shower. She had wanted to wait until he went back out for the evening, but uncontainable impulse forced her to slip off into his room. The duffle was tucked under the bed like a body bag holding the evidence. Her hands were sweating as she tugged harder than needed. It was empty. Where were those bottles? Now she’d have to wait until he was gone.
Rob looked like a native woodsman when he left. Jeans and a T-shirt, his hair gently mussed and a weathered backpack hooked over his shoulders. She watched him walk down the path until he was out of sight, then ran back to his room, pulling out every drawer. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. She checked the closet. Still nothing. And aside from the empty duffle under the bed, the space was clear. She fell back on his bed. Am I crazy? The kid’s a good kid, right? Why can’t I just let him be?
Because once an addict always an addict, she heard the counselor’s voice replaying those haunting words in her mind. It was dark when she figured it out. With flashlight in hand, she gagged gazing into the old water barrel behind the house.
By the time Rob dragged himself into the kitchen the next afternoon, she already had lined the half-dozen vodka bottles across the counter, and when their eyes met he looked surprised. “Where did those come from?”
“What, are you kidding me?”
“Well, they’re not mine if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“Do I look stupid? We’re the only ones here, and they’re certainly not mine.”
He shrugged and walked over to pour himself a cup of coffee. “Maybe the last renter forgot to take them home. I don’t know.”
“Oh, Rob.” She rolled her eyes.
His face reddened and his eyes grew wide with rage. “I can’t believe you think they’re mine. But then you never trust me!”
“Rob, I’m sorry, but…”
“No, don’t say it. I’m out of here.” He threw his coffee mug into the sink and the screen door slapped shut behind him.
Jen sank into the sofa. “Dammit, Andrew, I need you. How could you have left me with this mess?” She paced the floor, cursing Andrew, cursing herself and cursing Rob before she shouted into her cell phone at the Hazelden counselor who answered her call.
“We warned this might happen and rehearsed what to do if it did,” the counselor said. He praised her immediate response and was hopeful Rob would do the same. “Just come on back. We’re here, for both of you.”
Jen sat for a while praying he was right, Rob would be back. But in how many pieces this time? She rubbed her dry eyes before jumping up and storming into the kitchen where she threw the bottles into a large black plastic bag and dragged them out to the trash. One by one she slam-dunked the them into the metal receptacle, watching the booze wash over the splintered glass.
She raced back into the house. She had to pack, be ready to go as soon as Rob got back, if he… No, she stopped herself. She couldn’t go there. She threw their clothes back inside the duffle bags, cleaned the house, emptied the fridge, and scoured the oven they hadn’t even used. She dragged their bags outside, and hoisted them into the van.
With nothing left to do but wait, she sat rocking on the porch loveseat swing. “Please, please let him come home safe,” she whispered. “I can’t lose him too.” It was dusk when she saw the familiar slumped figure walking up the path. She held her breath watching him take each step onto the porch with care before facing her.
“Where’ve you been?”
“St. Joe’s Rehab, downtown,” he said joining her on the loveseat. “I’m so sorry, Mom.”
“I know,” she said. They hugged; they cried together. “We’ll start again.”