Gabe knew that she was military by the way she stood, feet hip-distance apart and hands held just in front of her, right clasped firmly around the left wrist. She was dressed in her civvies, but her clothes were neat and well pressed too and he picked her out of the restaurant crowd easily. She wasn’t what he remembered.
Gabe looked down at his own scuffed trainers and ill-fitting jeans; he’d lost weight again. It’d been two months since he’d seen anyone. She wouldn’t know the difference.
“Gabriel?” She was looking at him now, unsure if maybe she’d picked on the wrong kid by mistake.
Gabe made himself answer her. “Yes, mam.” He stepped forward, noticing the lack of stripes on her collar. She was trying to blend in. He saluted her anyway.
“At ease soldier,” she said. She smiled a little, but it was a wrinkle on the smooth surface of her face; it didn’t suit her.
Gabe went back to staring at his feet.
“Will you join me for lunch?” she asked, gesturing to an empty table by the window. He followed her to it and sat down.
She looked him over for a while in silence, taking in all the details of his face. He thought maybe she was trying to find a bit of herself, too, but even her looks hadn’t been left behind. “You look good,” she finally said.
Gabe thought about all the weight he still needed to lose, his too-pale complexion, and the freckles he’d once tried to scrub off his nose as a kid. It was just conversation; he looked like shit.
“You look…” Gabe struggled for the right word. He let the sentence trail off when he couldn’t find it.
She sighed. “I know,” she said. “It’s too much.”
He shook his head. She couldn’t understand; she was a stranger to him.
“But it’s going to be okay, Gabriel. I know you don’t think so right now, but it will get better.”
“It’s Gabe,” he mumbled.
“What?” she asked.
“It’s Gabe, not Gabriel,” he said again. He looked up and met her gaze for the first time. “A real mother would know that.”
Her shoulders tensed and whatever she’d been about to say stuck in her throat. The seconds ticked by in silence until eventually she took a calculated breath and relaxed, a soldier ready for battle.
“That’s right,” she admitted. “But I’m the only mother you’ve got.”
* * *
NOTICE OF DEPLOYMENT
NAME: Joanna Lynn Reyes
RANK: First Lieutenant
DESTINATION: Camp Casey, South Korea
DATE OF DEPLOYMENT: January 3rd, 1999, 08:00 EST
* * *
“You’re going away again, aren’t you?” Gabe’s father said. He fussed with the lights he was hanging on a Christmas tree in the living room, trying to get the strands to lie flat.
Gabe’s mom sat on the couch and worked to unwind a second mass of lights from a giant knot that had formed while the box was in storage. She didn’t contradict him.
“When were you going to tell me?” he asked.
“After the holiday,” she said, her voice carefully even. “I didn’t want to ruin it for you.”
He looked to the playpen across the room, listening to the gurgling sounds his infant son made as he slept. “He’s not even two yet, Jo.”
“Paul, please don’t start.”
“Start what?” Paul stepped away from the tree and faced his wife. “Joanna we discussed this before you got pregnant. No overseas assignments until he was at least three. We agreed it’d be too early for him.”
“I never agreed to that,” she said. “I couldn’t have. And anyways, I can’t appeal the assignment. I’ve been off rotation for two years.”
“You were pregnant. Of course you were off rotation.” Paul ran a hand through his hair, mussing up his mop of curls, and then let it fall back to his side.
“You could at least pretend to be upset about it, you know,” he went on. “Just for a minute you could let me think you actually wanted to be here.”
“I have to go,” she said, meeting his gaze for the first time.
“But you don’t have to want to, Jo. You don’t have to want to.”
Without saying anything else Paul picked up a box of ornaments and returned to the unfinished Christmas tree. Joanna continued working the tangle of lights.
* * *
“Can I start you off with something to drink?” the waitress asked. She snapped her gum impatiently as Gabe and his mother broke off their staring match with a start.
“Iced tea if you have it,” Joanna said.
That’s ninety calories per eight ounce serving if sweetened.
“Just water for me,” Gabe said.
The waitress left to fill their order.
“I don’t expect that this will be easy, Gabe.” Joanna said his name with care, gauging his reaction as she tried it out. “It’s going to take some getting used to. For both of us.” She picked up a menu from the end of the table and gave it a once over.
Gabe left his where it was. “I’m fifteen years old. I don’t need you to take care of me.”
“When we got divorced your father was given primary custody. It was what was best for you and I never disputed that because I knew that I couldn’t be here. But we agreed that if something like this ever happened that I’d be the one to take care of you.”
“He probably never thought he’d die in a car accident, though.”
“I doubt anyone ever thinks that.”
The waitress returned to the table with their drinks. “You ready to order?” she asked.
Gabe fished the lemon wedge out of his water. It was only two calories, but the acidity bothered his stomach. “I’m not really all that hungry,” he said.
“You should try and eat something, Gabe,” Joanna insisted. “I know you’re upset but that’s hardly an excuse. Your body needs fuel.”
“I had a big breakfast just a little while ago,” he replied. “So I’m still full from that, I guess.”
His mother’s look of disbelief was evident, but she didn’t press him on it. “Club sandwich no mayo,” she said instead to the waitress.
The girl scribbled down the order, then quickly departed again. The restaurant was just easing into its lunchtime rush, tables filling up around Gabe and his mother as they talked. A young couple in their early twenties was seated to their left; they held hands under the table.
“I used to come here a lot with your father,” Joanna said. “When we first started dating it was one of our favorite places.”
Gabe took a sip of his water and thought about the few times he and his father had come here before the accident. They’d come once before when he’d graduated from elementary school and another time just after the divorce. Both times were shortly after his mother’s deployment on lengthy tour assignments.
“He brought me here, too,” Gabe said.
“It certainly hasn’t changed much in the last few years. Maybe just a coat of paint.”
“Did you find out anything about the other driver?” Gabe asked, shifting the topic away from memory lane. “The police won’t tell me anything.”
“That’s because you’re a minor. Also they’re still looking into it. But there were definite signs of an elevated BAC.”
Gabe swirled the straw around in his drink, listening to the ice as it clinked against the sides of the glass. “Are they going to prosecute?”
“I don’t know yet.”
“Is there anything you do know, Joanna?” Gabe spat. His heart pounded in his chest, frustration giving way to anger. “You don’t know what’s happening with the police, you didn’t know your own son’s name, and you certainly don’t know how to be a proper mother. So why are you even here?”
Joanna flinched, taken aback by the outburst. “I know there’s a lot to figure out. But it’s what your father would have wanted.”
“Did you even know him?” Gabe pressed. “When was the last time you even spoke to Dad?”
* * *
863 Orchard Way
Colesville, Maryland, 20914
I’m sorry that I have to do this in a letter, but there is no other way for me to contact you right now. We haven’t had Internet access in weeks and I don’t know when I’ll be able to make personal calls again. Everything here is so unsure.
I can’t tell you where I am, what’s happening, or even when I think I’ll be home again. But you know that by now. You’ve probably been watching the news, wondering if I’m ok. I can only say that the media has barely scratched the surface of the issues we’re facing here on the ground. So much has happened and I see no end to the instability.
We always knew that there would be parts of my life that I couldn’t share with you and that there would be things that I would miss at home. But we never expected the level of commitment I would need to make; we never predicted how much I’d be pulled away from you and from Gabriel. I wish that I could say that he means more, but Gabriel has always been your son more than mine. I justified my career to myself, hoping that he’d understand later that what I was doing was for the greater good. I hoped that you’d continue to understand as you always have that this was something I needed to do. But I’ve missed everything, leaving a void in my family that I can never hope to fill.
The attached divorce papers need to be filed at City Hall after you’ve signed them, too. I think it’s for the best.
* * *
“I don’t want you to think badly of you mother, Gabe,” his father said. He stirred a pot of pasta on the stove and adjusted the flame beneath it to prevent overflow. “She’s just doing what she thinks is best.”
“That’s what you always say, Dad.” Gabe poured a jar of pasta sauce into a small pot and brought it over to his father. “But I stopped looking up to her a long time ago. She’s in the military – not a superhero.”
“I think there’s a lot more to her job than you or I understand. She’s an officer. That means people look to her for direction. It means that people are counting on her to know what to do.”
“I know that,” Gabe said. He pulled a set of bowls out of the cabinet over the sink and then set them on the table with a pair of forks. “But that doesn’t make her a martyr. Other kids have parents in the military, too, but they at least get letters or calls sometimes. Mom acts like its impossible to stay in touch – she never sends anything. And her tours are twice as long, too.”
“She’s always felt that she could do more good in the field than behind a desk, Gabe. I knew that when I married her.”
“Face it, Dad: she left us a long time ago. The divorce paperwork just makes it ok for me to stop calling her ‘Mom.’”
Paul set down the spoon and turned to face his thirteen-year-old son. Gabe’s hair fell into his eyes in a lazy preteen fashion of unkemptness and the summer sun had splattered his face with freckles, but the look in his eyes revealed a clarity most boys his age weren’t privy to. He understood more than most kids what the relationship was like between his parents, understood more than his father wanted him to how it felt to be abandoned by a parent. Gabe was right; the divorce was just a legal framework for the separation that had always existed in their small, unusual family. It changed nothing about their day-to-day lives.
“You don’t have to call her Mom if you don’t want to,” Paul said. “But she is your mother. That won’t change just because I sign a piece of paper. You understand that, don’t you?”
“Yeah, I know,” Gabe said. He brushed the hair out of his eyes and sat down at the small kitchen table. There were only two chairs.
* * *
“After the divorce went through your father and I mostly cut ties,” Joanna admitted. “I figured a clean break was probably for the best. Though in my defense, being stationed in Afghanistan hasn’t exactly been great for my cell phone reception either.”
“I meant before. You hardly ever sent letters.” Gabe sipped his water slowly, worrying the straw between his teeth.
Joanna unwrapped the silverware roll in front of her and placed the napkin in her lap. “I didn’t know what to say, I guess. I’d missed so much,” she said. “And I guess I still don’t. Your father was always so much better at this.”
“You could have asked me about school, or sports, or something.” She could have asked about the six weeks he spent in a psychiatric hospital.
“Alright then, how’s school?”
Gabe rolled his eyes. “I think we both know that I haven’t been there in a while.”
“You’re right. That was a stupid question.”
The conversation fell silent as the waitress approached their table. She set a plate down in front of Joanna. “Can I get you two anything else?” she asked, one foot already turned away.
Joanna shook her head. “No, thank you. I think we’re alright here.” When the waitress was gone, she offered some of her lunch to Gabe. “Are you sure you don’t want anything?” she asked.
Gabe considered the sandwich; fat slabs of roast turkey with lettuce and tomato on two slices of carb heavy bread. Plus the bacon! Even without the mayonnaise it must have been over five hundred calories at least. His father would have made him eat half; his doctor would have insisted on everything but the bacon.
“No thanks,” he said. “I’m really still full from breakfast.”
* * *
“The school called me at work today,” Gabe’s father said as he came in. He wasn’t normally home from work this early. “Do you want to tell me what’s going on?”
“Nothing’s going on, Dad,” Gabe said from his seat on the couch. His father hadn’t even made it through the front door yet and was already shooting off accusations.
“Your grades aren’t improving, kiddo. I let it slide when you brought me that last report card because I figured that I wasn’t spending enough time with you. I figured that my working later and the whole thing with your mom were affecting you. But now your teachers are telling me that you’ve stopped spending time with your friends, too.”
Gabe set down the book he was reading. “They’re idiots,” he said. “Do you expect me to keep wasting my time with them?”
Paul shrugged off his coat and tossed it over the backside of the couch. “No, but I expect you to keep me in the loop. Did someone say something to you?”
“No, Dad. No one said anything. Now will you let up about it? Its not important.”
“What’s that you’re reading, Gabe? Is it for school?”
Gabe held up the book so his father could read the title. Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss. “We’ve been talking about nutrition in Health class. I’m cutting out junk.”
Paul laughed. “Yeah? We’ll see how long that lasts.”
“I’m serious, Dad. French fries do horrible things to your body. I’m done with that crap.”
“Alright, alright,” his father said. “But I want to see your math homework before you go to bed tonight.”
* * *
Dr. Ethan S. Johnson
Potomac Valley Psychiatric Center
Phone: (202) – 455-6788
346 Lycee Street, Rockville, Maryland, 20851
www . PVPsychiatric . com
* * *
“Your son’s health is deteriorating, Mr. Reyes,” Principle Watkins said. Paul sat across the desk from her, hands clenching the fabric of his jeans. He had hoped to never have to be in this office; Gabe was always such a good kid.
“He’s completely isolated himself from his friends, his grades aren’t what they used to be, and now this,” she went on. “Its past time for you to step in.”
“I’ve tried to help him with the school work. But my new work schedule gets me home later than I’d like. And the divorce has been hard on both of us. He doesn’t talk about it, but I know it has been.”
“Your son fainted, Mr. Reyes. This isn’t just about his school work, anymore.”
Paul nodded. “I know that.”
Principle Watkins set down Gabe’s file. “The nurse is recommending a treatment facility for your son,” she said. “They’ll be able to help him work through all this. Get his weight back up.”
“This isn’t something we could just work out at home?”
“Evidently not.” She handed him a business card. “Give them a call as soon as you can and then let us know what the status of Gabe’s enrollment will be for next quarter. We’ll do our best to keep him from falling behind.”
* * *
“I’ve seen your school records, Gabe,” Joanna said. “I know you spent some time at PVP.”
Gabe’s face paled. He had always known that she would find out eventually, but some part of him had hoped for more time.
“They said relapse is not uncommon. Especially after a trauma.” Joanna started to reach for his hand and then pulled back, unsure of herself. “Doctor Johnson was hoping to hear from you.”
Counting a few calories here and there and skipping out on the heavy meals didn’t mean that he was relapsing. It wasn’t hurting anyone. In fact it was healthier. Controlling what he put into his body was good for him; it was stable and secure. Gabe needed that right now.
Gabe shrugged, brushing off the concern. “I’ll call him,” Gabe said. “But I’m not relapsing.”
Joanna looked skeptical. “Even so it might be good to talk to him.”
“You mean about Dad?”
“If you want.” Joanna started in on her lunch, taking a small bite of her sandwich. Gabe watched as she chewed, one, two, three times before swallowing. It was methodical, almost purposeful; the military discipline branded into her. “Or you could talk about something else. I’m sure my coming home hasn’t been easy to process either.”
“And whose fault is that, Joanna?” Gabriel snapped. “Why am I so fucked up if not because of you? Because every goddamn thing is always about you – what you want, where you want to be – Dad and I never mattered to you, right?”
“That’s not true. You both mattered a great deal to me.”
“You don’t think I feel terrible? I thought that my stepping out would allow you and your father to move on, to have a life without me hovering over it like a shadow! But instead I brought on a whole other set of issues.”
Gabe watched as his mother’s calm exterior began to fail. He’d struck repeatedly against the barbed wire of her heart and finally hit home. But she wasn’t breaking.
“And if you don’t think that I feel guilty about that, then you’re sorely mistaken.”
“But you left,” Gabe said. “You left us and never looked back.”
“I went overseas because that’s where I wanted to be,” she said. “I wanted a military career, wanted to make a name for myself. And you’re right: I didn’t care what that did to my family in the process.”
* * *
“Dad, I want to come home,” Gabe said. His voice was garbled slightly by static on the other end of the telephone line, but Paul could hear the sincerity in his son’s voice. This was their first call after Gabe had had his phone privileges restored; he’d lost them for a few days after he refused to eat lunch.
“It’s not time yet, kiddo,” Paul replied. “The doctors said you’re making progress, but that you still have a ways left to go.”
“I’ve made a lot of progress, Dad. I gained like ten pounds.”
“That’s great, Gabe! I’m so proud of you.” Paul adjusted the weight of the phone and pressed it against his ear with his shoulder so that he could have both hands free to chop vegetables for the soup he was making. “If you keep this up, maybe I can have you home for Christmas.”
“Dad, I want to come home and be with you,” Gabe said. “The other kids here are awful. Crazy even. I’m nothing like them.”
“Gabe, I love you,” Paul said. He set down the knife and took a firm grip on the phone. He spoke clearly so his son could hear him without interference. “But there are things I cannot do for you. These doctors are helping you in a way that I can’t. I hate it, but its true.”
“Dad – ”
Paul’s heart broke the day that he dropped Gabe off at the hospital, and fractured into pieces at the sight of his son being led away by a nurse. By the entrance way there was a visitor’s lounge. It had a few sofas and some tables, even a piano in the back. A few other parents sat inside with their children, each one of them small and fragile, like a leaf easily blown away in the wind. Looking back, all the signs were there; but he’d never recognized them.
“You’ll stay there until they say that you’re ready to leave,” Paul said to Gabe. “I’d love to have you home for the holiday, but I won’t sign you out until they think you can handle it.”
Gabe was quiet for a while and Paul could hear a slight sniffle on the other end of the line. “Will I see you this weekend?” Gabe finally asked.
“You bet, kiddo. I’ll be the first one at the door.”
* * *
Gabe and his mother were quiet for a while at their table. Joanna worked methodically through one half of her sandwich and then the other while Gabe watched passersby through the window.
“How am I supposed to trust you?” Gabe finally asked, his voice barely above a whisper. “How am I supposed to trust someone who walked out on her family?”
“I don’t know, Gabriel,” his mother replied. “I don’t know.”
Disclaimer: Please be aware that all events and characters from this piece are fictional and any resemblance to real life people or places is unintentional. Thank you for your understanding.