Tuesday 5 October 2021

Forgiving Joanie


by Rebecca Redshaw

                      Irish breakfast tea                           

Joanie approached the double wooden doors with trepidation. “What am I doing here?” she mumbled to herself just loud enough that the young man pushing the mailcart did a double take. He halted the cart and smiled.

“Looking for someone in particular? You can bet I know where everyone works in this building.”

She looked at the scrap of paper in her hand and then up at the name on the door. With hesitation Joanie turned toward the mail delivery boy. “Thanks. I found it.”

And with that, the lad was on his way, leaving her still frozen at the door. She took a deep breath. As she reached to turn the doorknob, it suddenly swung open and startled her.

“Sorry to have frightened you. Come on in.” The woman gestured for Joanie to enter. “Nothing to fear in here, unless you steal candy from Betty, our receptionist. You would think the candy dish is for clients. Don’t be intimidated!”

Joanie entered the spacious waiting room.

“I’ll be down the hall, Betty. If you could help this lovely lady get comfortable until I get back?”

Stepping to the counter, Joanie’s mind raced. “Was that her? My therapist? Maybe it’s not too late for me to leave.”

But as she was about to act on that last thought, Betty hung up the phone.

“If I could have your picture I.D. and insurance card, please?”

Fumbling in her purse, Joanie pulled out her parking ticket first. “Do you validate? I wasn’t sure how long I’d be, oh, here’s my license, too.”

Betty, efficient and distracted, focused on her computer screen rather than the nervous woman in front of her. “Insurance card?”

“I’ll be paying by check at the end of the session if that’s OK. I called earlier.”

The receptionist finally looked up, handing Joanie her license. “Oh, yeah, I remember talking with you. Unusual not to use insurance, but that’s fine, sweetie.” Upon seeing how on edge the woman in front of her was, Betty adopted a motherly tone. “We can even set up a payment plan if you like. Laura does that all the time.”

“I don’t think, eh, er, I won’t be coming more than this once.”

Betty handed back her parking ticket. “Sorry, we don’t validate, but you can always park on the block one street over for free, that is if you might happen to come back again.”

Joanie looked around for a place to sit, somewhere where she wouldn’t feel obligated to make conversation with the 50ish receptionist.

As she was sitting down, Betty’s voice rang out from behind the counter demanding her attention. “This candy really is for clients. Laura was just pulling your leg. Help yourself.”

Joanie opened her always present reading material, “I’m fine, thank you.” She looked at her watch. She was still early. It was 10:55. The office door swung open, and Laura reentered. Despite Betty waving a handful of pink notes with phone messages over the counter, Laura headed straight for Joanie, extending her right hand.

“I’m Laura Hillerman.  You must be Joan Franklin. Nice to meet you.”

Joanie started to get up to shake her hand, but she dropped her book and then dropped her purse as she was retrieving the book. “I’m so, so sorry.”

“No worries.” Laura stooped down and retrieved the book. “I love this one!” noticing the title, Cinnamon and Gunpowder. Made me want to take to the high seas and swashbuckle my way through life.”

Joanie’s face turned pink with embarrassment. “Usually, my reading leans toward more literary classics or non-fiction.”

“And I’m usually stuck reading journals or volumes of dry case studies. In my heart I think we all need to read more for fun, don’t you agree?”

Joanie was trying to take this moment in. “Laura does know why I’ve come today?” she thought. “She’s acting like we’re sorority sisters discussing our pastimes. How am I going to talk to her about my, my--about anything?”

“I gather Betty has taken care of all the paperwork. Why don’t you come into my office where we can chat in private?”

Relieved, Joanie followed Laura into a room that was furnished with two easy chairs and a couch. The soft lighting of the lamps accented the forest green walls. As she sat down, she noticed a desk opposite the couch and to her left a table with an electric tea kettle, assorted tea bags in a jar, and a small stack of napkins.

Laura closed the door. “I’m not a coffee drinker, so I tell my clients please feel free to patronize the barista on the corner with your favorite double shot, mocha, espresso, extra cream, shot of whatever and bring it to the session. Clearly, if you’re a coffee drinker, you’re on your own. However, I always have the kettle on for tea and will happily brew enough for two cups. I don’t have too many choices, but I can offer you a green tea or chamomile, and, of course, my favorite, Irish breakfast tea. What’ll it be Joan?”

“I suppose I’ll have what you’re having.”

“Are you sure, Joan? I won’t be offended if you want something healthier than a black caffeinated brew.”

“That would be fine and …” Joanie swallowed. “If you wouldn’t mind calling me “Joanie?” I hear “Joan” and expect to see my mother in the room.”

Laura handed her the steaming mug and placed a coaster near the tissue box on the coffee table. She retrieved her tea and sat down in the opposite chair. “Joanie it is! And there’s always that awkward moment where some people don’t know what to call me-–like when you’re newly married and your mother-in-law, whom you barely know and yet you’re pretty sure you don’t like, tells you to call her “Mom.”” Laura paused in thought and sipped her tea. “But I digress. Call me Laura if that’s comfortable. I see by your chart, we’re about the same age.”

“I suppose we are.”

An awkward silence followed as Joanie and Laura both sipped the steaming tea. Joanie looked around the room. Two framed documents were on the wall above the desk too far for her to read but she guessed they were Laura’s certification, at least she hoped they were. It would be a bummer if the only time she got the nerve to make an appointment to talk to someone the framed diplomas on the wall were for macramé expertise or candle making. It would be her luck to be totally snookered. Her mind flashed back to the time she and Sally, her best friend were seniors in high school and paid a boardwalk Tarot card reader to read their fortune. One hour later and fifty dollars poorer they shared with one another that not only was “exotic travel” in both of their futures, but “unexpected wealth and love” would be theirs! They laughed when they realized that was probably the reason the reader insisted they have “private” sessions.

“What are you thinking, Joanie? Care to share?” Laura interrupted her thoughts.

“Oh, you know. My brain skips from one thing to another so quickly sometimes I have to rewind my thought process like an old tape machine to remember how I got there and where I started. Does that make sense?” Her words raced into one another.

“Sure.” Laura took another sip of tea and set her cup down. “Why don’t you tell me what you’d like to talk about? You made it clear when you booked the appointment you had a specific issue and that you weren’t keen on more than one session.”

“Yes, I hope that didn’t sound too presumptuous.”

Laura smiled. “I’m not sure if I should be pleased you think I’m that good at what I do or if I should feel nervous, I would be under pressure to produce a magic wand or, more likely, a magic pill to cure your ills.”

“Mostly I’ve heard horror stories of people being in therapy where weeks turn into months and years and don’t ever get, for lack of a better word, better. Plus, I don’t have unlimited funds. I haven’t even told my husband I was seeing a therapist.”

“Why is that? Is your safety in question?”

Joanie almost choked as she sipped her tea. “Oh, God, no! He’s fine. My being here has nothing to with him. I’ve never even talked to him about…,” Her voice drifted off. “He thinks the reason I wake up with night sweats and toss so fretfully has to do with early onset menopause.”

“And is that true?”

“It’s true that’s what he thinks, but, no, menopause has nothing to do with it.” She reached for her teacup, avoiding Laura’s gaze. 

“I was sixteen.” Joanie’s hands started to shake, and she gripped the teacup cradling it in her lap to steady her nerves.

Laura listened. At least a minute passed, and she could see the patient’s body tense involuntarily, her eyelids pinched closed.

Joanie finally managed to inhale and slowly exhale before speaking again. “I was sixteen and had just passed my driver’s test.” Again, silence.

Crossing her legs and leaning forward, Laura said, “That’s usually an exciting time for a teenager.”

Joanie smiled. “Oh, yes. My mother had made a cake and when I pulled into the driveway my dad, who was in the passenger seat, gave her a big grin and a thumb’s up as I parked the car.” A smile crossed Joanie’s lips again. “I’d forgotten how excited they were. After we had a piece of cake, Dad handed me the keys and said, “Your mother needs some things from the grocery store and even though that’s usually my job, I happily hand over not only the keys to the car but the grocery list for your first solo drive.”

“My little brother begged to come along, but my parents insisted I go alone. I think they thought it would build my confidence behind the wheel.” Joanie blinked and gazed off in the distance with a puzzled look. “At least, I think that was the reason. It’s one of the things I’ve questioned over the years.”

Laura went to the kettle and poured a little hot water into both of their cups giving Joanie a moment. She sat down and waited. After several minutes, the therapist spoke.

“You’re thirty-two now. What happened half of your lifetime ago that brings you here today?”

Joanie stared at the door of the office behind Laura, as if it might magically open and allow her to escape. Then she spoke.

“That day everyone told me it wasn’t my fault; the police, my parents, even people walking by that saw it happen. And even though my car wasn’t damaged, I couldn’t make it home. Over the years I’ve always lived in the city, so I could get by with not driving. And as a kid I always had friends who offered to drive. After I married, my husband accepted my explanation that I’d rather he did the driving, at least until recently. Now he thinks life would be easier if we had a second car and…” Joanie sighed, “He thinks I should “grow up” and be a “responsible adult” as if he has any idea what he’s talking about.”

Laura uncrossed her legs and leaned forward. “I’m still not sure how I can help you, Joanie. You mentioned everything was fine between you and your husband.”

Joanie’s body tensed, and she stood up suddenly. “This was a bad idea. This was a bad idea. My family, my parents, we never talked about that day, so I don’t know why I thought it would make a difference talking about it today except…”

“Except that you did make the appointment and you did come here and maybe if you talk about whatever happened it might help.” Laura motioned for her to sit down.

Something in the tone of Laura’s voice caught Joanie’s attention. She sat down on the edge of the easy chair with her hands tucked under her legs and looked directly at Laura.

“I was so excited. It was a sunny afternoon and as I slid behind the driver’s seat of our little Buick Special, I felt so grown up and confident. My purse was on the passenger seat with my stamped permit and the insurance card tucked inside along with the grocery list and cash.”  She stopped. “How ridiculous is this? I even remember what Mom had on the list, a loaf of bread, a quart of milk, and a dozen eggs. When I got to the grocery store, I pulled into a space probably a hundred yards from the entrance, not wanting to be near any other cars.” Joanie laughed quietly. “I bought a half gallon of Rocky Road ice cream as a surprise treat for the family and put the grocery bag on the seat beside me. On the way home, I checked the speedometer to make sure I was close to the 45 mile per hour limit and was feeling pretty confident when the car in front of me stopped suddenly. Because I had just studied the driving rules for my test, I had been careful to leave at least three car lengths between me and the car in front.” Joanie’s words were coming quickly now. “I glanced in the rearview mirror before stopping and saw the car behind me coming on fast. Instincts took over – they had to. How else would I have known to sharply turn the wheel and pull to the shoulder of the road?”

Laura saw Joanie’s body react to the telling. Her shoulders rose, and she held her hands in front of her body, tightened in fists. Her eyes widened in panic and then looked up to the right as if she were looking in a rearview mirror. She screamed and then closed her eyes and bowed her head, hands still clenched, frozen in place.

As Joanie broke down in tears, Laura poured a glass of water and placed it next to the tissue box. Glancing at the clock, she waited silently as six minutes ticked off. Finally, Joanie let out a sigh.

“You know what’s funny? All I could think of at that moment was that the groceries had toppled to the floor and eggs were crushed. I remember thinking, I better get home before the ice cream melts. You know what wasn’t funny then or now? When the car behind me rear-ended the car in front and the baby, the baby in the backseat was crushed to death instantly.”

“Oh, Joanie, I am so sorry.”

She took a deep breath and spoke quietly with deliberation. “I was fine, not a scratch. Once I had given my statement the police told me to go on home since technically, I wasn’t involved. I remember shaking as I edged passed the crumpled car on my left. I can still hear the mother’s cries and still hear the distant ambulance siren. I was only a few blocks from home, so when I could see our house, I pulled the car to the curb and walked the rest of the way home in shock.

As soon as my mother opened the door, I handed her the keys and collapsed.

Laura started to talk, but Joanie waved her off. “My parents took me to a counselor for a while, but our family’s never been talkers, more stoic, strong types. Plus, everyone told me, I hadn’t “caused the accident”, what happened “wasn’t my fault.” I live that day over and over and over again.” She abruptly looked at her watch. “Guess I’ve overstayed my time.”

“You’re fine. I have time if you’d like to stay longer, or we could schedule another meeting?”

“Oh, no,” Joanie interrupted. “I can’t do this again, not again.”

“But you’ve come this far, Joanie. Why not talk this through? Why did you come today if not to resolve your pain?”

Joanie got up to leave. “Because today’s the day. It’s been sixteen years since the accident. Even though I’ve been told it wasn’t my fault, the reality is if not for my actions that little baby would be sixteen and getting ready to take her driver’s test.” She stared at Laura. “I know I’m broken. I know I can never “get better” and, bottom line, in my heart, I need to carry that day with me. I can’t tell you why.”

“But why see me at all? I’d like to help.”

“And you have. I finally shared my pain with someone, but that’s all I can do.”

Laura touched her arm. “I’ll be here.”

Joanie walked out the door. 

About the author 

Rebecca Redshaw’s published stories include “Somebody Special” (THE LAKEVIEW REVIEW (1st Prize) 2009, “The Reverend Broderick Sloan MacDougal” (METAMORPHOSIS, 2019), “Working the Beam” (BLUE COLLAR REVIEW, 2018), “John Loves Alice/Alice Loves John” (DATE NIGHT, 2017) and “BackYards” (DEAR AMERICA, 2017). DEAR JENNIFER, a novella, is available on Amazon.com. www.rebeccaredshaw.com.






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