Natalie Tries to Stay Patient
After having gone all the way back to the house to get Pooh, who’d been sitting on the couch patiently waiting for Bethany, Natalie was finally back on the highway. It had been too late to catch the ferry and waiting for the next one would be time wasted. Besides, Natalie found that driving was relaxing. She also found it more relaxing puffing on a cigarette.
She glanced in the rearview mirror to see that Bethany had fallen asleep, Pooh resting in her arms; just what Natalie was hoping for. As quietly as she could, she reached in her purse and dug around till she found the opened pack of Camels. She pulled one out and lit it with the car lighter. Even though the air conditioner was blasting, she opened the window a crack, waving and willing the smoke to go outside. If Bethany caught a whiff, there’d be a scene. Sometimes too much education cramped a mother’s style.
One especially stressful day some months earlier, Bethany got off the school bus and immediately howled, “Mommy! Those make you sick and die!” She pointed to the cigarette Natalie had forgotten to toss.
“Such drama,” Natalie said, forcing an uneasy smile at the two conscientious mothers who greeted their children, Jessica and Dexter. She dropped the butt and crushed it with her foot.
“I don’t want you to die!” Bethany cried.
“One cigarette isn’t going to kill me, Bethany,” she said. “Besides, lots of people don’t smoke a day in their life and get cancer anyway.” She’d been thinking of her mother when she said that. She looked down at a teary Bethany and, with a roll of her eyes, said, “I’m going to quit, okay?”
Not only was Bethany waiting for the correct response, but so were Jessica and Dexter. And their mothers. She sucked up some air and said, “Absolutely. Now, come on. I’ll put on Lady and the Tramp for you.”
“You know,” Dexter’s mother said, “I heard that those patches are supposed to be good.”
“I’ll have to pick some up,” Natalie said, reaching down and grasping Bethany’s hand, pulling her toward the house.
And she did plan to quit. Every day it was a promise for the next. But something always triggered her desire. Besides, if she didn’t smoke, she’d eat. And then she’d be as big as a house; as big as Emily had become.
One would think losing someone the way she’d lost Greg would kill the appetite, but that had not been the case. Nighttime was the most difficult. Invariably, she’d end up in the kitchen, sitting alone at the table, the stove light the only illumination in the room, spooning gobs of rocky road ice cream from the carton and not stopping until it was scraped clean. After days and nights of nonstop snacking, she stopped at a 7-Eleven with the intention of picking up another bag of Doritos and frozen pizzas, but then on a whim decided to add a pack of Camels, which had been her brand of choice in her youth, to her order. The ditzy clerk misunderstood her and rang up an entire carton instead. Not wanting to bother with the time and hassle of having the sale voided, she paid for it, but not without scolding the clerk.
Later, at three in the morning, she was grateful since she’d almost finished off an entire pack. But she hadn’t gone to the refrigerator or cabinet once and found that cups of coffee, occasionally spiked with a bit of Scotch, and a cigarette were great comforts. Something about sitting in the quiet of evening, Bethany sound asleep, and watching the glow as she pulled in the tobacco and then watched the smoke curl all around her calmed her, told her she was indeed in control of her orbit. And, even more importantly, she’d been losing weight.
It was just a pain in the ass to hide her habit from Bethany, she thought, taking a final pull and then tossing the butt out the window.
It’d been years since she had to invest so much energy in hiding anything from anyone. She used to be rather adept at chicanery, at fooling her mother with her lies. It hadn’t been so easy with Miss Pearl, their nanny. But once she was let go, Natalie discovered she could get away with pretty much anything. It was as though her mother had little idea how to handle adolescence, so the Lamb household became a free-spirited teenager’s paradise.
Just then, Natalie hit the brakes, lurching the car to a dramatic stop. A car behind them screeched within inches of slamming into her rear end before swerving around them, the driver blasting the horn and calling her a name she refused to believe she was. She pulled to the side of the highway and turned to see what had made Bethany so hysterical. God, she hoped there wasn’t another toy back home that needed to be gotten.
“What’s wrong?” she said, turning around.
Bethany shot her a hooded look. “I smell somethin’ funny.”
“Hmm?” Natalie said, grasping where the conversation was going.
“Smoke. I smell smoke.”
It was miles back when she’d tossed the butt out the window. And the kid still smelled its redolence? Scary.
“Bethany, honey,” Natalie said, “we…we just passed a factory. You know, with the big chimneys. And…and smoke was coming out of them. That’s what you smell, I bet.”
“No,” Bethany said, her accusatory tone somewhat tempered with uncertainty. She kept Pooh close to her chest.
“Yes!” Sell it, she told herself. “Yes, honey! See, if you look back there…” She stretched her neck to see that they were parked in the curve of the highway, so there was no way to see what they’d passed. Or hadn’t passed. “Oh, darn. Those trees are hiding it. But, really, it was a factory and the smoke was billowing out and—”
“What’s billing mean?” Bethany said, her expression dubious.
“Billing?” Natalie said. “Oh! Billowing! Puffing. It was puffing out of the chimneys. Rolling all around us. It looked like fog. Sorry if it woke you up.”
Wiping her eyes, Bethany said, “Are we almost there yet?”
“Well,” Natalie said, exercising a patience of which she was proud, “we probably could have been, if we didn’t have all these interruptions. We’ll be there soon, though. Aren’t you excited to see your cousins?”
Without waiting for a reply, Natalie turned back around in her seat and put the car in drive, pulling out onto the highway. She hit the gas, coasting along for a few miles while feeling a sense of satisfaction at averting a scene with her daughter. The story had worked, and she couldn’t help but smile. But then she heard three tentative meek words:
“I hafta pee.”