We run through the rain toward a nondescript building, me clutching a McDonald’s bag. The therapeutic community does its own cooking, but on Sundays, if a Client earns a family visit, the perk of a Big Mac and fries is allowed.
Inside, we sign a paper swearing we’re not smuggling anything illicit in the food bag, in my purse, or anywhere in or on our bodies. My husband turns over a bag of items our son requested but the center doesn’t provide: deodorant, soap, contact lens solution, a new pillow, cigarettes, a hoodie from the girl he was dating before he went inside.
“Are you sending money?” A counselor steps into the room. “Don’t give it to her,” he says, nodding at the girl who signed us in. “She’ll steal it. Give it to me. I’ll get it to him.”
I look at the girl who was just called a thief. She doesn’t seem to mind. “You’ve visited before?” she asks.
Yes, we have. Here and at the other place. And at the place before that.
She leads us to the kitchen/dining area. It’s the boys’ weekend for visits, so there are mostly moms, a few dads, some siblings. And a baby. I recognize her from last time.
“Hey, there,” I say to the little girl. I don’t say her name, although I remember it. She sucks on her tiny fist and bounces on her grandmother’s lap. On the table behind them is a diaper bag, a juice box, and, of course, a McDonald’s bag.
“Isn’t that rain awful?” the grandmother says. The baby wears a pink dress with a matching ribbon in her hair. A special outfit for the day, I wonder. I get a mental picture of Grandma dressing her: “Come on, sweetie! Let’s go see Daddy at rehab!”
“Yes, it’s terrible outside,” I say and waggle my fingers goodbye.
We sit as far away from them as possible.
A few minutes later our son arrives. He looks taller. A bit heavier, which is good, but his eyes are puffy. We hug briefly. He sits. Yawns.
“I just got up,” he explains. “I overslept, so they knocked me. No cig break.”
“You should give that up, anyway,” I say, and am instantly rewarded with a kick on the ankle from my husband. Oops. I forgot. One addiction at a time.
My son is more forgiving. “Yeah, I know.” Smiling, he yanks the McDonald’s bag forward. He pulls out the junk food and starts in on the fries. He asks if we’ve been waiting long. We chat, staying upbeat, skirting forbidden topics and anything too personal, crammed as we are with other families. Outside, the rain beats against the windows non-stop.
Across the room, the baby stands on her daddy’s thighs, her fist now clutching the collar of his shirt. He’s a kid about the same age as my son. He raises her up in the air and then back onto his lap. She laughs and he kisses her many times, but when she wants to drink from the juice box, she insists on being in Grandma’s lap.
“Why’d you sleep late?” my husband asks, and my son launches into a story about walking to a church service last night and getting caught in the rain. It could be true, or maybe not. I’m long past pretending I can tell when he’s lying.
In the middle of his story another family arrives. Mom, Dad, Brother, Sister. Their son—the Client—hasn’t yet arrived. They carry plastic grocery bags, not McDonald’s, and pause in the doorway as a group. Without being asked another family scoots down the table so the new family can spread out.
And they do. From the grocery bags, Mom pulls out placemats, napkins, cutlery, china. I watch, astonished, as she sets the cafeteria table. Sister dumps pre-packaged salad into a glass bowl. Brother places a bread roll on each plate. Dad struggles with a plastic bag, making a lot of noise in the room that has gone silent, and finally releases a dried flower arrangement. He sets it down between the placemats.
Mom straightens up, leans back. “Very nice,” she announces. She doesn’t look around.
I glance at my son, who has stopped eating. He sees me look and he chews again and swallows. My husband is speechless. Even the little girl sucking on her juice box is quiet.
A moment later the family’s Client arrives. He stands in the doorway, clearly taken aback. “I made lasagna,” Mom announces, pointing at a foil-covered casserole. She hugs him and the rest of the family lines up to do the same, and then they sit at the table, looking at no one but each other. I watch, boldly, as they join hands and say grace.
I want to laugh. I want to cry. I want to be non-judgmental. I want to say, “Lady, who are you trying to kid? This perfect family routine ain’t fooling anybody.”
I say nothing, but I can’t make myself stop watching them.
My son leans across the table. His face is more open than I’ve seen in a long time. “Mom,” he whispers, and there’s an urgency that sounds genuine. He cocks his head toward the family. “Don’t ever do that to me. All right?”
Behind him the baby girl sits in her grandmother’s lap, her thumb in her mouth. I point at them discreetly. My son twists around. When he turns back, I lean as close as he did and say, “If you don’t ever do that to me. All right?”
He smiles. For a moment I see a flash of him as a child, my child, when he sat in my lap with a juice box. When he was innocent and happy. And clean. I rarely let myself think about those times, but I do it now. And I regret my feelings toward the table-setting Mom. Who am I to say she’s wrong or right in pretending they’re a normal family?
“Deal,” my son says, and I smile and say it back to him. It is the first time we’ve agreed so easily in a very long time.