“Never too much, never too much,” crooned Luther Vandross. Her speakers blasted her favorite song. Sunroof open, the music filled the interior of her car and floated out to the sunshine above.
Lauren smoothly downshifted her Jetta as she came into a sharp turn. Highway 17 from the beach was a difficult, winding drive even in the best of times. She remembered racing along the road, 70 miles per hour, in her 1966 Mustang. She’d cut class every week during high school, just to race to the beach. Today she was trying to keep from racing away.
“A million days in your arms is never too much….”
Lauren remembered a drive years earlier. She’d taken Jackson, her youngest, to a crack-of-dawn track meet. Never an early riser, she turned on the music to wake herself up and snap herself out of the sleepy funk. “Fun fact,” she’d said, turning to her drowsy high schooler. “This is the best song ever in the history of songs.” Lauren turned her eyes back to the road as Jackson groaned. “I’m pretty sure you’ve said that exact same thing to me a million times.” He stretched and continued, “Not that I’m arguing. I just think it’s about genre….”
Lauren smiled. That’s what I need right now, she thought. Good memories.
She’d been at her favorite restaurant at her favorite beach. Lauren had been going to Capitola to have brunch at Zelda’s for decades. Nothing changed about her routine: pack a simple bag with a towel, a book, and her laptop. Put on a bikini, shorts, sweatshirt, and flip flops. Spritz a bit of sunscreen on her chest (If I ever get cancer, it’ll be there, she always noted, remembering that horrible burn in high school after falling asleep on the Santa Monica beach). Hop in the Jetta, open the sunroof, crank the speakers, and head for the beach. 40 minutes later, she’d be ordering—either the tuna melt if she were feeling slender or the jerked chicken salad if not. Vanilla latte with coconut milk and a big glass of water with lemon. Heaven, she thought, every time.
Lauren vaguely remembered scrambling up from her seat, slamming shut her laptop (oh God…I didn’t save what I wrote!), shoving it into her bag and throwing two twenty-dollar bills on the table—far more than her meal cost. She nearly tripped getting out of her chair and ran-walked to her car.
And now she was driving, trying to concentrate on that long ago early morning chat with Jackson instead of thinking about breaking glass.
“Who you callin’ a bitch?” demanded Queen Latifah as Lauren took the exit to highway 280. Lauren’s playlist was an homage to 1970s and 1980s rhythm and blues. All the kids still loved that genre—the boys could sing along to Al Green like Baby Boomers. Jeremy especially loved it. He even had a Pandora playlist themed around Michael Jackson which, to be honest, bothered her a little bit. She made a point of never listening to R Kelly or Chris Brown, feeling a sense of justice in repudiating their work. I hate bullies, she thought.
The sun was still high. She’d left the beach far earlier than usual. Her regular beach day included the as-quick-as-safe drive over the hill, brunch at Zelda’s while she worked on an article for a client or her seemingly endless book manuscript. When she’d finished eating, Lauren would stow the laptop and walk down the steps to the beach where she’d carefully set her phone alarm for 30 minutes and lie on her back, baking in the California sun. When the alarm buzzed, she dutifully flipped over on her stomach, reset the alarm, and grabbed her book. Two times each side, no more. At her age, she wasn’t trying to tempt fate and end up with skin cancer or leathery skin.
“And face the fact, Jack—I’m all that!” bragged the Fresh Prince over her speakers. Guilty pleasure, she thought. Bubblegum rap, but it’s just fun.
But it didn’t drown out the shattered glass.
Lauren shifted smoothly into fifth gear as she exited onto highway 280. The sun shone brightly, the rich green of the foothills in sharp contrast to the rich robin’s egg blue of the sky. A few puffy clouds floated high up—a perfect spring day in northern California.
Where am I going? she thought, as she neared 80 miles per hour. She glanced perfunctorily in her rearview mirror, looking for highway patrol. But everyone knew, if you didn’t do at least 75 on this highway, you’d get run over. Especially on a gorgeous Saturday afternoon.
“Do you wanna ride in my Mercedes, boy?” asked Pebbles, the next artist on her playlist. Lauren smiled ruefully. Yet another top 40-ish song she loved. She kept driving, nearing Palo Alto. She’d been driving almost an hour and her hands had only now stopped shaking.
She’d been deep into the story she was writing, her salad pushed a bit to the side so she could write. It had been an I’m too fat for a tuna melt kind of day, but she’d been exceptionally productive in her writing. Suddenly, a boy pulled back his chair from the table next to hers. He’d run right into the waitress delivering drinks for the seven people sitting there. Her tray had flown from her hands and the glasses had shattered—shattered—on the patio.
“’Cause I love your smile,” chirped the speakers. Oh, shut up, Shanice, thought Lauren crossly. She stopped fighting and let the memory come.
They’d all been sitting in the living room, enjoying a pleasant late Sunday afternoon. Jessica, her tomboy firstborn, sat cross-legged, rearranging her Oakland A’s baseball cards in a binder. Jeremy and Jackson were setting up a board game while she sat on the couch reading a book. Jonathan, sitting on the recliner, swirled the ice in his glass of iced tea. A picture-perfect snapshot, all the little J’s…except her. Lauren had acquiesced to the ridiculous practice of naming all her offspring with their father’s first initial. It was a peace offering to her mother-in-law who was furious over Lauren’s refusal to name the first son after his father. Juniors were just so…self-referential. It was a small victory, one of very, very few in her marriage.
It was a lovely summer afternoon, remembered Lauren. A perfect family tableau.
Until it wasn’t.
Jeremy asked Jessica to play with him and Jackson. “Sure,” she’d replied. “Let me just finish.”
The boys contentedly waited, but Jonathan did not. Two minutes passed—couldn’t have been more, remembered Lauren, her stomach tightening.
“Jessica, get over there and play with your brothers,” said Jonathan.
“I’m almost done,” she answered, unaware of the storm brewing.
“I said, get over there and play with your brothers!”
Jessica looked up, alarmed. Lauren interjected, “She’s just putting her cards away. She’ll be done soo—”
Jonathan jumped out of his chair and strode into the kitchen, glass in hand. Suddenly, a terrific shattering sound assaulted her ears. Jessica sprang up and hurried into the kitchen, only to see Jonathan standing furious after throwing his glass through the sliding glass door into the backyard.
One entire side of the glass door was destroyed. Spiderweb cracks covered the part that was still in the frame—much of the glass was in pieces on the patio.
Lauren’s attention returned to the road. Good Lord. Pay attention before you kill yourself, she snapped aloud, slowing her speed which had reached nearly 90. She was well on her way to San Francisco. Is that where I’m headed? she wondered.
“Keep on walkin’, I ain’t talkin’ to you anymore,” sang Cece Peniston. If only I’d done that sooner, Lauren mused. What an idiot.
She’d reacted without thinking, grabbing her keys and purse and telling the children tersely, “Get in the car. Now.” They were stunned, looking wide eyed at Lauren. “Please! Get in the car!” The three moved—too slow! she thought—to the front door. Jonathan hadn’t moved from the kitchen.
Lauren unlocked the station wagon doors and the children climbed in, still numb. She looked at the front door, willing the car to start before he came out. She pulled away, forcing herself to drive slowly through her neighborhood, not frightening her babies any more than they already were. All three had begun crying and Jackson asked, “Where’s Dad? Is he coming?”
“No, baby,” she said quietly. “We’re just going to go for a drive for a while.”
Driving aimlessly, Lauren reached across and squeezed her daughter’s hand. Jessica looked at her, tears welling in her eyes. “I love you,” she whispered at her eldest.
“I love you, too, Mom.”
Lauren looked at the boys in the back seat. Both of them were crying quietly. “Where are we going, Mom?” asked Jeremy.
Lauren’s reverie stopped as she suddenly had to slam on her brakes. The truck in front of her swerved as its front tire appeared to shred, pulling it hard to the left. The driver overcorrected, pulling back into her lane, but far slower than she was going. Adrenaline coursed through her as she shouted a terrified prayer: Jesus! Please help me!
The excellent brakes on her Mercedes or the intervention of the Almighty kept her from hitting the truck. She changed lanes, moving to the right where she could slow down and calm her breathing. As she moved, she heard
The truck driver hadn’t been able to control his vehicle and another driver hadn’t been as quick to brake as Lauren. They’d collided at high speed and she saw the wreck in her rearview mirror as she drove past the Millbrae exit. She began to cry.
Tina Turner’s soulful voice filled her car. “I can’t stand the rain…against my window….”
Lauren knew she needed to stop. She needed gas and she needed to stop driving until she could compose herself. She pulled off the freeway and found a Starbucks. She dabbed at her eyes, looking at her wan face in the visor mirror. Definitely not the golden brown, slightly sunburned look she was used to on her beach days, her face was blotchy and tired. Lauren took a deep breath and walked inside.
As she waited for her double dirty chai with coconut milk, Lauren pulled out her phone. She started a group text with Jessica, Jeremy, and Jackson. Hi, loves! she typed. Just checking in. Had a beautiful day in Capitola and it always makes me think of you.
Jessica was the first to respond. Hey, mom Y Some things never change, huh? LOL Busy weekend with the kids. Miss you, love you!
Jeremy’s text arrived next. Sounds fun! I spent the day in Malibu with friends. When are you coming down to visit?
Her coffee arrived and Lauren got back in her car, driving down the block to the closest gas station. She breathed deeply, sipping her drink as the tank filled. I did finally do the right thing, she thought. I finally got out. She still felt shaky, but knew she could drive safely. She pushed her starter button and Scott Stapp’s voice rang out, insisting she pay attention. She nearly forwarded the playlist—the song reminded her of her mother, and she didn’t need another reason to cry. But the words slid gently into her heart.
“The truth of it is, there’s a right way to live and you showed me….”
Lauren left the song alone and prepared to drive home. She thought back to that ugly day, determined to face the pain.
She’d driven for half an hour, not knowing what to do. The kids had calmed down—the boys were talking quietly in the back seat about some video game. Jessica stared out the window. Lauren knew she needed help, and she turned towards her church.
She pulled in, wondering if anyone would still be there. The Sunday evening service was over, but her favorite pastor’s car was in the parking lot. “Why are we here?” asked Jackson. “I want to talk to Pastor Thomas,” Lauren answered. “You guys ok to hang out in the library for a few minutes?” The kids all agreed, and they walked into the church.
Pastor Thomas was packing up for the evening in his office. She’d apologized profusely and asked if he could stay for a few minutes.
“What’s happened?” he asked, concern on his weathered face.
Lauren had described it all, holding nothing back. Her pastor frowned, shaking his head and listening intently. “Do you need someplace to stay tonight? Do you feel unsafe?” Lauren thought carefully. Jonathan had never physically hurt any of them—his abuse was emotional, his bullying keeping the entire family insecure and on edge.
“I think we’ll be all right,” she said. “But we can’t go through this anymore.” Pastor Thomas agreed. “I’ll call him tomorrow,” he said. “Tonight might not be the best time.” Lauren had agreed and stood up to thank her friend.
She moved slowly to the library where the boys were running laps and Jessica sat reading a book. “OK, kids,” she called. “Let’s go home.”
It took eight more years before she left again, this time for good. Eight more years of fits and starts in counseling, eight more years of apologies and promises to rein in his anger. Eight more years of pain for her children and a shredding of her sense of self.
Her playlist had looped for the third time, and Luther Vandross’ voice brought her back to the drive home. “Never too much, never too much….”
Bullshit, Luther. Sometimes it is too damn much.
She pulled into her garage just as her phone rang. She glanced down as she turned off the motor. It was Jackson.
“Hi, honey,” she answered.
“Hey, sorry I didn’t answer your text earlier,” her youngest said. “I was at the beach, too—just got home and got your note. It’s funny. I was just sitting and meditating, listening to the waves and soaking up the sunshine, and then I started thinking about all our trips to Capitola when we were kids. I have the best memories of you taking us there and Jeremy and me playing the water.” He started to laugh. “And remember how we would always stop at Dairy Queen on the way back home? I loved getting a Blizzard. It was the perfect way to end the day.
“You’re such a good mom. I love you.”
Lauren sat in the dark garage, tears running down her cheeks.
“Mom? Are you there?”
“I’m here, Son,” she whispered. “You have no idea how much I needed to hear that tonight.”
“Oh, Mom,” said Jackson tenderly, “What’s going on?”
Lauren thought for a moment. She’d tried to protect her kids from her own pain over the years, hoping she could help them heal from their own without worrying about her. But now that they were all grown and gone, each of her offspring had shared their desire—their need—to know her more intimately. To understand her struggles and her fears. She took a deep breath.
“I was at Zelda’s and a little boy crashed into a waitress. She was carrying a tray full of glasses, and they shattered on the patio. It’s not like I’ve never heard a glass break at a restaurant before, but for some reason this time the sound just sent me over the edge. I remembered that time your dad threw the glass into the sliding glass door and it was like I was back in that moment. I just grabbed my stuff and started driving. I nearly got to the San Francisco airport before I turned around to come back home.”
Jackson was quiet. Then he said, “I’m so sorry, Mom. That was a horrible day but you shouldn’t have to relive it all these years later.”
Lauren gathered her bag and keys, holding her phone to her shoulder as she got out of the car. “It kind of startled me, to be honest. I haven’t thought about that day in years. And having such a strong reaction made me wonder if you guys are all right—if you still have days like I had today.”
Jackson sighed. “I can’t speak for Jessica—we just aren’t that close and I doubt she’d talk about it even if I asked. But Jeremy and I have talked about it before. We’ve both forgiven Dad and we both hurt for you.” She heard him shushing his dog, who’d started barking. “Sorry, someone just walked by the house. Calm down, girl. They’re just walking their dog.” He returned to their conversation. “I guess we just remember what you told us. Broken people do broken things. Dad’s broken. But we aren’t. We’ve worked really hard on our own emotional lives and we know you love us.”
Lauren sunk to the floor in her living room, her breath caught in sobs. “I just feel so guilty,” she finally managed. “I should have done more. I should have been more courageous. I should have—”
“Mom. Stop.” Jackson’s voice was stern. “Seriously. Stop. You did the best you could and we know you love us. I’m sorry you had such an awful day but please—stop beating yourself up. You’re a good mother.” She heard the doorbell ring and Jackson said, “And now I have to go—Brent is here to pick me up. We’re off to hang out with some friends in the village.”
Lauren wiped her nose on her sleeve. “That sounds lovely. Go have fun and we’ll talk next week.” She heard him answer the door and murmur “On the phone with my mom—just a sec.”
“OK, Mom. I love you. I hope you have a better night.”
Lauren walked into the kitchen and poured herself a glass of wine. She moved into the living room and turned on her music. Teddy Pendergrass belted out “Get up, get down, get funky get loose!” and she quickly forwarded to the next song. When Will Smith started getting jiggy with it, she sighed. She was wrung out, and her normal playlist was just too energetic for her nerves. She switched to the radio, finding KDFC, the San Francisco classical station.
Setting down her wine glass, she lit one of her favorite candles, a Trapp Orange Clove. The spice-saturated citrus scent immediately began to waft across the room, and she turned out the lights, inhaling deeply. Curling up on the sofa, she pulled a throw blanket over her and sipped her wine. She wondered what had happened that afternoon and why it had affected her so profoundly. She mulled over her brief conversation with Jackson and her even briefer texts with Jessica and Jeremy.
It had been 18 years since that awful, glass shattering day. It was time. Time to forgive—Jonathan, yes. But mostly herself. Time to stop blaming herself and receive the gift Jackson had given her tonight. Lauren thought back over her son repeating her own words to her: broken people do broken things.
The glass door had been mended, but her shattered heart was still in pieces. It was time to heal.
Photo by Jamie Street on Unsplash