The Junkie Mom at the Park

{Originally written over the summer}

The sweltering day had tapered off into a shadowy, refreshing breeze. I love when the scale of the year tips winter-ward and the summer nights begin to cool off, teasing of autumn, and tonight was one of those perfect nights. After a late dinner ala fridge and close to bedtime, we decided to take advantage of the weather and walk to the park.

We rolled up the hill with the dog in tow, who insisted on tugging relentlessly at the hunter green leash and barking at every squirrel within a quarter mile, and I saw her sitting on a weathered wooden bench across the park. When we sat down on the opposite bench, she yelled, “how old is your little girl? She’s pretty!”

Then I thought she said that she loved her hair, too, so I reached over, stroking her blond, bouncy locks, smiled and said, “thank you!” But she quickly responded, “no, yours!”

Oh, okay. That was sweet.

People at the park will smile on occasion, but they aren’t normally too friendly in the city, just as a general rule. They tend to keep to themselves, although I try to initiate some conversation when I’m feeling like getting out of the hermit shell inside my head. So I was a little surprised by this anomaly.

I sized her up from my seat, noting her seemingly clean purple and white-stripped cardigan and jeans.

Hmmm… She looks about my size, I thought, and for a second, I reverted back to middle school and considered befriending her in an effort to swap clothing. Sharing wardrobes was a trademark BFF thing back in the day. Then I quickly remembered the prevalence of bedbugs and fleas and other pests in the city, so, coupled with the obvious creepiness on my part, I scratched that idea. She proceeded to have a cigarette, which further reaffirmed my decision.

Her two girls were chattering excitedly about the dog and how cute he was and how they wanted to pet him, and I hesitated for a moment, because sometimes he can be quite boisterous and scary, his bark being much bigger then his bite. He hasn’t, in fact, ever bitten anyone, but still, I was nervous. As they inched closer, he relaxed his ears and seemed to welcome them, so I gave them permission. They loved on him enthusiastically, despite his frequent kisses and horrid breath.

My son was playing with a tennis ball on the slide, rolling it down with the inherent problem of having climb down and retrieve it each time, but she picked up the ball, which practically rolled right to her, and tossed it back up. They played like that for a little as I watched, debating whether I should get up and take her place like a “good mom” or allow them to continue.

Her girls tired of the playground and wanted to swing, and though they were plenty old to push themselves, she readily got up and went to push them. They were laughing, legs intertwined and facing sideways into a banana split, and she pushed them back and forth as they squealed.

I didn’t suspect anything yet.

My kids wanted to swing now, too, of course, so I situated them in the bucket swings and gave them a push alongside the other mom. And that’s when I first caught a whiff of it drifting by on the wind. The smell of urine. I didn’t immediately connect it to them, but then I noticed it each time they were near.

As she swayed back and forth with each shove of the swing, she asked if we lived close by. She lived in walking distance, too. She talked about summer and the start of school, which is all in the realm of normal mommy conversation, but I began to notice a strangeness in her movements. A kind of jerky, twitchy, awkward thing. It was mirrored by her seemingly compulsive style of speech and lax personal boundaries.

And then I realized, although it was a cool evening in July, she was in a long-sleeved sweater, jeans, and shoes instead of sandals. Everyone else was comfortably dressed in summer attire from head to toe. It’s the addicts, thin or even emaciated from the poison coursing through their veins—the very thing that is psychologically necessary to sustain them is, in fact, stealing their very life out from under them—who dress for an imaginary winter nobody can feel but them.

As her girls grew bored, she hopped up off the bench and suggested a game of follow the leader, and the girls filed in line behind her. They invited my kids to play, too, but the only response they received was a few blank stares.

She started marching across the playground, climbing over the stairs and ducking under the slides before weaving through the swings and finishing off her turn by going round and round and round the few pine trees in the park before rescinding her role.

“You’re a better mom then I!” I relented to her as I sat on my bench and observed, feeling pregnant as could be after the week of a heat wave we experienced. But was she, I wondered?

On one hand I admired her willingness to jump right in and play with her kids. Playing isn’t really my thing, but I did my time thrusting the rubber bucket, while tiny feet dangled effortlessly in the evening breeze, and I tossed the tennis ball up the slide to my son more times then I really cared to. On the other hand, I wondered what the inside of one’s house must be like if everyone who lives there walks out the front door smelling like a middle school boys bathroom.

With kids there is an awesome type of filth that comes from a day spent outside under nothing but the blue sky in the summer. Knees grass-stained, fingernails grubby, little feet with a ring of dirt around the bottom, and head full of sand. I always wonder, when we go out in the evenings after a day like this, if the people we come in contact with will think my children are neglected. Frankly, I figure there’s no point in changing their filthy clothes until bath time, because it’s not just the clothes that are filthy. Maybe that’s just me.

But these poor girls… They were a different kind of filthy. The kind that doesn’t just have the spills and stains from today on pink shorts, but the grime from yesterday and the day before, too. Maybe even all week. The kind of dirty that has an accident in bed at night and doesn’t have a clean pair of clothes to change into. The kind of dirt and sweat on faces that has blended into what looks like a tan after probably days of not bathing.

When I was young and thought I was utterly invincible, I would ask people what drug they would do if they had to choose. I, of course, picked the riskiest one I could think of, which was heroin, despite my always-existent fear of needles. I know now that given the right cocktail of pain, loss, circumstance, anger and fear, people are capable of anything. In our soul of souls, I think we are all a lot worse then we would ever dare to imagine.

But even still, the pit of addiction is one that I don’t ever care to have to climb out of; so thus far, I haven’t been tempted to jump in. And heroin of all things—it leaves a trail of destruction and ruined lives in its wake. I wouldn’t go as far as to say I’d never go there, because I think that type of ignorance is just foolish, and I’ll be the first one to admit that I enjoy me some wine. Sometimes a little too much. But that cross, that self-imposed thorn in my flesh, is not one I’d ever like to bear.

Yet, there she is in front of me. The product of those choices in the flesh. And I wonder how she does it—be a mom—day in and day out. Parenting is a bitch most of the time as it is, let alone with a layer of addiction on top. What you thought would be the icing on the cake, the sweet, melt-in-your-mouth escape from reality, ends up weighing you down, trapping you in the gooey muck that is now your mess of a life, and the once buttery richness has lost all its flavor. How do you survive there?

I guess part of me admires her for showing up. For swinging her kids with her twitching hands and awkward conversation, for ducking down and following them around the pine tree, again and again. For, when one daughter asked, after she had to be dizzy from all the spinning, “is this fun mom???”

And her saying enthusiastically, “Yes!”