The ice cream kept her busy.
Slowly and methodically, the girl scooped minuscule bites onto her plastic spork, shoving the entire utensil head into her mouth with surgical precision.
Good, she thought, This will just take a second…
But then, she paused. She knew how quickly the girl could magnetize attention without even trying… that time at the playground in Texas, when she’d left for just 5 minutes to use the restroom. She bristled at the memory of the other moms’ faces, glaring at her like she was a negligent piece of sh&t for not wanting to get a UTI from holding her pee for hours on end. It wasn’t her fault the parks and rec folks built the bathrooms 30 miles from the frickin’ playground… maybe she shoulda just dropped trow and watered the grass by the slides?
She deliberated for a moment longer, then maneuvered the girl into a semi-secluded, shaded spot next to the outdoor trash can and instructed her to STAY. There were no cars coming. No people (no judgy moms).
It was the perfect window.
She hurriedly half-walked, half-ran to her waiting car across the lot. Why on EARTH had she parked so far away? One by one, she tossed the heavy sacks of food into the backseat, carefully adjusting the refrigerated items to make sure they wouldn’t spoil in the sun. She clicked the “lock” button on her key fob and turned to see what appeared to be a small crowd gathering by the trash can…
… the same trash can where the girl waited, still working on her impossibly small cup of ice cream.
Feelings of self-satisfied accomplishment were immediately replaced by the familiar pulsing waves of fear and embarrassment.
F&CK!!! she shrieked inwardly, F&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&CK!!!
She feverishly scotch-taped her thoughts together as she streaked across the lot, dodging a Ford F-150 circling for a space. Was this it? The moment somebody would call CPS on her horrific mothering decisions? WAS it a bad decision? She hadn’t thought so… but she had a distinct feeling others would disagree.
As she approached the pitchfork-carrying crowd – which she could clearly see now was just a totally calm family of 4 – they turned to take her in. Before any of them could speak, she blurted: “SHE’S MINE” (And then) “Sorry… we’re from another country – we sort of do things… differently… give space…”
WHAT. THE. F&CK? she berated herself, You deserve for someone to call CPS! Wait. Maybe they can’t tell it’s a lie… I mean, is it a lie?
It was 100% a lie.
But also, she’d encountered this exact issue before- being judged far too nonchalant in her parenting style. During their brief escapade in South America, she’d grown accustomed to letting the kids run rampant… traversing the overgrown jungle landscape wearing nothing but shorts (and that was considered overdressing)… peeing anywhere they damn-well liked. It felt so relaxed and natural, letting her kids explore their independence (while reclaiming a modicum of it for herself).
But this wasn’t Costa Rica.
This was America. And in America, your kids wore clothes, peed in toilets, and were never allowed more than 5 feet from you without a complete stranger taking it upon themselves to correct your poor parenting. Because at any given moment, a clammy-handed creep was waiting to lure them away with promises of candy and video games.
Or so she’d been told.
The other mom looked on incredulously as the family turned to go. “It’s okay?” she offered, more a question than a comforting affirmation. “We were just… worried.”
The family slowly meandered away as she cupped the girl’s cheeks with her sweaty palms. “You okay?” she asked, suddenly fearful she’d just scarred the girl for life. She could see it now… the expensive therapy sessions… the girl blowing her nose into a crumpled tissue as she traced back all of her drug abuse and dating ineptness to the time her mom abandoned her in the grocery store parking lot.
“Yeah,” the girl responded in the tone of “duh,” as if the question was completely stupid and unnecessary.
Readjusting her backpack, she briefly swept the ground with her eyes to make sure nothing had fallen out in her desperate dash. She held the door open for the girl, who continued spooning ice cream into her face, oblivious to the nuances of what just happened.
God, I hope we don’t see those people ever again… she half-prayed as they made their way back through the grocery store and into the mall, envisioning the flashing lights of cop cars that would surely be waiting for her on their departure…