Was there ever a time in your life when you weren’t given credit for something you did? I was reminded of a time over this past week. Even without watching the news, you can’t help hearing when issues that have been silenced for a long time come up. One of them is the reality that when you’re a strong, successful woman, you become a target for personal attacks. This has nothing to do with a woman’s ability, and it’s been downplayed and ignored for far too long.
What happened to our leading doctor during this pandemic? She spoke out this past week about the abuse she’s been on the receiving end of, from personal attacks about her character, to comments on her shoes, to threats of violence, rape, and death. Yet her male counterpart, who stood up with her every day, received nothing.
Is it a surprise to anyone that this type of systemic harassment and abuse against women is ongoing? The thing is that women just don’t talk about it, and all I can think is that this is because women have been conditioned to just shake it off and move on. Don’t talk about it, because then you’re seen as whining and complaining. Women and men are different, and men have always been seen as leaders, going back to the beginning of time, whereas women’s roles were always…what?
Being a successful author gives me a platform of respectability that I didn’t always have. Should it be that way? Absolutely not. Everyone should be treated with the same respect and dignity and given the same opportunities, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, and social status. But we still have a long way to go. I’m very aware that I’m often talked down to until people know who I am—and not just by men. More often than not, I’m talked down to by other women.
There was a particular incident, and it wasn’t that long ago, in the public education system. When we were living on one of the other Gulf Islands, and I won’t say which one, I attended parent advisory meetings. The district decided to bring in a speaker who received funds from a bill the previous government had implemented, which basically pulled an enormous amount of money, and I’m talking an incredible amount, from the public school system. This took away from much-needed support for special needs in the name of funding independent schools, who served as gatekeepers to break the unions here. Now, was this bill worded as a union breaker? No. It was carefully worded, and the average person out there has no idea it exists.
Now, to be clear, I’m not necessarily a union supporter, but I am an equal rights supporter.
One of the independent schools the bill funded was talking about an alternative learning concept, which was fantastic, except the problem was that access would be limited to those they saw as acceptable. This wasn’t clear my first time listening to the man speak. But during my second interaction with him, at another meeting, he spoke more about the new program, entirely funded by the government in place at the time. As I was sitting in the front row, he started on about the destruction of families and how children were suffering from broken homes and the mental health crisis we were causing.
I stared at him, and he stared right down at me. He knew who I was, and he knew I could tell that this new program was not an alternative learning concept. It was about keeping families together—you know, a husband and a wife, whereas us single mothers are basically destroying our kids. He knew I was a single mother, considering the number of messages I’d left at the alternative school, looking for a program for my autistic child. I needed a school that would actually work with his consultant to create an education program that would give him the skills to find a future as a contributing member of society. But I never received one call back or any response, and there was a point, after a dozen messages, where I was literally banging my head against the wall.
They did not want special needs kids, but I realized as I was listening to him talk that the lack of response might not entirely have been because my son had special needs. I listened in horror to this new programming about mental health and broken homes, wishing I hadn’t sat in the very front row. He then addressed the principal, who was there as well, about this urgent crisis, and the principal’s only response was that he was aware of it and was working on it. Now my head was spinning. Aware of what? Working on what? Had we suddenly gone twenty years back in time, where women and kids were acceptable only if they came with a marriage and a whole family?
My kids were not scarred or damaged goods. They were happy. Yet, as I thought about it then, was there an assumption that they might not be? Those were the kinds of barriers that had existed for too long. Growing up in the seventies and early eighties, I heard my parents talk about divorced women as if they had done a terrible thing. How long ago was it that women had to fight those closed doors, being passed over for jobs because there were men waiting in the wings instead? Then there was the reality of staying in a bad marriage, being subjected to verbal and physical abuse. Or, God forbid, if you suddenly found yourself pregnant and single, you were shunned by society. Forget having a career you loved! Even if you were more qualified than your male counterpart, you as a woman would never have that job, and even if you did the same job as a man, he out-earned you. The opportunities just weren’t there.
Thankfully, we’ve come a long way from that, but how long ago was it? Not that long.
Now, as for the school council meetings, that was the end for me. As far as the funding and that bill, you may be surprised, but the money is still out there, and things don’t just go away once they’re implemented. What is the answer? Well, how about not going backwards? Those kinds of archaic views have no place in society and certainly not in our schools. I was talking to an elderly woman this week who said the only kind of leader there can be is a well-spoken man, and I did a double take. I had to check in with my kids, who, thankfully, don’t understand that way of thinking.
My daughter brought something to my attention, which I’ll leave you with. Recent census data on racial and gender pay gaps reveals that right now, women still earn 82 cents for every dollar earned by white men. Asian women earn more than white women, who earn more than black women, who earn more than Native American women, who earn more than Latina women.
But here is a happy note: If you look back on where we’ve come from, and I remember the eighties and nineties, you see that progress has been made. But we still have a long, long way to go.
THE RETURN OF THE O’CONNELLS will be released in two days, but you can read Chapter 4 now!
Raymond had never been one for ballcaps, yet there he was, wearing one, along with rimless glasses that looked real. The beard he’d started to grow was a mix of white and dark, and the name on his passport was Jake Peters.
What surprised Iris more than anything was how easy it had been for him to make a call to get what he needed, step into a new identity, and become someone else. Should she ask for more details about how he had access to the money he did? His only response had been that it was his emergency retirement stash. What that meant, exactly, she had no idea.
“They answer you yet?” he asked.
She didn’t know he’d been watching her from where they stood at the airport, waiting for their luggage to slide down the carousel. He had taken up a spot against the back wall and seemed to blend right in.
“I called Marcus and left a message to let him know we were on our way,” she said. “Then I called Karen, but she didn’t answer, and I didn’t leave a message. Owen picked up, and he hadn’t heard anything from Marcus, so I have no idea where things are with Charlotte and the baby. She could’ve had the baby by now, for all I know.” She breathed out the last part, keeping her voice low, knowing Raymond was watching everything and everyone, even though it appeared he wasn’t.
She took in the man she’d married, the father of her children, and she wondered, if he walked out of her life now, would she be okay this time? As soon as Marcus had texted that Charlotte’s water broke and they were on their way to the hospital, Raymond had packed everything and gotten them on the first flight back home, a red-eye, which was likely why she felt miserable now. Who in their right mind would pick a late-night flight anywhere? The only sleep she’d had, sitting upright, had been a few hours leaning against Raymond’s shoulder.
Sometimes it felt like she was talking to herself when he didn’t answer, as he was doing now. She heard the whir and clunk as their luggage appeared and slid down the conveyor, and he walked over with the luggage cart, reached for her two large suitcases, and tossed them onto the cart as if they weighed nothing. Then he reached for his smaller brown canvas bag and nodded toward her, already walking.
“You tell Owen we’re back?” he said, his voice low.
She walked with him, keeping up with his pace, which was fast and cautious as they strode to the rental car carousel. “No, I didn’t say anything, just asked about Charlotte. Marcus is the only one I told, but I didn’t tell him when, just like you asked, even though I don’t understand the need for secrecy with the kids.”
He said nothing else as they stopped at the counter and filled out paperwork. She took in his California driver’s license, also in the name of Jake Peters, as well as his credit card. She should ask him how, but there were things about all of this that she really didn’t want to know. How easy had it been for him to acquire the kind of ID that a legitimate person had to jump through hoops to get?
“Thank you,” he said to the rental car clerk as he took the keys, then tilted his head to Iris.
They started walking out of the airport, and the cold hit her. She pulled at her early fall sweater, taking in the cabs and cars parked, unloading, and the busyness of two lanes of one-way traffic driving past, all trying to find a spot to pick up waiting people.
They crossed to the concrete parkade, where the fleet of rentals were, and past the traces of cleared snow and patches of ice. She said nothing, as she could feel how much closer she was to her kids again. It was an ache she hadn’t shared with Raymond, because this was the first time she’d been away from her kids, all of them, in forever.
“Here it is,” he said, then pressed the fob of a boring brown Malibu. The lights blinked, and he opened the trunk and tossed in the bags before closing it and looking around, back and forth.
She stood there in front of the car, watching as he parked their luggage cart, still looking right and left again.
“Get in,” he said as he went to the driver’s side, and he had slid behind the wheel and started the car before she’d even fastened her seatbelt.
“You know, you never answered me inside,” she said.
He was driving out of the parkade, and as he maneuvered into traffic, she could feel the excitement of Montana, being back home, counting the minutes until she could see her kids. Then there was the baby. If it had been born, she didn’t want to miss one moment.
“Best no one knows too much about where we are at any time,” he said. “We never know who’s listening. Careful is careful, as I told you before. We need to be vigilant. Even though I’m officially dead, you know it takes just one second of carelessness, someone saying something or questioning things, just one person talking to the wrong person, to blow my cover.”
She knew what he was saying and why he was living the life of a man who’d always look over his shoulder. But here she was now, feeling very much an accomplice for the first time. “Okay, I get it.”
“Just making sure you do,” he said. “Should we go over it again? Who am I?”
The way he said it brought her back to the lessons, the way he’d grilled her while packing about where they’d met, who he was, and how she needed to be careful not to slip.
“You’re Jake,” she said. “We met at the beachside bar in Barbados, the Blue Fin. I was drinking a lime margarita. You ordered a beer, Corona with lime. You commented on our lime fondness, and we struck up a conversation and a friendship. You’re retired—”
“Self-employed,” he shot back. “Come on, Iris. You can’t mess up on this.”
What was it, again? Right, a car wash and fast-food joint under a franchise in California.
“Buddy’s Burgers and a car wash down in San Diego,” she said. “You’re hands-off now, but you check in. Look, I know it’s important. I get the name and everything, but do I have to know the business? And why a car wash and fast-food place? Why not just say you’re retired? It’s easier.”
“And it wouldn’t work,” he said. “People need to imagine me as someone else, and Jake from California, who owns a car wash and fast-food restaurant, is different than Raymond O’Connell, who’s supposed to be dead. So come on, remember. This is important because of what we’re walking back into. Even though the family is there, I need there to be no questions. You met someone new. He’s an entrepreneur. When the identity of that new person is in people’s minds, they won’t question it when you leave. They’ll just assume we’re back in California, and you’re traveling back and forth between my life and yours.”
She took in the icy highway, the heavy clouds that promised more snow. That was one of the things she’d missed out here, the snow, the winter, and the cold, even though it had been nice to spend the time she had with Raymond on a sandy beach in the warm sun. Home was home.
“Yeah, so, about that,” she said. “You know this is the first time I’ve been away from the kids. Seven weeks is a long time. I’m not too anxious to leave again. Can we just settle for a bit and catch our breath?” She clutched her small purse, which was resting on her lap. With her sweater on, at least she was comfortable now in the car, where the heat was blasting.
Raymond said nothing, still wearing the glasses and ballcap, looking out the window and passenger side. For a minute, she didn’t think he’d answer, but he did. “You have to have a separate life from the kids. They’re grown, and we can’t stay here all the time. I have to keep up a front. We can come back, but it’s important to keep moving.”
She could see the familiar sights of Livingston and felt the urgency of getting home, her home, and being near her kids. She had to talk to them, to see them, to find out if Charlotte had had the baby.
“You’re not saying anything, Iris,” he said. “This can’t be a long visit.” Then he glanced her way again, and she took in the O’Connell blue eyes of a man who’d broken her heart so badly that she’d wondered for a long time whether she’d ever be whole again.
“Don’t rush me, Raymond.”
“Jake.” He cut her off. “Start calling me that now. I can’t have you slipping.”
“Jake, seriously? I want to see the kids, everyone. I want time with my grandchildren, and don’t forget you still need to make things right with Brady. You’ve never talked to him, and the only things you know are what Marcus and Karen have said. He’s had only the kids to lean on, to talk to. When this all went down, it was too long before he knew the truth, just like I did, that you weren’t dead. I can tell you that thinking you were dead gutted me. What did it do to him? You need talk to Brady and settle things with him, as well.”
Raymond tapped the steering wheel and dragged his hand over the new beard he’d started, a motion she was starting to realize meant he was trying to figure something out. But then she realized he was always thinking, always considering, always planning. “I hear you, Iris, and I will, but as you said, Brady is doing well. He’s got Karen and Jack when Luke is gone, and he’s with Luke when he’s home, and…”
“And I know very well, Raymond O’Connell, a.k.a. Jake,” she added quite sharply as she slid around in her seat, seeing how close they were to being home, “that you’ve been checking in on everyone, all the kids. Where you’re getting your information from, I’m not sure I want to know, but I know you haven’t shared everything about them. As I said to you, I’m not spying on the kids. I’ll call them and ask them. You getting information from afar is different than having an actual conversation with them, sitting down with them face to face, so they know you actually care and are part of their lives…”
“I hear you, Iris,” Raymond said, cutting her off again. “But remember, for eighteen years, that was the only way I could know what was going on with all of you. It was the only way I could know if there was something wrong, a problem with the kids or with you, so I could handle things and fix them from a distance. So yes, I’ll keep spying and checking, because at least I can do that.”
She hadn’t missed how defensive he sounded. As she glanced out the windshield again, looking straight ahead, seeing downtown, she knew they were only blocks from Owen’s old house. She found herself reaching over and resting her hand on Raymond’s thigh, patting it, knowing she’d been given the greatest gift, one she’d never thought she’d have: the chance to grow old with the love of her life, who she thought had been taken from her. At least they had that now, in this odd, undercover hiding kind of way.
“Don’t be so testy,” she said. “And if you don’t mind, let’s go home first so I can change, and then I’ll call Marcus again. Depending on where things stand, we’ll have the kids over tonight, and you can sit down and have some one-on-one time with Brady.”
He dragged his gaze over to her and then back to the road as he settled his hand over hers. It was his touch, their closeness, that she loved about him. “Fine, but it has to be low key, Iris. Seriously, don’t get too comfortable being home, because as soon as you see the kids and meet the baby and be the mother bear you are, making sure they’re okay, we’ll be leaving again.”
Right, on the move, and then what?
Instead of answering, she looked straight ahead and linked her fingers with his. If there was one thing she knew about Raymond O’Connell, it was that he tended to come up with plans and implement them before she had any idea something was in the works, so if he caught on that she wasn’t on the same page as him and wouldn’t be going along with his plans, he wouldn’t stop until he convinced her that his way was the only way.
What he didn’t realize was that Iris was smarter than that. Right now, she was seeing her kids, and she had no intention of leaving again until she was good and ready.
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