Ritchie County Mall

When a mother loses her child every other weekend to the man who abused her

Kelly Sundberg
Apr 6, 2020 · 15 min read
Photo: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

Caleb and I are driving from Morgantown to Parkersburg in West Virginia to see his parents. “Can we stop for a bathroom break?” I ask.

He pulls into a 7–Eleven. “Welcome to the Ritchie County Mall,” he says.

“The what?” I asked.

“The Ritchie County Mall. We call it that because there’s nothing else in Ritchie County,” he says. I laugh. No one can make me laugh like Caleb.

I look back at Reed in his car seat. He smiles, his Curious George stuffed toy gripped in his arms. Reed has always been a happy travel companion — rarely fussy or difficult on long drives. He was born on the full moon and is the only child I’ll ever have. My moon baby.

“I’ll be back,” I say to Caleb, as I open the door.

“I know you will,” Caleb says, smiling.

Breathe deeply in a West Virginia forest, and the thick air has a distinctive taste. Just like it looks. Rich and fertile. Ritchie County is no different. The hardwood forests tight and luscious. Large swaths of dirt roads slice through the greenery and lead to cavernous holes with tall gray injection wells jutting out of them. Light changes around the injection wells — becomes a faint pall that never stops shining, even on the darkest nights.

I pull into the Ritchie County Mall, then park next to the red Toyota that Caleb and I had bought together years earlier. I look down at my phone, at the car on the other side of me, at the ice machine in front of me. Anywhere but at Caleb.

The car door opens behind me. Reed slides into his seat and buckles his seatbelt. “Did you have a good weekend?” I ask.

“It was okay,” Reed says. We pull out of the parking lot behind Caleb, then Caleb turns left, and we turn right.

The Ritchie County Mall is the half-way point between Athens, Ohio where I have moved with Reed so I can get my PhD and Morgantown, West Virginia where Caleb stayed after our divorce in the house we once owned together. I think of myself — always driving halfway back to home — but never arriving.

I’at the Ritchie County Mall waiting when Caleb pulls up alongside me. Reed slides into the car. “I haven’t eaten,” he says. I turn off the car, take him inside, and ask for a piece of pizza. I order myself a chicken jalapeño taquito. An impulse snack that I know I’ll regret. The woman puts gloves on, then scoops them both into paper dishes. In the car, Reed and I eat. “How is your pizza?” I ask.

“Not great,” he says. I eat my taquito. It is also not great. As we near Parkersburg, Caleb’s hometown, I think of Caleb’s family. We drive by the turn-off to Caleb’s sister’s house. She was once my sister too. Heartburn settles into my chest. It distracts me from the heartache. Heartache, too, is a physical pain.

I know that my anger is made of pain and hurt and want. It feels bottomless sometimes.

Caleb’s sister meets me at the Ritchie County Mall instead of Caleb. She and I used to get wine drunk after the kids went to sleep and tell each other how much we loved each other. “I always wanted a sister,” I would say.

“I can’t imagine Caleb with anyone but you,” she would say.

Her children loved me too. The daughter always chose to sit next to me on family outings, but I secretly preferred the son who was impulsive but goodhearted. I recognized myself in him. I used to comfort him in secret when he was in trouble. Once, his father made him sit inside the house alone while the rest of us played football outside, and I snuck in and held him while he cried on the couch. “You’re a good boy,” I said.

I remember this, as my sister-in-law waves at me from her minivan.

Reed gets out of the car, and I put it into reverse, but then hear a knock at my window. I look over startled. My former niece and nephew are standing outside the window, waving and smiling at me. I open the door and give them both long hugs. I know the family is under a directive, whether official or unofficial, not to speak to me. It is a generosity that despite this, she lets the kids see me. I smile at her. She smiles back as Reed gets into her minivan to leave with her.

On the drive home, I cry deep sobs that come from my stomach. When I get home, I email her. “Thank you for being nice to me,” I say.

She emails back, “I will always be nice to you.”

A friend later says to me, “A sister is always the first to know her brother’s violence.”

I am trying to write a piece that isn’t about how Caleb used to hit me. I am tired of being that woman. I am so much more than that. I am a mother, a writer, a very good friend to those I love. I am funny and happy and accomplished. I am not just “that woman who was abused.”

Still, I can no longer write my story, any part of it, without at least some of it coming back to the reality that I am also, “that woman who was abused.”

When you leave a man who abuses you, you must leave everything that is his. Sometimes that means leaving your sister and niece and nephew who, it turns out, were never really yours to begin with.

Diesel trucks cram outside the Ritchie County Mall. I have dropped Reed off, just as busses full of oil-rig workers have arrived. Men in boots covered in thick red clay, swarm into the building to get their nightly beer or hot dog. I am inside to buy a snack. “Are you from around here?” The question comes from a man holding a 24 oz Budweiser Strawberita, four bottles of Boone’s Farm, and a big plastic cup full of ice with a straw. I shake my head no. “Have you ever seen so much pipeline activity?” he asks. Again, I shake my head, no. He tells me that he used to be on welfare, but now makes $2,200 a week. He says this with both gratitude and desperation.

I’m anti-fracking, but I’m also poor, and something in me sparks at that number — $2,200 a week. That’s almost twice what I make in a month. I’m supporting Reed with student loans that I may never be able to pay back. I know the way that poverty erodes the soul. I have felt that hunger. I smile at him. “That’s great,” I say.

“Drill, baby, drill!” he says.

When I get in my car, the song “Lost Cause” by Beck is playing on my stereo as I drive home to spend another Friday evening alone.

When Caleb and I divorced, splitting our assets was easy because we had so few of them. Splitting the debts was the harder part because we had plenty of those, and I ended up with most of them. This is what happens to women financially in divorce; we lose.

Caleb and I had a giant sectional couch that we had financed for $25 a month for five years. It was in Caleb’s name, and he wanted to keep it, but I took it because he had everything else. He had to continue paying on it for a few years after the divorce, and I knew that he must be angry as I cuddled up on it next to the son that Caleb had mostly lost.

I realized one Friday night, after I’d returned home alone and sat on my spot on the couch — the most uncomfortable spot made even more so by the sagging that my refusal to sit anywhere else had caused — that I had chosen that spot because it was the only part of the couch where Caleb and I had never cuddled, had never laid entwined together. I was trying to avoid the ghost of those memories. Always, the ghosts haunt me.

It wasn’t just the couch. Everything in that marriage was on credit. Every embrace — every moment of tenderness — was a debt that would have to be repaid.

Grief was the interest.

I shoveling a handful of peanuts into my mouth in my car at the Ritchie County Mall when Caleb pulls in next to me. I look over, and there is a woman sitting in the passenger seat. Younger than me. Blonde. Cute. I don’t know what to do, so I wave at her. Her mouth opens in surprise, gapes, then she glares at me. She pointedly looks away, but looks back, glares even more. She has clearly prepared for this moment.

No one has ever looked at me like that before. It makes me feel wretched. I am not used to being disliked, but I can only imagine what he must have told her.

As I drive away, I text him and ask him not to bring her on the hand-offs, say that they are already hard enough for everyone, and that it doesn’t help that she was rude to me. This obviously brings him satisfaction. He texts back that he’ll do what he wants, says that she, too, will do what she wants. Anger spikes in me, and then, I do something that I know I’ll regret.

I text back, “I’m prettier than her.”

I want to say that I’m not the kind of woman to do something like that, but I did do something like that. Apparently, I am the kind of woman to do something like that and then feel shame about it.

What I do know is this: I am not prettier than her.

Reed and I leave the Ritchie County Mall on a dark Sunday night after Caleb has dropped him off. I ask him about his weekend. He says to me, “I can’t tell if Dad has too much temper, or if you just take things more lightly than most people,” then “Dad’s girlfriend is calm. She doesn’t have a short temper. She is a lot like you, Mom.”

I listen first, then ask the obvious question, “Does your father hurt you?” I know that, if it’s not physical, there is little that I can do in West Virginia family courts.

He responds, “Dad yells at me almost every weekend now. The only times he doesn’t yell at me are when other people are around.” He pauses, then says, “I don’t think Dad’s girlfriend thinks his yelling is okay, but she is afraid to say anything, or he will yell at her too.” Then he says what I have always feared he would say, “I think I bring it on myself. I am like my dad. I have a short temper. I know that Dad can’t change, but do you think I can change?”

Finally, he asks me, “Where do you think my dad’s temper came from?”

I don’t know how to answer that. I have already driven myself mad trying to find an answer. All I know is that Caleb’s rage is a rhizome. It grows continuously outward. It sprouts new shoots and roots at intervals. It is impossible to identify the first root.

I am not the root, and Reed is not the root.

I tell him, “You are worthy of love. You can live in a calm home. I know this because you live in one with me. You do not deserve what is happening to you.” I ask him, “Do you want me to talk to your father about the yelling?”

Reed says, “No, because then he would just yell at you. I think the only thing I can do is learn to take it.”

I don’t know what to say then because there is truth to what he says, so I simply say, “I’m sorry, honey.” He sniffles in the dark backseat.

When we get home, I hug him in the hallway, and I say, “I want you to know that your father’s anger is not your fault, and you do not deserve it.” His little boy’s body eases into my chest, and he lets me hold him for a long time. The entire time that I am holding him, I am thinking, “Just collapse yourself into my love, and don’t think of anything else. Just think of this: Think of how worthy you are. Think of how loved you are. Think of how you are not your father. Think of how your father is not your destiny.

Caleb’s girlfriend becomes Reed’s stepmother. They have a wedding on Caleb’s family’s farm with wildflowers. I find the photos online. She looks beautiful. Caleb looks ridiculous in a straw hat, mountain man beard, and vest. He has doubled down on his “Appalachian Americana” ethos. But Reed looks so adorable in between them. He wears a green plaid shirt, and though he hates having his picture taken, he’s smiling. He’s happy. He looks like a part of their family. I only ever want for him to be happy, so I am surprised by the feelings that arise when I look at the photos. Deep tenderness that Reed is cared for. Rage at how smug Caleb looks. And jealousy that his bride is seemingly living the life that I wanted to live.

When I left Caleb, no one told me how long it takes to heal from a particular kind of violence that is borne from love, that I would never — to this day — believe that he didn’t love me. Only that he didn’t know how to love. Still, I tell myself that his love must be enough for this new woman, so what is wrong with me?

I cannot tell you how long it takes to heal from violence that is borne from love because I have not healed yet.

Reed gets into the car at the Ritchie County Mall and pulls out the dinner that his dad packed for him. A sandwich, apple, and homemade cookies. “Oh, did your stepmom make you cookies?” I ask.

“Yes,” he says. “But I’m not allowed to share them with you.”

When I left Caleb, no one told me that he would remain unscathed, that the only people who would be damaged by his abuse would be Reed and me.

I pick Reed up at the Ritchie County Mall, and he chats the entire way home. He tells me about his little sister, and how they tried to feed her mashed carrots for the first time. He tells me how she can now reach out and grab things. He tells me he had homemade cheeseburgers for dinner that were made by his dad. He tells me that he, his dad, and his stepmom have been watching Stranger Things at lunchtime, but they watched The Simpsons at dinner time for comic relief. He tells me about his birthday party next weekend where he is going to watch Thor with his dad and a couple of his friends. He tells me all kinds of things about various Marvel characters that I have no interest in. He is happy. He had a good weekend with his dad. I needed a break from Reed, but it turns out that he needed a break from me too. This should be okay. It is okay.

A child’s happiness should be enough to make the mother happy, but still, I am filled with longing, and loss, and loneliness.

“I’m glad you had a good weekend, baby,” I say. He still lets me call him baby.

He looks at me for a long time. “I missed you,” he says.

I don’t have to drive to the Ritchie County Mall on this Friday because it is Reed’s sixth grade graduation. Caleb attends with his wife who looks delicate and kind as she holds their chubby baby, as well his parents — Mimi and Papaw to Reed. I have still never been introduced to Reed’s stepmom. I asked for it once, and Caleb texted back (we only communicate via text), “She will never shake your hand.”

I have prepared for this — knew that I wouldn’t want to be alone — so I attend with my friend who wears fishnets and says explicitly that she wants “to make Caleb feel weird.” If Caleb has doubled down on his Appalachian Americana ethos, then I have doubled down on “my feminist, single mom with a PhD” ethos. Maybe we are trying to distinguish ourselves from each other, or maybe we are both finally able to be who we wanted to be all along. All I know is that we can’t be in a gymnasium and sit on the same side.

The principal gives a speech and asks us to recognize all of the parents who have been doing the work, showing up to conferences and all of the school events. I try not to, but I start crying because I have done it all by myself, and I am tired.

Caleb’s mom, a former elementary school teacher, has snuck to the front to take a photo, and while she is hustling back to her seat, she sees my tears and stops. She smiles gently at me and waves. I cry more. I know that they know what he did.

In a West Virginia forest in summer, the sunlight filters through the leaves in patterns that look like stars. At night, the leaves feel like stars, and the stars feel like leaves. It is all inescapably beautiful. Still, winter is like the pall left from the injection wells — bare and lonely and hard. The contrast is dizzying. Caleb is not West Virginia, but he could be. His turns so sudden.

I had a very involved dream recently that I was trying to untangle two pieces of string, but they just kept getting caught up into a larger ball. As hard as I try, I cannot unravel what happened to me. I cannot make it make sense. All of this love that I have is such a mess. In my story, Caleb is an injection well, and I am the pall that surrounds it.

But that isn’t the real story. Even the stories we tell ourselves can be fictions. I know this because, when I step back from all of the hurt and loss and look at my story with a wider lens, I can see what was obscured all of those evenings spent at the Ritchie County Mall. That it would get better. I would get a job — a real job — a tenure-track job, and I would start paying a former student to drive Reed to West Virginia every other weekend because Reed liked the student, and I had done my time on that road. That Reed and I would grow closer and closer as the years unfolded, and he would joke that he was someday going to write a memoir about having to spend his childhood divided between his “feminist, hippy mom and hillbilly dad.” That we were good at laughing together, even when things were hard. That I would learn how to reframe what “healing” meant to me — that it was okay to not be healed as long as I was healing. That I may never be able to unravel what happened, but he no longer owns me, and that is all that matters now. That, for so many years, I was driving halfway towards home, but then home changed. Home became this boy and me together. Just us. A mother and her child who was born under a full moon. That the moon sometimes obscures the stars, but it doesn’t mean they’re gone. That the stars would spin out in unexpected ways. That the leaves in Ohio would look just like the leaves in West Virginia, but there would be safety in them. That the loss would no longer feel so acute. It would feel more like possibility. More like an entire solar system.

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most…

Kelly Sundberg

Written by

Kelly Sundberg’s memoir Goodbye, Sweet Girl was published by HarperCollins in 2018. She is currently working on a collection of lyric essays about PTSD.

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

Kelly Sundberg

Written by

Kelly Sundberg’s memoir Goodbye, Sweet Girl was published by HarperCollins in 2018. She is currently working on a collection of lyric essays about PTSD.

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

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