Shoulda Known Better

by Cynthia Joan Porter

Strawberry blonde curls surrounded her head like a halo. The smile that dimpled her chin and turned her cheeks rosy gave the room a lemony warmth. Sweetness seemed to emanate from her every pore. Before she uttered a word, I knew I would hire her.

The formal interview lasted all of two minutes; the conversation went on for hours. We found that we shared virtually parallel lives. I was about two months older than Darlene. We both married right after high school and quickly divorced. We each struggled as single mothers to complete our education. We both chose entrepreneurial men the second time around.

Working alongside our husbands felt like second nature to us. Our children were nearly the same age, and our sons experienced similar challenges in school. The only difference: she was separated from her husband, while Patrick and I remained happily married.

“I can’t think of a single reason not to hire you,” I said. “Except that we’ll probably have so much to talk about, we won’t get any work done.”

Darlene’s chuckle appeared to bubble up from her toes. “Don’t worry about that, I’ll get the job done.”

“Okay, then you’re hired.”

“Really?”

The room seemed to dim as her eyes darkened and her shoulders slumped.

“That’s not the reaction I expected,” I said. “Don’t you want the job?”

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“Oh, yes, I do. It’s just that . . . there’s something I haven’t told you.” She sighed, then rolled her shoulders back and looked me in the eyes. “I’ll need to leave work by exactly five every day. I have to check in at the halfway house by five-thirty . . . or they’ll send me back to prison.”

“Prison? You mean you’re an—”

“Ex-con . . . yeah, that’s me. Oh, and . . . that’s why I’m separated from my husband. He’s doing time.”

I stared at Darlene, jaw slack. My mouth eventually moved, but no words came out. I’d never met an ex-con, let alone hired one. Could I trust her? Would the police show up while we had patients in the room and cart her off? She didn’t look like a convict; she looked so normal. What could she possibly have done to land in jail? Was asking her within my legal limits?

“I’m not sure what to say,” I finally muttered. “I have no frame of reference for this.”

“Me either . . . Listen, it’s okay if you change your mind. I’ll totally understand.”

“Do you want to tell me what happened?”

“It’s so stupid.” She shrugged and her cheeks flushed. “Rick . . . that’s my husband . . . well, he met this guy who built these little boxes that hook you into free cable TV. The guy said it was totally legal to sell the equipment; it just wasn’t legal to use it. ‘Kind of like radar detectors,’ the guy said.” Darlene deepened her voice like a man. “‘If people get caught using them, it’s not our problem.’”

“Anyway, Rick’s great at marketing and sold thousands of the dumb things. We made a lot of money. Bought a big house across the river, and put the kids in private school. Life was great.

“Except it turns out, selling ‘em wasn’t so legal after all. Rick’s got four years left on his sentence. They charged me ‘cause I worked with him. The judge said I shoulda known better. I got moved to the halfway house for good behavior. Six months, and I’m done.”

“Where are your kids?”

“With my Mom, in Pennsylvania. I talk to them every day. They’re doing good . . . considering . . .” She shrugged and wiped a tear from the corner of her eye. “The truth is, though, I shoulda known better. You know if it seems too good to be true. Rick just had this way of making everything seem okay. I love—loved—him, and I . . .” She wrung her hands, glanced at the door, and started to rise.

The woman was living in hell. Didn’t she deserve a break? “Don’t leave,” I said. “The offer stands. If you want the job, it’s yours.”

“Really? Oh my God, you don’t know what this means to me. You won’t regret it.” She smiled and the golden warmth returned to the room.

Darlene proved to be an exemplary employee. Every morning she arrived promptly at eight and left the office at five sharp. Each Friday, I signed a form for her parole officer stating that Darlene had, in fact, been at work all week.

Darlene and I became fast friends. Over steaming mugs of coffee we talked about our marriages and children. We took long lunches, nibbling at salads, and sharing stories of childhood and the challenges we faced as teenagers in the ‘70s.

When Darlene talked about Rick, her neck flushed crimson and her pupils dilated. The look on her face sent a shiver down my spine.

“I’d do anything for him,” she said. “He’s so handsome and smart.”

Rick didn’t seem all that smart to me.

We settled into a comfortable routine, until one day Darlene didn’t show up at eight . . . or nine . . . or ten. By eleven, I had butterflies. By noon, I paced the office and gnawed my cuticles. I called the halfway house, but they said they couldn’t divulge information about the inmates.

The words Darlene and inmate had stopped being synonymous months ago.

When Friday arrived, I was convinced Darlene wasn’t coming back. Why hadn’t I asked for her mom’s name and phone number?

I turned to the computer and typed in Help Wanted.

* * *

Two months later I pulled an envelope from the mail with my name and address written in Darlene’s bold script. My hands shook as I opened the letter.

Dear Cynthia,

I know I’ve disappointed you, and I’ll never be more sorry about anything in my life. You gave me a second chance and I failed you. I am now in a federal prison and will be here for two long years. I didn’t tell you everything that happened. I was too embarrassed by my own stupidity.

Right after Rick got arrested, I visited him in jail. He told me I needed to pick up a package from a friend and deliver it to a man in Florida. He made me write down the names and directions. I didn’t know what was in the package, but I knew it couldn’t be good. I kept telling him I didn’t want to do it, but he begged me. He said it would give us the money we needed to get through until he got out. He said that if I didn’t, the whole family would be in danger.

What else could I do? Just this one more time, I told myself. It was the biggest mistake of my life. The man in Florida was a federal agent, and the package was cocaine. The whole time I was in jail for the cable box thing, my lawyer was working to get me off on the drug charges. It took every penny I had. I thought I’d be free, I really did. The judge wouldn’t let it go, though. He said I should have known better. Where have I heard that before? I’ve filed for divorce and pray to never see Rick again. Being away from my kids is agony. I only get to talk to them on the telephone once a week. I cry myself to sleep every night and pray for this nightmare to end.

Cynthia, almost all the women I’ve met in this place are like me. They’re not criminals. They’re here because they loved the wrong man too much, and were willing to do anything to keep him. I’ll never make that mistake again. I’ve enrolled in college classes so I can finish my degree. I’ve changed my major to social work. When I get out of here, I’m going to make up for my mistakes by helping other women.

I will always be grateful for the trust you placed in me. You’ve given me the confidence to know I can turn my life around.

Luv,

Darlene

I tucked the letter back in the envelope and cried—not just for Darlene, but for all the women like her who end up so thoroughly wounded when they give too much of their tender hearts. I wept for every incarcerated mother who wants nothing more than to wrap her child in her arms, and for the kids who cry for their moms, but have only a social worker to turn to.

Mostly, though, I prayed for these women; prayed that, like Darlene, they would have the courage to realize they not only shoulda known better, but did know better—and that next time, they will.

Cynthia Joan Porter
BIO: CYNTHIA JOAN PORTER is the co-founder of an international franchise, Positive Changes Hypnosis Centers, where she served as Marketing Director for fifteen years. She earned her doctorate in counseling at LaSalle University. She ghostwrote her husband's first published book, Awaken the Genius, Mind Technology for the 21st Century, which was awarded "Best How-To Book of 1994." She later ghostwrote another book for her husband entitled Discover the Language of the Mind, and they co-wrote Six Secrets of G.E.N.I.U.S. Her Moondance essay, "An Angel for Two Sisters," earned her a nomination for a Pushcart Prize.

Cynthia Joan and her husband, Patrick, reside in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Today, while the business she co-founded is "going corporate," Cynthia Joan is busy with a start up publication called Advertise Virginia (AVA). She is working on a book about her life as an entrepreneur. Contact Cynthia at: cynthia@avamag.com

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