Authors: Vanessa Diffenbaugh
“You weren't right.”
She set the glasses down on a dish towel to dry and turned back around. “Maybe not,” she said, meeting his glare. “But I gave you your life. You can't argue with that.”
“Which life?” he demanded. “Maybe it wasn't the life I wanted.”
Letty blew out a loud puff of air, exasperated. “Do you even remember yourself in high school? It was exactly the life you wanted.” She turned back to the sink. In the window over the faucet, the world was dark and close, leaves and branches and sky pressing in all around them. All of a sudden she felt claustrophobic. Opening the window as wide as it would go, she turned back around and continued: “Do you remember the first time we went out?”
Wes nodded, though the term
was a bit of a stretchâwhat they'd really done was sneak out of a track banquet and up a fire escape with a miniature bottle of tequila Letty had nabbed from a passed-out neighbor the night before. One swig and tipsy, Wes had declared his future.
“You told me you'd be a bachelor for life, that there was no other way to live in the world and do the work you wanted to do. You said you wanted to die alone.”
Wes rolled his eyes to the ceiling, shaking his head at his sixteen-year-old self. “Did I really say that? I'm surprised that wasn't the end of us, right there.”
It sounded ridiculous now, but she'd loved that Wes. Smart, determined. So, so sure.
She shrugged. “You had plans.”
“So did you,” Wes reminded her. “I mean, didn't you think aboutâ”
Letty's glare cut him off. “About what? About not having a baby at all?”
“It's a fair question.”
It was fair, but it didn't feel fair now, not with the murmur of Alex in the other room. “It was too late when I found out.”
Wes fiddled with the strings on his scrubs, pulling the bow tight and double-knotting it. He said nothing, but she knew he was considering what she'd said, playing back his life as he'd lived it: college, medical school, international work on four continents. Sara had Internet-stalked him when she found out he'd come back. He'd done well. In medical school at NYU he was elected to the Alpha Omega Alpha honor society, and he'd published an article in
The Journal of the American Medical Association
before he even turned thirty.
She crossed the kitchen and stepped into his line of vision. Wes swallowed hard and lifted one hand until his index finger rested on the underside of her chin, tentative, unmoving. Letty held his hand and moved it slowly, back and forth, a familiar caress.
My strange bird,
he used to call her, pretending to ruffle her feathers, and although it had annoyed her then, she craved it now, pressing his hand hard against her throat. “It wouldn't have been possible if you stayed,” she whispered, “not any of it.”
Her words brought Wes back to the present moment.
“Don't say that,” he said, his face darkening. “It wasn't your decision to make. And there's no going back now, not ever.”
“You want to go back? Really?” Sudden anger swelled inside her. “Take off those scrubs, then,” she snapped. “Let's go back.
can give up college and medical school and watch
move across the country with a fat scholarship.” Something in her had snapped, and even if she'd wanted to she wouldn't have been able to stop herself. She continued, a litany of all the things she'd missed, stuck at the Landing working three jobs while he was in college, and then medical school, and then flitting around the globe, saving lives. Mid-rant, she heard the scuffle of small feet and the door at the end of the hall slam shut.
“Stop it,” Wes said, cutting her off. “I won't do this in front of them.”
“Well, wake up, Wesâthere's nowhere else to do it. They aren't going away. That's the thing about kids. They never fucking go away.”
Wes clamped his hand over her mouth, stopping her from saying more. In the abrupt quiet she listened for Alex's voice, but he had stopped talking, and she knew by the absolute silence that her children had heard everything.
She started to cry. “I'm sorry,” she whispered. “I'm so, so, so, so, so, so sorry.”
He stood quietly while she cried, and when her breathing evened he walked her over to the kitchen table and helped her sit down. While she wiped her eyes he sat down across from her, his hands on the rough wood, palms facing up. Setting her hands next to his, they studied their palms in silence, as if reading what the future might hold.
After a long silence, she leaned forward and whispered, so that her children wouldn't overhear: “Why haven't you told him?”
Wes shrugged, resigned. “You're everything to him. What if he never forgives you? I can't take away the only parent he's ever had.”
He was giving her more credit than she deserved, and she felt her eyes well again, thinking about Maria Elena and everything she'd done, and everything Letty should have done herself.
There were footsteps in the hallway, and when she looked up she saw Alex, clutching a file box full of feathers.
He wouldn't look at her.
“Ready?” Wes asked, and when Alex nodded he stood up to go. At the door he paused and turned back to Letty.
“Thanks for the drink,” he said, his eyes on hers. There was a flicker there, if not of forgiveness then of acceptance, of moving on.
With shaky knees she stood, walked to the door, and watched them go.
After they left, Letty stayed on the front porch, studying the deep grooves in the gravel where Wes's car had been. Inside she heard the quiet mutterings of Luna's play, instructions from one animal to another. She felt raw, as if her heart had been pulled out and examined and then shoved roughly back in her chest. Sliding down the handrail and onto the porch steps, she came face-to-face with the memory of Rick. They'd sat hereâright hereâthe first night she'd seen the cottage. With a pang of longing and regret, she remembered her sudden kiss, and the apology that had led to a second kiss. She never should have kissed him, and especially not right now, when Wes had come back and she had the chance to make things right with the only person she'd ever really loved.
Just then, Luna wandered outside. She sat down and leaned her braided head against Letty's shoulder.
“Are they gone?”
“Yeah. They're gone.”
Luna unfurled her closed fist, revealing two plastic cows, one big, one little, hidden inside.
“Will my dad ever come back?”
Letty shook her head. “No. He won't.”
“But you can't be sure, right? You didn't think Wes would come back.”
Luna sank lower, her head falling into her mother's lap, and Letty was trying to think of a way to explain to her the certainty of what she said when her phone began to buzz in her pocket. The number that appeared in the caller ID box was international.
Letty felt her body flood with relief, as if just the sound of Maria Elena's voice across thousands of miles could set her world right. She took a deep breath and smiled. “Hi.”
It was her father too, and she imagined them crammed into a phone booth in the tiny zocalo, the single telephone line connecting the small village to the rest of the world.
“We haven't heard from you in a whileâwe were starting to worry.”
It wasn't the first time they'd tried to reach her. In the past week there had been three missed calls while she was working, but Letty had no way to call them back.
“I'm fine, just busy,” she said. “I was about to write.” Luna pulled on her arm, wanting to talk, but she wasn't ready to hand over the phone. “You'll never guess where I'm standing.”
“On the front porch of my new house. In Mission Heights.”
Maria Elena gasped in surprise, and her father said exactly what she knew he would say: “You left my birds?”
left your birds,” she corrected. “But Alex took your feathers.”
She told them about Rick, and how he'd taught her to make drinks and found her the tiny, perfect cottage.
“But what about Wes?”
Letty's heart stopped. So Wes had written to Maria Elena. He'd called to ask for the address weeks ago but hadn't mentioned it again, and she had been hoping he'd forgotten. It was just like her mother to call up right now, and insert herself in the middle of it. But it was easier to ignore her mother from a distance, and so she did.
“Here,” she said, thrusting the phone into her daughter's hands. “Talk to Luna.”
Luna launched into an enthusiastic description of her new room, her new garden, her new school, her new teacher, and her new friends. Letty only half-listened as she thought about Wes, and tried to imagine Maria Elena's face when she'd read the letter he'd written. Letty was glad there were two thousand miles separating them in that moment.
“She's making my Christmas outfit!” Luna said to Letty, as she handed her back the phone. She twirled across the porch in her imaginary new dress.
For Christmas Eveâ
âevery year, her mother made Luna a dress and Alex a vest and tie, all of which they wore for their grandmother's famous party. The event, which was wholly unlike her mother in every way, had roots in Oro de Hidalgo and had, in its inception, involved her mother and all the Espinosa cousins in matching fur coats, a sight Letty could almost imagine now, having seen the family home. The preparation started in October with sweet tamales, which she would count and freeze, and by early December the house was a museum of manger scenes. The first few years Maria Elena had sent formal invitations to all her church friends, but for as long as Letty could remember everyone they'd ever met and many they had not had just appeared at the door uninvited. It would be strange to have Christmas without her mother's party; it was the only ritual she or her children had ever known.
“Send the dress to our new house,” Letty said and waited until her mother found a pen and wrote down the address.
“What will you do for Christmas this year?” Maria Elena asked.
“I haven't thought about it. Maybe I'll have a party here.”
“Seems like you have plenty of people to invite,” her mother said, and Letty could imagine just the way she looked at her father across the booth, one eyebrow raised.
“Mom, stop,” she said. And then, to change the subject: “Can you send the recipe for sweet tamales?”
“You know how to make them, raisins and pineapple and masa. A little
. Cloves. That's itâbut I'll send the recipe.”
Maria Elena kept talking, but Letty was thinking about the party, about what she would cook and how she would decorate, given that most of her mother's boxes marked
she'd left for Mrs. Starks; there wasn't room in the cottage for more than the absolute necessities. When she tuned back in to Maria Elena's monologue, she realized her mother was no longer talking about the partyâshe was talking about her father's work. From what Letty could catch, the GalerÃa de Arte Mexicano, Mexico City's first and still one of its best galleries, had bought a piece of Enrique's work and commissioned two more, along with a high-paying contract for feather restoration on a few of the pieces in its collection. Apparently, feathers were back in fashion.
“It's a lot of money,” her mother finished. “Enough to fix the pool. And to fly you down for a visit too.”
“Wow,” Letty said, shocked. “That's a really big deal. You think you could actually fly us down?”
At this, Luna shrieked and launched herself from the porch, asking if they could leave today, or tomorrow at the latest.
“Not now,” Letty said, shushing her, and Maria Elena sighed heavily into the phone.
“I miss them. Every day.”
“I know you do. I'll get them passports.”
There was a pause, and then her stiff, formal mother made a sound that could only have come from her lips being pressed up against the germ-infested receiver of the public phone. Letty laughed and blew back a kiss, and then there was the operator, asking for more money, and her mother saying good-bye through the plea.
“I love you,” Letty said, and then the line went dead.
package sat in the passenger seat, small and square and wrapped in brown paper and duct tape. Alex's name was scrawled across the top. He picked it up and shook it, then set it on his lap as Wes pulled out of the gravel driveway and onto the road.
“Aren't you going to open it?”
“If you want me to.”
“Of course I do.”
The duct tape tore the paper as he lifted the corner. Beneath the wrapping he saw the edge of a sleek white box, and then a picture of an iPhone. Ripping at the rest of the paper, he slid the box open and pulled out the phone. “This is for me?”
Wes nodded, smiling as his eyes moved between the road and the phone in Alex's hands. Alex had never even held an iPhone. A few of the kids at Cesar Chavez had flaunted theirs incessantly at recess, but he didn't hang out with any of those kids. He fumbled around the edges for the on switch, and Wes reached over and pressed the round button on the front. The black screen glowed to life. Though he'd never used a touch screen, Alex's fingers slid the lock open and then moved across the face of the phone as if he'd spent every day of his life on one, racing through the music and photo and camera icons and finally finding the keypad. He wanted to call Yesenia immediately, and then his motherâexcept he had no idea if she would approve.
“Did you ask my mom?”
“No,” Wes said. “But she'll be fine with it. You know she doesn't like you out in the world alone, and now she can reach you.”
“But isn't it expensive?” he asked, anticipating Letty's line of questioning.
“You don't need to worry about it. I just added you to my plan.”
There was something about this statement, casual and possessive both, that made Alex's throat swell. He wanted to thank his father, but he couldn't speak. Wes didn't expect him to; he reached for the radio and turned the music up, filling the space where Alex's thank-you should have been. At a streetlight, he glanced into the rearview mirror, at the file box Alex had strapped into the backseat.
“What's in the box?”
Alex swallowed hard, gathering his voice. “My grandpa's feathers.”
“Why'd you bring them?”
“I don't know.” He'd grabbed them almost without thinking, feathered armor to face his fighting parents. But now the fact that he had them felt auspicious. “I'm working on a science project,” he said. “I thought maybe you could help me.”
The light turned from red to green, and Wes started to drive again. “What are you working on?”
Just as he'd explained to his mother, Alex told Wes about the complete world preserved inside each feather, clues to migration and diet and water sources and a hundred other things.
“Exactly!” It was a thrill, that someone in his family had a block of knowledge that mirrored his own. For the first time Alex didn't feel like he'd been plucked from outer space and dropped into the Espinosa family. He could see exactly where he'd come from.
“The trouble with my idea,” he said, “is that I need a mass spectrometer.”
“That's all?” Wes glanced at him, a smile flickering at the edge of his mouth. With a sudden pull at the wheel that sent Alex careening against the passenger door, Wes made a U-turn. “I know where we can find one.”
It took twenty minutes to drive to Stanford. Wes parked in the employee lot and led the way across campus. Though Alex had spent all his life within fifteen miles of the prestigious university, he'd never been there. He'd seen pictures, though, hundreds of postcards in gas stations and grocery stores, and walking down Palm Drive now, he was shocked at how completely the campus resembled itself. In his experience, this kind of thing was usually a letdown, the reality never as magnificent as the airbrushed advertisementâbut Stanford was the opposite, everything even more perfect in real life than it was on paper. The arched buildings were symmetrical and grand, the palm trees spaced evenly, even the fronds splayed in a way that made Alex wonder if the gardener had arranged them. Not to mention the flowers, cardinal red, which must have been planted just that day, not a petal out of place.
Alex followed Wes through the quad and past Memorial Church, its mosaics glittering in the almost dark. Turning right, they walked until they got to a square building with a tile roof, its windows lit up. Wes led him through the main doors.
The lobby was plastered with posters. Wes stood in the center of the room, scanning the three-by-five-foot color printouts describing studies with titles like “The Age of the Rocky Mountains,” “The Level of Arsenic in Ground Water in Bangladesh,” and “Possible Increases in Severe Thunderstorms Due to Greenhouse Forcing.” He scanned every poster in the lobby and made his way up and down two corridors before he found what he was looking for at the top of a flight of stairs: a paper relating the use of stable isotopes to determine the reproductive range of northern fur seals.
“They'll have one,” Wes said, pointing to the closed lab door.
“How did you know where to find this? I thought you were a doctor.”
“I am. But I've been working with a lot of scientists at my new job, so I know a little about the different labs on campus.”
“What do you do exactly?” Alex asked, realizing he had no idea what his father did all day every day.
“I'm working on a team trying to improve the diagnosis of TB in HIV-infected patients,” Wes said. “It's tricky, because HIV affects immune systemsâso HIV patients don't respond consistently to basic skin tests. You get a lot of false negatives, and false positives too. So we're working on something new to use in low-resourced areas, where it isn't possible to run blood tests.”
It sounded interesting, but Alex didn't like the sound of “low-resourced areas.” He didn't think his father was talking about Bayshore. “Do you think you'll ever be just a regular doctor?”
Wes had his hand on the lab door, but he paused, thinking about Alex's question. “Maybe,” he said. His Stanford ID dangled from the edge of his shirt, and he took it off, studying his own photo as if the answer to Alex's question might lie there. He stuffed it into his pocket and shrugged. “Who knows? I've got a few science projects of my own I'm working on. A proposal pending. We'll see where it takes me.”
Alex remembered the grant his father had mentioned over their first dinner and felt a bloom of panic.
Where it takes meâ
was that literal, or figurative? But before he had time to ask, Wes pushed the lab door open and introduced himself to a grad student huddled in front of a computer. He asked if he was part of the team working on the northern fur seals, and when the student nodded, Wes summarized Alex's science project and asked if it might be possible for him to see their mass spectrometer.
The graduate student led them across the room, to a spectacularly complicated machine. It looked like two big dishwashers put together at right angles, with an enormous silver cylinder attached to one and countless tubes connecting it all together. Any other high school student would have tolerated an explanation of a mass spectrometer for no more than three minutes, but Alex made clear within the first thirty seconds that he was not the typical high school student. He wanted to see, document, and understand every single step of creating an isotope signature, and the grad student took his time, explaining the machine as he would to a fellow scientist. Pulling his brand-new phone out of his pocket, Alex took pictures, starting with the chemical process of isolating keratin and ending with an inside-out exploration of how the machine combusted the keratin and used a magnet to determine the ratio of heavy to light isotopes.
“Wow,” Alex said, when they had finished. “It's amazing.”
“I felt the same way the first time I saw it,” the grad student said. “You're lucky. I was almost thirty before I got to see one.”
“I can't let you use it, because you aren't Stanford-affiliated. And the chemistry's pretty complicated. But maybe we could run a few samples for you.”
Alex's face fell, a look of such disappointment it was like Santa had come back down the chimney to rip his Christmas presents right out of his hand.
Wes showed them his Stanford ID. He wasn't in Earth Sciences, he said, but maybe they'd make an exception, and the grad student handed him a business card for the director of the lab.
“You might as well ask,” he said. “And if it doesn't work out, let me know how I can help.”
“It has to work out,” Alex said as they started back across the quad. “I don't want someone else running my experiment.” He tried to imagine it, sitting at home, waiting for someone to call him with the results. “Could I at least be there? Just watch or something?”
“I'll do what I can.” The business card pressed a rectangle against the thin material of Wes's scrubs, and Alex wanted to reach inside his pocket, pull it out, and dial the number right then and there. But it was almost nine, and a Saturday. Wes pressed the card deeper into his pocket, as though reading his son's mind. “I'll call him on Monday morning, first thing. I promise.”
Alex sighed. “Okay.”
They were quiet as they climbed into Wes's car. When they pulled out onto Palm Drive, Alex asked: “Do you think I should test a bird from every year?”
“I don't think so,” Wes said. “I think you'd want to bin them, maybe into five-year periods. You'd want ten to fifteen samples from every period, at least. That way you can determine if any differences you find are random versus actual changes in the feathers over time.”
Alex made the note in his book. Without looking up, he added: “You can drop me off at Yesenia's.”
“Don't you want to have dinner?”
“Not really.” Alex felt his cheeks flush pink, embarrassed at his accidental honesty. “I mean, I will, if you want to.”
“I told you!” Wes said. “I knew there was no way you'd want to hang out with your dad on a Saturday night.”
“It's not thatâ” Alex started, but Wes cut him off.
“It's fine, really.” He gave him a gentle pop to the temple. “I was just messing with you, I promise. Go have fun.”
Guiltily, Alex directed Wes to Yesenia's house, and when he pulled up in front of her building, Alex jumped out.
“Hey,” Wes said, calling him back. “How will you get home?”
“I'll get there.”
“Are you sure?” Alex nodded, and Wes studied him. Alex could see the uncertainty in his father's eyes. He had no idea what was and wasn't allowed, and he wasn't going to call Letty to ask. Finally he dug a marker out of the glove compartment and pushed Alex's sleeve up, writing his phone number on his forearm. The ink was the same color as a tattoo.
“Save this in your phone,” he said, “and call me if you need a ride. No matter how late.”
The light was on in Yesenia's bedroom. Alex could see it from the street, and he thought about calling her on his new phone, but instead he took the stairs two at a time and knocked on the door.
The door squeaked open. She was wearing a pair of pajama shorts with yellow butterflies printed on them. They were short-short, and she pulled them down self-consciously and adjusted a hooded sweatshirt she wore over the top. “I thought you were moving.”
“We already did. And then I went with Wes to a lab, and then we were going to go out to dinner but I wanted to see you instead.” He pulled the phone out of his pocket. “Look.”
“He gave you that?” Yesenia pulled him into her bedroom, closing and locking the door, even though her mother was at work. “Let me see.”
He placed the phone on her unmade bed, and she moved it onto the pillow, so it sat between them like a third person. The face was blank and glossy, perfect. Alex had polished it on the way up the stairs. She pressed it on and scrolled through his empty contacts, then found the ringtones in the settings. She changed it to an electronic bird noise, nothing like any bird Alex had ever heard.