Authors: Vanessa Diffenbaugh
“What?” Alex asked. “Why do you keep looking at me like that?”
“It's nothing,” she said.
“Yes, it is. It's something.”
“It's justâyou sound like someone I used to know. He was always correcting our biology teacher, and spewing random facts that no one cared about. Not that I don't care what you're saying,” she added, flustered.
It took a moment for Alex to realize what she was sayingâSara knew his father. And looking at Alex now, she was reminded of him. Wasn't that it? They all must have gone to school together in Mission Hills.
There was so much Alex wanted to know, but Sara looked as if she already regretted what she'd said.
“How else do I remind you of him?” he asked, careful not to use his name. But still, he hit a nerve. Sara hopped up.
“Who?” she asked, feigning confusion, and before he could answer she'd scooped up Luna and set her down on her feet.
“Come on,” she said. “The
has to go eat his dinner, and so do you.”
She dragged Luna toward the door while Alex followed behind, studying the straight-backed walk of his mother's best friend, who somehow knew more about his life than he did. She wouldn't tell him, though. Whether she felt it wasn't her place or she'd made some kind of promise to Letty, one thing was certain: he'd learned everything he was going to learn from Sara.
The rest, he'd have to find out himself.
etty was sober when her plane touched down in San Francisco. She'd spent the hours looking out the window, listening to the women next to her chatter about a business conference while consuming half a dozen glasses of red wine. Letty didn't have the money to order her own drink, but it still felt like a tiny victory, walking off the plane clearheaded and ready.
Without any luggage she raced past baggage claim and down the hall, slowing as she approached the exit. There, on the other side of the glass, were her children. She saw them before they saw her, and her heart pounded as she watched Sara and Alex in conversation, Luna with her entire face pressed against the security doors.
stretched in yellow and black decals above her daughter's head. The accuracy of the statement was almost comical. When she walked through those doors, everything would be different. There would be no going back.
Letty stopped walking, overwhelmed, but just then Luna saw her and shrieked, the sound jolting a tired TSA officer to his feet. Her daughter ducked around the door and bolted past him. With one arm extended he started to say something, but then he stopped, thinking better of trying to stop a wild-eyed, wild-haired six-year-old girl's reunification with her mother. Letty kneeled down to meet her daughter's fierce tackle, lifting her up into her arms and carrying her back through the doors to Sara and Alex.
“Are you okay?” Luna asked, tapping the gauzy bandage on Letty's temple and then continuing before she could answer: “Alex almost died, did you know?”
“What?” Letty's already racing heart jumped into her throat, and she reached out to check Alex's forehead, but he stepped back, away from her.
“It was just a little burn,” he said. He rolled up his sleeve to show her a patch of gauze taped to his forearm.
“But you told me you could have died!” Luna protested.
“I said if it turned into a blood infection I could have died, which it didn't. You need to listen.”
Letty raised her eyebrows at Sara, who smiled. “Welcome home.”
“Thanks.” She set Luna on the floor and gave Sara a hug, squeezing her tight.
“Thank you for taking care of them,” she said. “And for buying my plane ticket. I seriously don't know what I would have done without you.”
“It's okay. You know that.”
Letty turned to Alex. He was taller than she remembered, and stood awkwardly in his new height. His sleeves were too short, and the front of his shirt had come untucked, falling over his belt. Sometime, between now and when she'd last looked, Alex had grown up. She leaned toward him, but when he didn't reach for her, she settled for a pat on the shoulder.
“It's good to see you.”
She turned back to Luna, the harder, but simpler of her two childrenâbut she was no longer wrapped around her waist.
After a moment of panic Letty found her in front of a glass cafÃ© case. “Can I have a chocolate muffin?” she begged. “Please?”
Letty pulled her last three dollars from her pocket, a collection of wrinkled bills and coins splayed out on the counter.
“Chocolate muffins for everyone,” Letty declared magnanimously, but when the barista counted out the money it was enough for only one muffin, which Luna weaseled out onto the curb and wouldn't share.
Sara drove them back to the Landing and stayed just long enough to do the dishes and make the beds before giving everyone a hug good-bye. Luna gave her a whole-body hug, and it took effort for Sara to peel her away and escape out the front door.
Letty followed behind. “You don't have to go, you know. There's no one here to chase you out with a spatula.”
Sara smiled. It was a joke they traded regularly, referring to the time they'd been caught watching a horror movieâone that had been expressly forbidden by Maria Elena. Letty had thought she was asleep, but at the first gunshot Maria Elena had burst out of her room in a floor-length nightgown, waving a spatula above her head.
“I would, but I have a night class to teach. And I've got to go cram for it. I didn't have much time to prepare this week.”
“Welcome to the rest of my life.”
“Yep.” Sara smiled, raising an eyebrow. “Welcome to the rest of your life.”
Letty swallowed hard, and Sara reached out and gave her hand a quick squeeze. She took a step toward the stairs and then seemed to change her mind, turning back around. “Hey, I know you probably don't want to discuss this, but I think you need to talk to Alex. I think he knows.”
“How could he know?”
“I don't know. Kids just know things. He'll be fifteen this summerâit's not a surprise he's asking questions.”
Letty sighed and leaned against the railing, looking down at the parking lot below. “But what should I tell him?”
“I don't know. His father's name. That he's a doctor. It doesn't have to be much.”
“I don't know much. I haven't heard from him in over ten years.”
“So tell him that. Just tell him something. I can see it's hurting him, not knowing.”
“Well, it won't be the first time I've hurt him.”
The word sealed Letty's lips before she could start, strong and swift like a hand cranking closed a leaky faucet. Sara would not let her go there. For all her criticism, for all the hundreds of times they'd fought over Letty's decision not to tell Wes, Sara had never blamed Letty for the day in the parking lot with Alex. When Letty had called, hysterical, she'd flown home from college immediately and spent a week in the hospital room, holding Letty's hand. Now, she pulled Letty to her. Sara was taller by a good four inches, and Letty pressed her face into the space between her neck and shoulder.
“I'm scared,” she whispered.
“I know you are. But it's time.”
“Past time,” Letty admitted, and Sara didn't argue, just gently turned her face, so that she could look into her eyes.
your fault,” she said. “Remember? You tried.”
She was talking about Luna. Luna was supposed to have been Letty's second chance, her new beginning. And it was true that Letty had tried. She'd stopped drinking and taken vitamins and quit all her jobs except one, bartending at Flannigan's, where she could make three times the minimum wage in tips. She'd even saved enough to buy a new crib with soft pink bedding, which Maria Elena had promptly assembled in her own bedroom. It would be easier, she'd claimed, with Letty working nights, and Letty didn't argue, not then and not when Maria Elena dumped the milk she'd pumped (tainted, her mother assumed, not trusting her) and started feeding the baby formula. It felt selfish to complain, when Alex was growing up healthy and happy, when her children were getting everything they needed, when her mother could so clearly do everything better than she could. But still it gnawed at Letty, and the guilt pushed her further away. Sundays, her only days off, she spent mostly with Sara, where for a few weightless hours she could pretend at a different life, one that did not include two children who needed her and a mother who did not.
“I didn't try hard enough.”
“Maybe not,” Sara said. “But it isn't too late.”
Letty thought of what her mother had said, just days ago, before throwing her out of her father's childhood home:
You have your whole life ahead of you
“I hope not,” Letty said, letting go of Sara. “I'll call you tomorrow.”
She stood on the porch until Sara's car disappeared, and then took a deep breath and walked inside. Alex and Luna were in the kitchen. Alex stood on a stool, getting the dinner plates from the highest shelf, where Maria Elena insisted they be kept; Luna counted silverware onto the table. As was her job whenever she was home for dinner, Letty filled a pitcher with water and set a glass at each place setting, and then they all sat down for dinner together.
There was a long, awkward moment. Alex and Luna sat at the table like hungry birds, waiting to be fed, and all at once Letty realized. They were waiting for
to feed them.
She sprang up from the table.
this is it.
Her chance to show her children (and herself) that they were all going to be just fine. She could make dinner and do the dishes and get them ready for bed. One, two, three: done. It wasn't impossible. Not even hard, really. Grabbing the ruffled apron Maria Elena kept on a hook, she tied it on and flung the refrigerator open. Foul air poured from within. She slammed the door shut. Better left for tomorrow, she thought, and scanned the cabinets for something she could make.
“She left meals in the freezer,” Alex said, coming to her rescue.
Clear glass casserole dishes were stacked on the left; gallon Ziplocs of soup, tamales, and taquitos were piled on the right. She pulled out a plastic bag of what looked like chicken soup and read the directions written on the front with permanent marker.
1. Thaw in warm water. 2. Transfer to glass. 3. Microwave.
Thawing would take hours. Who had time for that? She skipped to the next instruction, but when she unzipped the bag and tried to dump it into a mixing bowl, the frozen block of soup wouldn't budge. Resealing the bag, she stuck it into the microwave and set it to cook for five minutes, and just as she finished washing and drying three soup bowls, a noise like a small bomb exploded from inside the microwave.
She covered her mouth at Luna's horrified expression. The microwave door beeped angrily when she opened it. Soup dripped from the ceiling and door and dribbled from the shredded plastic, pooling on the glass plate. She salvaged as much of the soup as she could and set the bowls on the table.
“It's fine,” she said with a smile, picking up a spoon.
Alex took a bite. He immediately spit out a chunk of ice, concealing it in a napkin.
“I don't like it,” Luna said.
“You didn't even try it,” Letty said. She took a huge, half-frozen, half-burning-hot spoonful, biting into a long strip of plastic bag. She pulled it out of her mouth, held it up, and laughed. “Come on. What could you possibly not like about
“Gross.” Alex smiled for the first time since she returned.
Letty checked her watch. It was getting late; there was no time to try again with one of her mother's other meals.
“I think it's time for the emergency reserves,” she said, standing up to clear their plates. She dumped them with a clatter in the sink. “Your nana doesn't know everything in this kitchen.”
They looked doubtful but watched as she cleaned the microwave and then pulled a sleeve of popcorn from a paper grocery bag folded flat and tucked into the broom closet. While it was popping she grabbed a box of chocolates from somewhere within their bedroom.
“Dinner is served,” she said grandly. Luna squealed as Letty filled a mixing bowl with steaming popcorn and plopped the box of chocolates onto the table.
They ate quickly, shoveling huge handfuls of popcorn into their mouths. Alex's eyes darted to the door, as if worried their grandmother would march in and put a stop to it. When the popcorn was gone Luna crawled, chocolate-smeared, under the table and into Letty's lap. She tilted her head back and smiled with both eyes closed. Luna's lashes were curly, just like hers, and Letty sighed, leaning over to kiss her daughter's salty lips. Luna was so forgiving. Letty didn't deserve it, but she was buoyed by it: all she had to do was try, and they would figure it out together, how to be a family, just the three of them. She sighed, wishing she didn't have to cut their reunion short. But she didn't have a choice.
Picking Luna up and setting her on the bench beside her, Letty stood.
“I have to go to work.”