I hugged Mitchell goodbye. I hoped it wasn't the last time I ever saw him, but a small voice told me it might be. I felt lost. We stood in Chicago O'Hare Airport waiting the final moments before I would head off to security.
“You've got your ticket right?" He nervously checked his pockets as if he were looking for something, pausing only to push his wire rimmed glasses up his nose. My mother made a good choice with Mitchell. He was a lawyer, and we lived in a northern suburb of Indianapolis. We came to Chicago for a final shopping trip before I was exiled to Florida. I was leaving my gated community to return to the first home I had ever lived. We had struggled over the years, and when it seemed like we were finally happy, boom! Cervical cancer. My mom had passed a month earlier, and though Alex had already been in St. Petersburg for three weeks, I had dragged out the relocation for as long as my father would allow. Now the man I had wished for the past four years to be my father, the man who felt like my father was being forced to tell me goodbye.
"Yes I got it right here." I held it up to show him.
"Good. One more thing Gianna." He finally found what he was looking for in his front pocket. He pulled out a small velvet drawstring pouch. I watched him warily, because I hated surprises.
"I've been looking for this for a week,” He started to chuckle, “Your mom hadn't worn it in years. But I think she would want you to have it." He loosened the top with one hand, cupping my hand with the other as he tipped it over. Out fell a small white gold ring. I knew this ring. It was my mother's wedding gift from her father before she'd married Oliver, my father. In cursive, LOVE was carved on the top of it, the letters connecting and blending into the band. I remembered the story she'd told Alex and me growing up. "My father, a hardworking man, told me that as long as I was loved I would find my happiness. I was loved by him, and I am loved by you, so no matter where we are, I am happy."
I just stared at it as I said, "I thought she lost this a long time ago, she stopped wearing it when I was still young." I sighed as I slipped it on the middle finger of my right hand still admiring it.
“She thought she had too, but I found it going through some things from before we lived together, in the attic. It must have slipped off when she was packing some of the boxes. After I found it, I misplaced it too." I laughed at his absentmindedness. Mitchell was a brilliant litigator, but sometimes he had trouble finding his shoes in the morning when they were where they'd always be. I didn't know how he'd survive without us.
"There are more things I'm having shipped to Florida, but I wanted to make sure you had this. It's important that you know your mother will always be with you, watching over you and smiling. You and Alex made her proud." A single tear threatened to escape my eye. I willed it to stay at least until I was out of his sight. He had wanted to adopt us when he first married my mom, an act that my father had refused to allow. I couldn't forgive Oliver for that. To be honest there were a lot of things I couldn't forgive him for. But for that, I wouldn't forgive him. Mitchell promised to visit over our fall break, and I nodded in agreement. I hoped my father wouldn't find a way to prevent that from happening. Mitchell represented stability and integrity, everything that my father did not. So I hugged him goodbye, trying to remember everything about this moment.
When I found my seat on the plane and buckled myself in, I allowed the brimming tear to escape. I sat between a kid who looked like he was in college and a man in a suite with his lap top open. The business man had huffed annoyed when he realized mine was the middle seat. I didn't like the window seat; I always got dizzy looking out the window. I never liked the aisle seat after a mishap with an airline attendant and drink cart a few years ago. The result was three broken fingers on my right hand. It usually wasn't a problem because I sat with mom and Alex. Thinking about them together I allowed another tear to escape my eye. I leaned my head back and looked up at the air vent above me, waiting for the plane to move, to do anything. Nothing happened though. Tear three escaped my eye. The kid on the other side of me looked like he wanted to say something to me, but I ignored his glances. Instead I closed my eyes and I was in a happy memory. I closed them tighter and I could smell the floral arrangements. I saw the four of us standing there on the sandy beach, with the wind blowing in our hair. My mother and I wearing flowered hallows around loose soft curls, cream sun-dresses and barefoot. Mitchell and Alex in khaki shorts and button up and down Hawaiian shirts, sand between their toes. I saw the Hawaiian justice of the peace smiling at the newly married couple so in love. They were married the second day of a three week family vacation. We'd never been anywhere for a vacation before that. How my mother had found Mitchell was a mystery even to me now. Another tear slid down my cheek. I opened my eyes to the air vents above my head again and looked down at the ring that said LOVE. I got the strange sensation that my mother wrapped her arms around me in that moment. I closed my eyes again.
First the captain came on saying we'd be leaving shortly, and then the flight attendant spoke about safety procedures. I reached under my seat and grabbed my messenger bag. I found my iPhone and put the ear buds in my ears. Drowning out the flight attendant, I played the loud rock music. I went to my mobile email and sent two messages. First to Alex, it was simple and short.
Arriving on time, don't be late!! Phone off now but will turn it on when I land. Luv u
The next message I sent was to Mitchell. He wouldn't get for another three and half hours, even if it made it to his phone before then he wouldn't check it while he drove.
I couldn't say all the things that I've wanted to tell you these past
few weeks but, thank you, for loving my mom, and for loving us. Even though we couldn't call you dad, you were our dad. Thank you again for the ring it means the world to me to have a part of mom with me. I will call when I've settled in.
I switched my phone to airplane mode, before I glanced at the boy by the window just long enough to see he was still watching me. I leaned my head back as we took off and let the music fill my ears. I didn't look at anyone or anything. It was me and the music for the rest of the flight.
Finally we landed. As I left the baggage claim, I was suddenly assaulted by the heat and bright sun. I turned on my phone. I had a new text message.
Truck won't start. Find a cab. –Alex
"Great" I sighed. I walked up to the first cab I saw. There leaning against the passenger side door was a short, skinny Asian man in his forties.
"Where to?" he asked in a thick accent.
"St. Pete." I half smiled.
"That far. You pay, and not stiff me for going so far?" He didn't crack a smile. I dug out my wallet, opened it enough so he could see in as I fanned a row of twenties.
"Do you mind if I see your ID.?" I asked as I put my phone on picture mode.
"No I don't mind, looks like we don't really trust each other." I took his ID and took a picture of it. I texted the picture to Alex with the message:
This is my cab driver.
"Hey, you've gotta make a living and I'm a sixteen-year-old girl traveling alone." I smirked as I typed and he helped me load my luggage in the trunk.
"Where to in St. Pete?" He asked as we both climbed into the car, he behind the wheel, and me behind the passenger seat.
"Can we go to the St. Pete Pier first?" I was feeling overwhelmed and not looking forward to the reunion with Oliver.
"No problem, you're dime, or twenty." Ah, a joke! I smirked again and I put my ear buds In my ears as we drove away from the Tampa Airport. I didn't feel like much more small talk. I watched the scenery change from large city, to beachy forest, to small town. I was here. I was home. He drove up and parked by a meter. The LCD screen flashing that it had expired.
"I expect you to feed that thing." He nodded toward the meter as he reached for a newspaper in the passenger seat.
"I will and feel free to leave the meter running." He looked at me shocked in the rear view mirror, but he reached and turned it off. I got out and fed the meter. First I walked to the pier. It was an old gray worn, wooden platform with a matching gray wood railing encompassing it. A few older men sat on a bench with fishing poles strung into the wavy water. I remembered the last time Alex and I stood at the end and watched dolphins dance in and out of the water in the distance. He was seven I was six. This was the only ocean I had ever seen. Alex told me it wasn’t the ocean; it was the Gulf of Mexico. To me it was just an ocean.
I stood there for a long time watching the gulf’s choppy water. The breeze chilled my legs beneath my short jean skirt. My blouse was black and thin and my skin goose bumped under it. I walked the length of the pier back to the path that lead to the beach. I slipped off my sandals and carried them in my hand. In the distance there were people jogging in pairs, some with dogs, a group of boys playing football in the distance and a couple having a romantic afternoon picnic. About half way between the couple and the boys I sat down, tucking my skirt under my thighs and pulling my knees up to my chest. I watched the waves roll in. They rolled out, in, out, as they had always done. There was something comforting in that, knowing how constant this place was to me, even after all these years. This was where I came to as a little girl. As soon as I realized I could escape, I came here. Sometimes, I just sat here for hours watching the waves, until Alex would come for me. He only came after our father was finished hitting our mother and had either passed out or left to go tend the neighborhood bar he owned. Alex never told our parents where I escaped to. It didn't matter where I was in the house, or what the time of day, when my mother called to us "LEXIE, GIA ESCAPE!" We ran. We each had our hiding place from him. He never came to look for us. He really didn't care. Alex would creep back to check when it was safe to return. He was always the braver of the two of us; then when he was sure it was ok, he'd return with me. The two of us would put our mother back together, icing her face, bandaging any scrapes, picking up the broken dishes or furniture. I don't remember when it began. I just remember it always happening.
I was lost in thought; so of course, I didn't see the football hurling toward me. I was entranced with the waves and my memories but I snapped out of it when I heard "Hey, look out!" I turned my attention to the direction of the voice. I saw the football hurling toward my head. I leaned to the side a little too much, landing on my side as the football barely missed my head. Sand was everywhere, in my caramel colored hair, all over my skin, down my blouse. I was utterly mortified. Running toward me was a tall tan boy, shirtless and wearing long cargo shorts. His first features that stood out to me were his messy dark hair that framed his face, and white teeth smiling at me. His hazel eyes sparkled. I stood dusting myself off, trying to avoid his gaze and failing miserably. He reached for the ball and as he straightened up he appraised me from my bare feet up to my eyes that were scrutinizing him as well. He realized I'd watched him sum me up and looked away briefly, his face darkening slightly with a blush.
"Sorry about that. My buddy," he pointed to another shirtless boy waving both hands yelling "sorry" to me. "has got no aim. Or the best aim in the world, depending on how you look at it. I'm Travis." There was that perfect smile again.
"Gianna. It's ok." I fanned my shirt a little as sand continued to fall out of every crevice of it. I picked up my sandals as he asked,
"Are you new to town or on vacation? I don't remember seeing you around." He shuffled the ball between his hands.
"Just arrived, but now I have to go. Thanks for saving me from the football." I smiled and took a step back from him, captivated by his eyes.
"No problem. Anytime. Really." He stood there and watched me as I inched away. I turned and walked away. I didn't look back. It was really hard, but I'd seen all the sappy movies where the girl regrets looking back, because she usually got caught by the boy who is still watching her leave. When I made it back to the pier, I turned to walk the final section to the sidewalk. I couldn't help myself. I looked over to see if he'd gone back to playing with his friends. He stood there, shuffling the ball in his hands staring at me. His focused look suddenly turned into a great big smile that reached his eyes. I chuckled, and shook my head suddenly understanding why it was so much cooler to not look.
I made my way back to the cab. The cabbie looked up from his paper as I climbed in. I told him the address as I leaned back in the back seat, but he didn't say anything. It was three streets over and down two blocks. I watched the scenery out of the window. The neighborhood looked different, but felt the same. He pulled up in front of a house and I sat there mesmerized by it. I remembered it as blue. My father had painted it an olive green color, the trim was bright white. The porch was a green wooden floor with white pillars along a white railing. A dark cherry wooden door made the home seem welcoming and inviting. My mother's flowers still lined the walkway and flower bed in front of the porch. I sat there staring at the house.
"This is it right?" The man turned to me confused.
"This is it." I sighed. He popped his trunk and opened his door to get out taking one more look at me. I just stared at the house as the flood of memories came back to me.
"Come on girl, or I'll turn the meter back on." I tore my eyes from the house, and turned to him. He laughed out loud and got out of the car. I got out also and left some sand on his seats. He helped me take my luggage to the porch I paid him giving him a nice tip. He tipped his hat and turned to leave. As he pulled away, I stood there, outside of the door, willing myself to go inside. Finally I took my keys out of my messenger bag and found the hot pink key my dad had made and sent to me. Alex's had been army green camo. We talked about switching, just to mess with him, but then thought better of it. I had to give him a D for effort though, he'd gotten the girlie part right. Finally I went in, the living room looked the same, but different. It had the same furniture but the colorful walls I remembered were freshly painted white. I called out to Alex, to Oliver. There was no answer.
"Great" I sighed. I lugged my heavy suitcases upstairs. After three trips I finally stood in my tiny room. The walls had been freshly painted white also but were bare. It looked like the entire house had been painted. I looked at my single bed. It had a new pink comforter with two pink pillows on it. I despised pink. I began to unpack. My closet was too small. My dresser had no decorations on it and too few drawers. I unpacked half of my bags and decided that I needed more storage. I changed my clothes and texted Alex.
Where are you
My phone sang a pop song almost immediately. I answered it. "I just got back from the parts store. Oliver is sporting some junker." He didn't even say hello, just jumped into the conversation.
"Um, yeah, my flight was fine. Do you think you can take me to the store to get some Rubbermaid storage boxes?" I sat down and surveyed my new smaller living space that looked like a tornado had ripped through it.
"It might make it to the store. How do you like your comforter? I helped pick it out." He was now standing in my door way. He took his phone from his ear and put it in his pocket. He surveyed my room and stifled a laugh, I grimaced.
"Tell me you didn't." I looked at him annoyed. He seemed to have grown in the three weeks apart. He was taller than me, auburn hair, with a spray of freckles across his nose, green eyes that had the girls in Indiana swooning over his every word. The grease stains on his shirt gave him an older look. Eighteen months though, he was only eighteen months older than me. I had to keep telling myself that because sometimes it seemed like I was older than him.
"No, I didn't and I told him how you hate pink." He plopped down on my bed beside me and looked at his dirty hands annoyed.
"Where is daddy dearest anyway?"
"Working. I know it sucked grabbing a cab but trust me it would have been worse abandoned by the side of the interstate, because Bessie, would not have made that trip. Let me go change and wash my hands then we can go, how much money do you have? Enough you think?"
"I'm sure! Mitchell gave me enough allowance to last me the next six months with a raise." I raised my eyebrows smiling.
"Give me five minutes." He stood and left the room.
An hour later we were both pushing carts with under the bed totes closet organizing tools, room decorating things and a duvet cover. We rolled past the mega store's paint section. I looked at Alex forbiddingly.
"You think we should? I've stared at white walls for three weeks. I feel like I need a stark white straight jacket to go with it." He rolled his cart down the aisle full of the rainbow of color swatches. "I call navy." He laughed and stood on the bottom bar of the cart as it continued to roll.
"I obviously call pink." I scrunched my nose in disgust like it smelled bad.
"I'm thinking a silver grey. That color always suited you." He was right. I also picked an accent of sage green. We checked out and went home. Before we unloaded everything from the old beaten down truck, I looked at the back door.
"Do you think he's here?" I asked again suddenly nervous.
"Working until 2 A.M. How a recovering alcoholic can tend bar I'll never figure out." Alex said as he pushed his seat forward grabbing the bags and totes from the extended cab section. "Who's room are we gonna paint first?" he was unlocking the back door now.
"You've been in hell longer, so yours first." I grabbed the rest of the bags.
"It really hasn't been that bad. We stay out of each other's way. He'll probably do the same with you." We walked through the small stark white kitchen, to the stairs and up to our rooms. Since Alex's was the most organized, we dumped the stuff in there and sorted our storage units. I took my things to my room and began helping him move furniture across the hall to the guest room. We took down the blinds taped off the old wood trim and began painting. Joking and laughing, we finished in a few hours. It was a total transformation.
"Kinda feels like home." Alex smirked as he picked up the pan and left the room.
"Kinda feels like prison." I whispered under my breath. He didn't hear me.
We then went to my room and he helped me unpack. We organized and loaded totes. I reorganized my drawers.
"We could paint your room tonight too." Alex plopped on my bed.
"Where would I sleep? You've already got the guest room." I sighed really wanting to paint my room and take it away from Oliver, to make it mine.
"You can have the guest room; I'll pull my mattress in the middle of my floor and sleep there"
"Alexander the Great, so noble." I smiled
"My Lady, I aim to please." He mock bowed from where he sat. Like that, it was decided, so we did it. We moved my bed and dresser and new totes out of my room, took down the blinds, taped off the old wood trim and painted. Three walls gray and the wall around the double windows we painted green. Then we opened the windows to let the fumes out. We went downstairs and ate a late dinner of delivery pizza. All felt right with the world, or as right as it could be with the world. We watched the Reality TV channel. Alex turned down the volume and gave me his own commentary. We laughed. I had really missed laughing; I had really missed him. Our texting and phone conversations hadn't been enough for me. Finally after the pizza was gone, and the shows became more serious cop programs, we turned off the TV. I decided to drag my mattress into my room too and we went to bed. I didn't hear Oliver come in, but I did hear my bedroom door open, and saw a light across my walls, then it shut. I heard Alex's door open and shut, and then I heard Oliver's bedroom door slam shut. I wasn't sure if it was because I was actually here or because we'd messed up three of his bedrooms. I didn't really care to find out either. So I put my earphones back in and went back to sleep. Eventually.