Nicole bathed in the fountain of youth she called "yoga". After forty she was determined to never let it show even if it meant getting into something she used to think was for women who had nothing else better to do. With time, she had done a lot of things she said and thought she would never do, but the feeling alone could not be conveyed to those who inquired because it was far more complex than words. She let her body do the talking: bending and twisting into the abstract and abnormal because it was how she saw herself on the inside, but yet, not feeling the urgent need to be put back together again. She could smile although for a while she felt she had thrown her love-numbed body under a big catholic bus driven by Yolanda the day she agreed to renew their vows in front of a mass; it was the way that made Antonio happy even if he was too honorable to admit. But Nicole didn't mind this time around, not with Fallon present, giving her a chance to see the beauty in glorified love although she saw it in its modest workings every day.
"You could've told me that we'd be going to a class for contortionists." Jess stopped two feet away from the couch and fell out on the floor.
"Give it a few more weeks and your body will thank me. And so will Jack." Nicole said giving her a bottled water.
"As long as you don't go vegetarian, I'm down."
"Girl, I'm from the Midwest; I'm made of meat and potatoes."
"Speaking of meat and potatoes, I need the facts. What's this I hear about you wanting another baby?"
Nicole shrugged modestly, "Eh, maybe."
"I never thought I'd see the day."
"Neither would I but, it's life. Life now, anyways."
Jess looked around Nicole's house for the first time, remembering when her motto was to keep things "portable," courtesy of the life she led. Even with the opened cardboard boxes throughout the house, the smallest details like the photograph on the mantle made it evident she had nailed herself into the foundation, never to be uprooted by an anxiety she couldn't shake.
"Where's that picture from?"
Nicole turned around and was hit with the memory she hadn't journeyed to since placing the photograph there. Catalina's hair was fully white, tied back into a braid that was thicker than the circumference of her limbs. Her skin clung to the surreal bone structure of her face that proved God's blueprint for Nicole. She had learned that her grandmother was a fragile woman who spoke with an unbreakable confidence, even if she was confident in words that mixed dialects and languages together and didn't make any sense, with the Alzheimer's being secondary. Although she knew who Nicole was because she looked so much like her father, she mistook Fallon for her younger sister, Cecile, thinking nothing of having to be transported back in time for it to be true, or of Cecile being in the kitchen. The stories Lydia had often told about Catalina, via Emmaus, made it hard for Nicole to believe that such fire and strength came from a woman who seemed "not all there." Cecile said she had been that way ever since she came back to Puerto Plata after Emmaus left Les Cayes in a stubborn rage, and after the love of her life passed. Catalina had become absent-minded, with every degenerate disease in the book but a heart that refused to break and end her. Cecile said, the only reason she stayed alive this long was just to see that Nicole was okay. And when she did, she would finally give in to all that her body was telling her.
Nicole turned back around to keep from looking at the silent urn beside the picture. Jess knew she would've responded if she could. But she could see moments travel on her face until she pulled herself up from going too deep.
"What about that one on the left...with the three of you; you guys look happy."
She paused, sensing what it felt like then to hold Antonio's hand and see Fallon smile for hours on end. There was a wholeness to who she was even though she used to be frightened of becoming it. "It's from Florida. I remember because I was so terrified when Fallon got stung by a jellyfish...but she thought it was the coolest thing. It was horrifying for me. I wanted to go back in time and just save her from one less kind of pain she'd have to experience in life but...I couldn't." She attempted to pull up the layer of herself she felt shedding by smiling. "But they'll be more right? More stings, more cuts, more letdowns, more nights she can't sleep. And I'll be there."
Jess let the water soothe her throat before testing different waters of a subject she knew Nicole would never be ready for.
"Does that mean you're not taking Pollock's chair?"
She huffed. "That position wasn't mine to fill. And it will never be."
"He thought different."
"Jess, it's more complicated than you think. What always separated me from the greatest agents I've ever known has been my abilities and inabilities. I was better because I could forget I was human. I was better because I couldn't fit love and life into my agenda and it made everyone else expendable. I took the risks I did because I knew there was only one thing in the world strong enough to pull me back...and it was something I wasn't willing to do yet."
"...Would you still have saved her?"
Nicole's eyes needed to be reminded as she squinted.
"Raven. Would you have saved her if it was just yesterday."
She hesitated in answering, knowing the question was there to prove a point she didn't want to address. "Not for reasons fair to her. She deserved to be saved because it was the right thing, not because I burdened her with my maternal feelings. That night I fought to save a piece of myself, a piece of Kelly, a piece of the child I should have had a long time ago and it..." Nicole stopped.
"It reminded me that I'm expendable too."
"That's not true-"
"I'm not searching anymore, Jess. And I didn't say no to the job because I was influenced by Antonio- yes, I know people talk...and they lie. I've heard it; when I wasn't meant to hear it and other times just because they were bold enough to tell me to my face that I'm making a mistake- that I made a mistake marrying who I married and when I married and for why, and for choosing to have my baby instead of aborting and 'climbing up the ladder'." She saw the faces of those people flash in front of her and what used to make her cry, head on Antonio's lap in the middle of the night, now made her strong before it could ever make her angry. "Jess, I said no because I was tired of being torn into pieces and carried to so many lives and places far away that I could never get those pieces back even if I tried. Another case, another piece. Another accident, another piece. Another death, another piece." Nicole took a firm grasp of her emotions and spoke as soft as wisps of clouds. "Anything I have left, I just want to give to my daughter. Because no one deserves it more than her."
She rolled coasters off the coffee table until they were scattered across the floor and left her with idle hands. For a young girl in school uniform, she positioned herself on the sofa like a middle-aged man during football season; her heel kicked out and arms thrown over her stomach. She had a piece of her hair placed between her nose and upper lip like a mustache as she smelled its tart green apple scent. These were not characteristics of a child who had skipped a grade a year ago, nor was it the posture and poise of a young girl who had a love of dance ever since her grandmother put on West Side Story to lull her to sleep; instead all it did was excite her. This was a child who saw no need to impress or live up to any expectations because she knew what she owed Lydia, and what she didn't. She didn't owe her the facade of a perfect child to please her or make the situation seem more comfortable than what it was; she owed her the truth...however stubborn in silence...and in return, she hoped that Lydia would give her own honesties.
"Well," Lydia started a sentence she wasn't prepared to finish. Fallon gave her attention only with the shift of her eyes, making her stare into the seat of a child's soul that reflected clearly the life she had missed in hazel circles.
Fallon flexed her eyebrows with impatience. The longer she held the innocent position of her pursed lips against her nose, the more pretentious it appeared and the more it weakened a spirit that was fragile to begin with.
"I don't know what you want me to say, or even if you expect me to say anything but...whatever you want to know, whatever you wondered in all those years of not knowing me...I want to be the one to answer. I want to tell you everything."
Fallon looked like a part of the upholstery the way she sank further into it like a rag doll. All that her mother had hesitantly answered over time to appease her pressing questions was incarnate in front of her and offered its explanation. She finally sat up and crossed her legs, growing taller and adding another ten years to her physicality. Lydia anticipated her voice and was surprised to find that for such a delicate girl, her voice had a natural rasp. "You left us."
She felt the knife turn and vulnerability trickle down her body. "That wasn't what I wanted to happen but...it did, and I'm-"
"You're sorry. Mom says you're always sorry but never change.-"
"Do you believe everything your mother tells you?"
Fallon didn't expect their bickering to end as soon as it did. She was prepared to go further, cut deeper in the way she was taught never to speak, especially to her own blood.
"At least you can believe her. What I wanted more than anything was for your mother to believe me.-"
"Well she's tired of doing that now, and I am too." Fallon put the puzzled pieces of Lydia's face back together with an explanation of intelligent fury that mirrored what it meant to be a Scott-Cortez. "I waited for you and you never came. Every birthday, every holiday, every whatever. She said to act like you didn't exist but I always pretended you were watching me, and I hate that I did more hating that you weren't there. She'd say The more you think about her, the more it's going to make you mad, Lonnie and Lonnie, you're only hurting yourself, and I can't save you from your thoughts. You weren't there for her, and you weren't there for me either."
Lydia's mind touched the invisible wound with her hands and looked at the shame that stained them. Her jaw tightened at the nine year old's blatant honesty and whether or not she had been that way since birth or just possessed the still unpolished manners of a youngster was a mystery to her; although, Fallon did strike her as a child aware of where and how her words hit...and used that ability accordingly.
"Well, I wish you could believe me. Because I never meant to hurt you, not even from a distance. I thought about how I should've been there. I thought about how much better of a mother yours was going to be to you than I was to her." The lump in her throat resisted the possibility of subsiding realizing that even in silence Fallon protested clearly. "I thought about who you'd be, every day, I swear. Because from the moment I knew there was a you, I loved you. And even if you don't believe me- even if you hate my guts...it doesn't mean I'll stop caring about you. I can't. So if you want to beat me up, if you want to scream at the top of your lungs just to feel free for the first time, then I want you to do it, baby. Because your mama never had that chance."
Her the values she was taught echoed in her head. Be nice. Be nice. She would have never talked to parents or Yolanda that way in fear of "la mirada asesina," as Antonio called it. It was a stare so fiery cold that whatever they had planned to come next, never got the chance to arrive because she responded too quickly. But Lydia was too unorthodox to be intimidating; she had never been prepared for being responsible for anyone but herself and it showed like a spotlight through the dark. She never had to be the disciplinarian, or the pacifier; she was always thrust into some ongoing scene of life, not knowing where to pick up, not knowing which role was right, which role was her.
"I don't want to hit you," Fallon said softly. Lydia heard Emmaus in her voice and it chilled her bones. "And I don't want to yell. I just want you to love me and not be scared of me or what I think."
"What makes you think I'm scared of you?"
"Because you haven't tried to touch me; you didn't hug me, you didn't pat my back or my head. I'm mad at you but you don't think you can do that stuff because I don't love you enough to let you...but I do...love you."
Lydia smiled. "Who taught you how to talk like that?"
"...Life. Books." She picked at her nails in annoyance because she had been asked that question all her life. "And my parents. My Aunt Kelly thinks we talk funny but my mom says she's just jealous because she has a limited vocabulary and that makes her predictable."
Lydia laughed at how her phrasing resembled that of a tape recorder that had wound back to a convenient spot and played. "Wow. You're just like your mother."
"Really? Because she says I'm like you."
She went silent, unsure of what the title entailed for the girl.
"...The good stuff though."
Antonio never forgot a face. It was his job. The smallest details that went under the superficial radar of the untrained eye were constantly clear to him. It screamed for his attention if he didn't give it willingly. He knew who this man was because of his stance, because of the distance across his back from shoulder-to-shoulder and when he turned around, the fire from years ago that had yet to extinguish in his eyes. He saw Byron and didn't know whether or not to make it known; the last time they saw each other it was over the casket of his only niece and nothing about him said grief more than it did revenge and pain. His fingers were bare and it told Antonio all he needed to know in a span of a second and whether or not he wanted it to be noticed was irrelevant once they made eye contact.
"Don't tell me..." Byron started, struggling to come out with the correct name. "Antonio. Antonio Cortez. Yeah I, remember."
"Byron." They shook hands and tangibly felt the tension between them both.
"So um...you and Legs still together?"
Antonio bit down on his lip in restraint and laughed. The way he asked, scratching his head as if he were inquiring about the score of a game he forgot to record pushed him. "I'm fine, thanks for asking."
"Oh I, didn't mean to speak out of place it's just...shit happens you know. Sometimes it's shit we can't control."
"We're still together, Byron."
"Well, that's, that's good. That's real good I...didn't...-"
"...expect us to be. I know. What about you?"
"Vanessa left me a week after the funeral, Antonio," he said with accusing eyes. "She said I cared more about some ghost than I did her. That was my niece; it was like loosing the daughter I never had. Every since she was little I was there when my brother couldn't be. And now he still can't be there for her and I can't either."
"I'm sorry." Antonio apologized.
"You can't be sorry. Not unless you know what it feels like."
"Well, I've been through a divorce before. And no one's a stranger to losing someone they love."
Byron huffed with laughter. "You mean to tell me you were married before Nicole?" A smile finally pierced his face, "And how is she taking that?"
"She likes to think that she came first, and technically, she did, but, what can you say?" He saw the sheer amusement on Byron's face but chose to ignore it. "Shit happens, right?"
"That's right, shit does happen." He looked down at the single jute bracelet on Antonio's wrist as he checked the time. "DAD" was engraved on the metal plate and it put a bitter taste inhis mouth for more reasons than one. He wasn't a father because Vanessa didn't want kids, because he dated all the wrong women, and because Nicole told him no when he was truly ready.
"Nice bracelet," he said, reminded of the things Raven used to make and leave all over the house.
"Yeah..." He stopped in finishing the sentence with a word that could change the direction of their emotions into an explosive discomfort.
"Your little girl."
Antonio felt his defenses rise automatically as a father, as a brother, and as a husband.
"Of course I'm just guessing but, I'm sure I'm right. You two have a daughter, around Raven's age."
"We both know that if I dig that hole the only person who won't be able to climb out is you."
Byron laughed, in one of those classic ways that tossed a veil over something deeper inside. "You've always been an honest one."
He rubbed his chin before asking a question he wanted to know since meeting him years ago. "Does Nicole still have my ring?-"
"That was quick."
"Well...the truth never takes long to say. Lies do."
Lydia hated Imitation of Life with a passion. If she had it her way, her finger couldn't have hit the power button any faster, but Nicole had a project due and the only way to get through it was to bounce her knee up and down and press her knuckle to her teeth. She didn't get it, why it made her eyes well up with tears and her teeth grit seeing Sarah Jane collapsing over her mother's casket. It made her sick to her stomach, made her angry, made her hurt.
"Are you okay?" Nicole asked, gazing at the other end of the couch where Lydia seemed to have moved farther away.
"I'm good. Did you get what you needed from this thing?" She said through a muffling sound of her angry tears being wiped away on her sleeve.
"Basically. I don't see what this movie has to do with Black History Month though. There's only 'colored' character in the whole thing and she's too damn passive."
"Don't say colored."
"It's just a word."
"And it's a word that used to be carved on my desk at school." Nicole didn't say anything else. The kids at her school teased each other with things they had the power to change if the bite stung enough. But the years between the two of them had set time at different standards.
"...What happened?" For a girl that knew so much her curiosity often came across as condescending, but this was genuine and it opened up a shell of a woman who had closed it for so long.
"I bounced between classes until my daddy just took me out of school completely...let the neighbors watch me, teach me what they could." She pushed the covers off of herself and went into the kitchen.
"Why?" Nicole turned to lean over the back of the couch, reminding Lydia that she couldn't walk away from her completely.
"Because I was too black for the whites and too white for the blacks. Either way I got teased to tears until..."
"You promised there would be no men and no secrets between us anymore...I thought you meant it."
Her words gripped Lydia's heart until she gave in. "Until I took matters into my own hands...like I always do when I've had enough." She said the last part under her breath and Nicole was thankful.
"Then you won't be here long." Nicole left her declaration in mid-air as she turned back around.
"What is that supposed to mean?"
"Something else is going to take you away from me; I know it. And I'll be alone, again."
"So you don't believe in me anymore? Wasn't it you who said I could do better? Be better?"
"I can't change you Mom. No one can. I don't even think you can change yourself."
Time's moving so fast
Or is it me who stops the clock and lets the moments pass?
My mind, says time's a friend
There's so many things about you I don't understand
And there's so much for me to know
I've got so very far to go
And it seems that, one life just is not enough
To do the things to find myself, and keep my mind in touch
But one life is all I've got,
To accentuate my optimism, eliminate my doubt.
Can't be unsure of what I feel,
Must have directions, good vibrations
I've got to know what makes life real
I just feel
Love is for real-
Hearing an old college nickname pulled her out of the arms of The Five Stairsteps, surprised to find that it was her sister-in-law. "Hey Brie."
"It smells so good sis." Gabriela said putting a piece of carved ham to her lips. "You know I'd help, but Yolanda doesn't trust me in the kitchen half as much as she trusts you and Mari."
"How is Mariel anyway?"
"Yeah, her doctor wouldn't even let her take the flight here but she and the kids send their love and their congratulations."
"Oh god, even she knows?"
"Everybody knows. How is Fallon taking it? I know when Mari and Antonio found out they were going to have a younger half-sister they flipped shit."
"Well she's excited about being a big sister, ready to boss somebody around."
"Is it a girl or boy?"
Gabriela's jaw dropped like everyone else she had encountered. "What?"
"You're freaking kidding me.- How?"
"Do I really need to explain?" Nicole laughed.
"I mean I know how, but?"
"I'm 44, I'm black, I'm 5'7"- which is taller than the average woman- and since I got off the pill my hormones went all Octomom."
"Antonio must be glowing."
"He is; I promised to meet him half way and it just so happens that meant 3/4 of the way."
"Well I'm happy for you big sis." She kissed Nicole on the cheek and proved she was the only person who made rubbing her pregnant stomach okay. "I'm gonna run to the store and get some cigs, you want anything?"
"I'm okay, but can you find my child and tell her I said come get her stuff out of the kitchen?"
"You got it- ooh, hey girl," Gabriela said passing Kelly on her way out.
She dropped her bags on the kitchen floor, collapsed into a chair. Nicole knew that Kelly would have left Chicago more often if she wasn't deathly afraid of being miles up in the air, but
Nicole couldn't always lend her hand to hold.
"Where's my nephew?"
"Uh, excuse me, I'm doing just fine thanks. Where's my niece?" Kelly retorted.
"Somewhere beating up on her cousins. Now, where is he?"
"He was invited to spend Thanksgiving with his girlfriend's family."
"And he took it?"
"The boy has needs."
"If that need can't be baked, bagged, and placed on the table...he doesn't need it."
"You know the only reason you talk like that is because you have a son, right?"
"I know," Kelly said smiling, "the grass really is greener over here...and soon you will know."
"Auntie Kelly!" Fallon ran into the kitchen and catapulted herself onto her lap, squeezing air out of her lungs.
"Hi honey. I hear you're still dancing even though your mother can't stand it." Kelly looked at Nicole with agitating eyes and a smile. Everyone knew she'd rather have Fallon shoot birds with a BB gun in her spare time.
"She's coming around. Aren't you, ma?"
"I am." Nicole answered to Kelly rather than Fallon.
"Well your father sent me the video of the regionals in Charlotte and you were phenomenal sweetie. I'm so proud of you."
Nicole looked over her shoulder. "If you blow that girl's head up any more she will pop and shoot air to the walls."
"Mom, that's not true! I'm humble."
"Lonnie, people who are humble never say so; learn that lesson now." She titled Fallon's head back before pecking her on the forehead. "Now get your bags out of my kitchen."
"Speaking of bags," Kelly sighed, "I need to put these up before they get heavier than my eyes."
"Straight upstairs, second door on the right.- Fallon will show you."
Even with her back turned Nicole recognized that one familiar presence was replaced by another. She turned to see Antonio come in, clearly broken down from having to deal with the rush at the airport since morning time. She didn't ask what went wrong or why he wasn't home earlier, she just pulled him into her body and caressed the back of his neck. He sighed with guilt, remembering the moment he said he would always be there when she needed him and felt her receive the apology in the way that she held him. He never meant to do it, put that turning feeling in her stomach, to have he vulnerability of loving him be stretched from her heart to wherever he took the other end. To be co-dependent waiting at that middle mark.
He started up into her neck, "..I-"
"Don't." She stopped him, feeling the old Nicole rise up inside of her just to be put back in her place as she looked into his eyes. "I know what you're going to say before you even say it and I've already forgiven you. So, no more of it."
He let it go knowing the history of their arguments always started with pressing an issue the other was ready to let go. "Did you tell anyone about Atlanta?"
"No. I can't bring myself to sit at a table where everyone is giving thanks for family and announce that a part of theirs is going to be further away than before."
"I know they said they can hold the position for as long as I need but if you don't want me to take it,-"
"You know me better than that; I can't and I won't do that to you. I will follow you to the ends of the earth just to discover that it's round and make the same trip all over again, but only if you promise this family will always come first."
"We do, we always do."
"...Then let's go."
She shrugged her shoulders as if she were talking about the movement from one room to another. It was easy for Antonio to forget that the agent inside her had never vanished, it only expanded to cover them all under its wing. Everyday she was on a mission to love him more than she ever thought she could, to throw herself into what they stood for wholeheartedly and never give up on it. When he thought he had figured her out she kept him guessing without even trying and that undying spark only ignited flames inside him.
"Did you ever think that this would be us?" he asked in how pleasantly surprised life made him.
"No. Never. And if someone would have told me, I wouldn't be here to live it. I probably would've killed myself."
"Ha, you would not."
"I would've." He saw it in her face: truth, and a shame to admitting having felt so hopeless before, for knowing just how much love used to scare her to unbelievable measures. "For the sake of regaining control, I would've, so I'm glad it took meeting you just to realize that it's okay to let go of the wheel sometimes. You go along for the ride to open your eyes and find that you're finally where you were trying get to, but didn't know what that place would be or how to get there because you were so angry you couldn't see straight...even though all the signs were there."
A stranger opened the door when she thought her knock went unanswered. She immediately felt submerged into a world where breathing became impossible, moving slowly above ground yet feeling under water. She was no stranger to being infamous, but eyes bore into her like hot coals for no reason. It blackened her lungs more than a cigarette ever could and made her sweat. She looked around like a lost puppy between the hustle and bustle of a holiday in a home; she never had one of those and the sights and smells shocked her almost to disgust. Everyone knew everyone else and it made her think if each of them had caulked shut the spot in Nicole's life that she left vacant for her. And when it seemed no creature there would give her the courtesy of affection, there was one. She made her way across the room with a confident purpose that defied the speed of light.
"I'm Yolanda Jimenez." She interfered with Lydia's personal space as only a latina woman could.
"I know who you are; Fallon told me she invited you to talk to Nicole and I think it's long overdue, and probably redundant, but...needed, and noble."
Lydia took the bite and let it slide down her throat like cold medicine, taking the slow process towards healing. "I take it Nicole doesn't know I'm here."
"And when she sees me, she'll want me gone."
"No she won't."
"She always does. She fights me like no other and I'm just not strong enough to keep up anymore."
Yolanda smiled, having heard many stories about who the woman before her was in her efforts to get closer to Nicole over time, to become a new mother, a different one...not a replacement. It was in talking to her, in peeling back the layers one-by-one, that she found love for her that transcended the mandatory relations of being an in-law; Nicole was hers to love too and she didn't take it lightly. "Lydia, if you say you're going to fail...then why try? Why come here?"
She didn't have an answer but loose thoughts that leaked from her lips. "I don't know...used to it I guess."
"No one runs a race with the goal being to lose, Lydia. Sure there is hope in the winner but, there is just as much in the one that finishes last...if not more. Despite how weak their legs felt, despite seeing person after person pass them by...something pushed them over that line like everyone else. And that, is why you're here...you've yet to finish."
Part 2 coming soon. On second thought, I realized sometimes it is good to make people wait (maybe not as long as I HAVE been making you wait). But it's the art of being a writer and a daily explorer of oneself.