“Ever After.”Chapter 3.

Two hours later, Julia had showered and was almost done getting ready. She slipped her feet into her white sandals and did a quick scan of the room, checking to see she wasn’t leaving anything behind. She gave her appearance one last check in the bathroom mirror before heading out.

For her meeting with the notary and the mystery buyer, Julia had gone for a casual look. Even though she wasn’t attending a business meeting per se, she thought it best to leave her old jeans and sneakers for another occasion. Instead, Julia opted for a pair of beige capris, a white linen short-sleeved shirt and her white sandals with small white and yellow rhinestones on the straps. Her light brown hair was left unbound falling in waves behind her back. Dangling from her ears were a pair of silver hoops, small, since she didn’t like those big earrings that looked like they would make your ears fall off.

The heat had gone up considerably, they were probably above the eighties, so she didn’t bother with too much make up. Just a touch of concealer to cover the dark circles under her honey-colored eyes and a dab of color on her cheeks and lips. Her lack of sleep these days had more to do with the sadness she still felt, at having dealt with all of her father’s money problems, and of course, the prospect of coming back.

Her skin, although not as pale as the rest of her family’s, from the many Mexican summers she spent getting a tan, no doubt looked kind of grayish, not white but not sexy tan like Sonia’s, either. Not that she had the time back in New York to get one. There just weren’t that many places where she could go to and lie under the sun. She could always take a vacation. With a sinking feeling, Julia realized she hadn’t taken one in……forever, at least not since she had left her home and moved to Brooklyn, to that one room apartment above a diner that had always made her apartment smell of greasy French fries and onion rings.

Things were different now. Julia no longer had to juggle two jobs to pay the rent and to pay for her creative writing courses. She lived in Manhattan in a small studio near the United Nations on Fifty- Second and first, and although she could probably afford a bigger and fancier place, Julia didn’t need it.

As she picked up her small overnight bag and closed the door behind her, Julia reflected on her life now. Her dream and later on her job at Susan’s magazine had been her only focus in life. It turned out to be the main drive that had gotten her through everyday when she would cry herself to sleep, missing her family but most importantly missing him, Damian. Before crushing her heart, Damian had always been the one to tell her to go for it, he had always encouraged her to pursue her dreams. She had had no one after the whole Damian debacle to confide in, until Susan came along.

But seeing Sonia again and the prospect of seeing the rest of the friends later, made her think she could take some time off next year, maybe rent one of the cottages around town and spend the summer here, including the founder’s party she would miss this year. It was time she stopped to live life a little instead of only being aware of it through her stories.

There were many people checking in, so it took her a while to check out and head out. Julia put her bag in the trunk of the car and cursed her stupidity of not leaving the car under a shade, as she burned herself when the metal buckle when the seatbelt grazed her arm.

Grateful when the car’s AC system kicked in and began cooling the car, she backed out from the spot where she’d parked right next to the town square and began driving in the direction of what was no longer hers.

There were things that she needed to take care off before saying a final goodbye to the house.

The car wound up the small road up the hill that overlooked the entire town of La Providencia. She turned right on the gravel path and stopped right outside the wooden gates of her old house.

There was a stone wall that surrounded the entire property, which was now covered in a myriad of reds, oranges, fuchsias and whites from the bougainvilleas Joaquin had planted and which had claimed the wall as their own. The wooden gate was held closed by a big old thick rusty chain with a rusted metal lock dangling from it. The lock was not on and the door stood ajar. Julia could glimpse the huge expanse of the gardens from where she had parked.

She remembered being smaller in age and size and finding it impossible to lift the chain in order to open the lock. Her father used to say that a lock as complicated as this was an even tighter security measure than the more modern system he had installed inside the property itself.

With a slam of the door, she was out. Julia leaned back on the door and closed her eyes. She wanted to hear the familiar noises of birds and insects claiming the sky and the land as their own. The branches from the bougainvilleas had formed a multicolored arch above the entrance, and the gravel floor beneath them was always covered in bright colorful flowers. Their thickness proved to be an added barrier from intruders.

Julia had always considered the house and its surroundings her own personal oasis. Just as the few creeks and the river around the town, the green of the Bermuda grass, combined with the bougainvilleas, azaleas, and the breathtaking grandness of the palm trees were a marked contrast with the brown and dry hills on the other side of the road. The picture was completed by the blue jewel inserted in the middle of the garden. Or at least that’s how the swimming pool had looked to her before. Like she’d seen for herself in the pictures the notary had sent her, neglect had taken its toll with it as well.

Julia felt a rush of emotions take her by surprise and a few tears made two small mud dots on the ground. In other circumstances, she would have just pushed open the gate and walked inside. But despite the fact that the last of the paperwork had still to be signed, Julia already felt an intruder in this house. So instead, she approached the left side of the wall and pulled the string attached to the big brass bell hanging on the other side. A few seconds later, she heard the faint crunch of gravel and the whining of the hinges sustaining the door, as a small man wearing a straw hat opened the gate.

Julia felt the punch of time hit her in the stomach, when her eyes took in Mr. Joaquin, or Joaquin as he always told her to call him. He and his wife Esperanza had worked with her father since he’d built this house, and had taken care of it, even after her father’s prolonged absence.

If possible, he had shrunk even more, and his face showed the traces of having spent a day too many under the heavy rays of the sun. Its effects were visible on the deep creases and white lines present around his eyes and on each side of his mouth. But the tenderness he had always radiated with his eyes was still the same, and right now those eyes were as wide as his heavy eyelids allowed, as he recognized the woman standing in front of him.

Joaquin let out a small gasp and Julia took a step towards him. He was in work clothes all full of dry dirt and holes on the knees, the legs teared at the seams. But Julia didn’t care, she went to him and went into the arms he opened to embrace her.

Dios Mio! My little Julia!”

“Joaquin!”

“You’re here! Oh, let me look at you.” He pushed her back and surveyed her, a smile on his face. “You were always such a pretty thing but now you are even more beautiful than ever.”

Julia closed her eyes as her nostrils filled with his familiar scent. Salty, earthy with the hint of perfume from the flowers he so religiously tended to. There was a citrusy smell to him, it made her wonder if the new owner was having new trees planted inside the property.

Julia took another step back and felt her heart melt with tenderness when she caught the few tears leaving a path down the man’s cheeks.

As if welcoming her own daughter, Joaquin’s smile lifted some of the burden from the past few weeks off her shoulders. He always knew how to make things look better whenever she truly needed it.

“And you’re as handsome as always. I bet Esperanza has to kick them away with a stick.”

“My eyes belong to my lovely Esperanza. If she ever caught me staring at another woman, she would personally poke them out of their sockets and put them somewhere dark.”

That had Julia shaking with laughter because she had been at the receiving end of the housekeeper’s rage and remembered it being an episode far from pleasant.

As her stare took in the property in front of her, Julia noticed several men hard at work. Some were busy, kneeling down besides some ditches on the ground, with gleaming copper pipes glinting off from the daylight sun. The sound of metal clinking against metal echoed throughout the garden. Her finger pointed at the men beside the ditches and she asked. “What are they doing?”

“Replacing the water pipes. Your father used galvanized steel but the water here is pretty hard and they corroded. They were all full of holes. The new owner is replacing them with copper pipes. They are almost done. There are some men in the back,” he took off his hat and inclined his head towards the back garden she had yet to see, “they are about done with placing the missing chips of mosaic from the pool’s floor. The sun is strong they’ll dry today and they will fill the pool tomorrow.”

Julia was relieved to see Joaquin and the new owner were seeing eye to eye on the upkeep of the place. Which made her ask next. “So I take it you have already talked to the owner?”

“Yes. I have.” He wrought the brim of his hat between his bony hands. “Why do you ask?”

“Oh, just curious if you knew who he is. Do you?”

Joaquin put on his hat and shrugged. “He mentioned his name but my mind is not what it used to be. Now, come, come,” he took Julia’s hand and pulled her towards the house’s entrance. “If Esperanza hears you’ve been here for more than five minutes without saying hello to her, she will skin me alive. Come.”

Julia let him lead her down the gravel path that went straight to the house’s main entrance. A little bit to the right next to the outside wall, four brick columns holding a red-tiled roof constituted the garage. The path was a black strip cutting through the deep green Bermuda grass carpet that went around the house and covered the rest of the land.

Finally, she allowed her gaze to land on the main house. Surprised at how much the new owner had already done, Julia was glad the facade of the house gleamed white as opposed to the washed out color she’d seen from the pictures. She still thought it was nothing short of amazing that the buyer had offered twice its market value given its deteriorating conditions.

The roof had the same red tiles from the rest of the town. There were four balconies with black railings, two on the front and the other two on the back overlooking both the garden and the town below. Julia had loved to sit out with her notebook and just write down whatever had been on her mind at the time while staring down at the town. She had had a perfect view of the town, the volcano, Whisper Mountain, plus all of the other hills and mountains surrounding the town. At night, the bright moon would glow down on her, reflecting undulating lines on the pool’s surface while the night filled with the fragrance of jasmine intertwined the bougainvilleas as they climbed up the trellis framing both corners of the house.

Joaquin stepped up ahead of her to hold the main door open. As she went inside, her sticky skin welcomed the cool air from the AC blowing above. Time seemed to have stood still inside. The same furniture stood in anticipation of their imminent departure.

“Isn’t the new owner moving in this week?”. She turned her head to look at Joaquin who was now waving his hat back and forth in front of his face.

“He requested that all the furniture from here remain intact. The only new furniture will be for the four bedrooms as well as new sinks for all the bathrooms. Yesterday, new beds, closet doors, dressers and night stands came from Tlaquepaque, from a store that specializes in building wooden furniture out of mesquite.”

That tree was abundant in this region, as well as in some northern states of Mexico and the south of California. Julia recalled they had a mesquite tree somewhere inside the property.

Joaquin began to walk towards the kitchen, while he said. “Apart from some new appliances for the kitchen which Esperanza chose herself, everything will remain the same. He even offered to change the entire furniture from our own house. Seeing as they were more than ten years old, Esperanza jumped at the offer so that, too, will be arriving in the next few days.”

“Wow.” Was all Julia could say. She was beginning to feel immensely grateful towards the new owner. Without a doubt, he was keeping his promise that the caretaker and his wife would be taken care of.

Her gaze resumed her inquiry. The kitchen was located on her left side. On the opposite side there was a smaller room her father had used as an office. It had had a mahogany desk with a leather swivel chair and all the basic necessities such as a phone and a fax line. Nowadays, Julia assumed the new owner would add a wireless Internet connection.

The living room and dining room were right in front of the entrance door. The living room – on the right side- had a brand new plasma T.V screwed to the wall, the only addition to the decoration of the room. Ten years ago there hadn’t been such a thing as a plasma T.V. The room was completed by a couple of white couches and a small bamboo table with glass on top in between.

The dinning room was on the left side of the space. It consisted of a gorgeous set, a wooden table and twelve chairs all made from the wood recovered from abandoned train tracks. Julia remembered vaguely that it had cost a fortune plus it had required fifteen men to carry in the table alone. There was also an adjoining door coming from the kitchen. Finally, instead of a wall, there was a huge glass window with sliding doors that took you out to the terrace and then to the back garden, where she could glimpse the men going around working busily under the grueling sun.

The clatter of dishes and the smell of homemade bread distracted Julia’s assessment. Joaquin motioned her with his hand to follow him to where his wife was busy cooking, probably anticipating the arrival of their new boss.

They entered the kitchen, as Esperanza bent down to take out the bread she had obviously been baking, from inside the oven. Still bent down, Esperanza said as soon as she heard their footsteps. “Joaquin, did you bring me those lemons I asked you for? I need them to make the guacamole for lunch. I was thinking of making….” but she stopped abruptly as her eyes registered Julia holding the housekeeper’s husband’s arm.

“I thought I’d bring you something sweeter.”

Cleaning her hands with a cloth hanging from her waistband, Esperanza let out a cry of joy and spread her arms wide to hold Julia in a tight embrace.

“My Julia, mi niña.

“Hello, Esperanza.” She’d missed being called my girl. “Oh I’ve missed you so much, both of you.” A torrent of tears escaped from her eyes and both women held each other for a while before Esperanza stepped back and examined the person that she hadn’t seen in ten years. Even now, she couldn’t help but think of her as her little girl.

“Well, my, my, look at her Joaquin, if it’s possible she looks more ravishing than ever. But you’re all bones and no meat. Don’t they eat in……?”

“New York.”

Esperanza nodded. Julia continued. “Oh, they do.”

“But you don’t?”

“I do eat.”

Esperanza gave her a reproving look that expressed she didn’t believe her.

“I just like to exercise a lot.” Julia shrugged her shoulders, remembering the times when she had had to explain to Esperanza why she hadn’t finished everything on her plate. “And besides, you walk and walk in New York all the time. Believe me, I have seen women way skinnier than myself.”

Not too convinced, the older woman only shook her head in disapproval but gave her a quick kiss on the cheek, before going back to taking the bread out from the oven, while talking to her husband about the final arrangements before their brand-new boss arrived later in the afternoon.

Esperanza was not the kind of woman you’d think could be interested in someone like Joaquin. While he was small and skinny, she was tall and plump. She wasn’t fat but her big-boned structure made her look sturdy and ready to break her poor husband’s bones with one big squeeze. Her hair was night black and gray, which looked part of her natural look instead of the normal signs of aging. At that moment, her hair was a multicolored braid of black and gray that ended just above her waistline. She was as tanned as her husband and was the best cook Julia had ever known. She hoped that whoever was moving into this house, would come to love her and appreciate her as Julia had.

“If it’s okay with you,” she interrupted their conversation, “I’ll just wander around outside before heading back down. I feel like I need to say a proper farewell to this place.”

“Of course, and you can come back whenever you want. If the owner has a problem with that then I’ll give him a piece of my mind. This will always be your home, Julia. And we will always greet you with open arms, don’t you forget that.” Esperanza smiled, as she transferred the warm breath into a basket she had set next to the stove.

“Thanks, I’ll try to come by later before I go.”

In a sign of understanding, the cook hugged her one more time before going back to the meal she was cooking for their new boss. With that, Julia exited through the living room, slid one of the doors open and went outside.

The blowing wind was a welcome refresher to the hot day. It had always been. While the town seemed to boil under the sun, the wind always blowed more freely up here on the hill where the house was built.

Julia walked the stone-path that led to the swimming pool. Without a definite shape – it looked like a circle being pulled from different sides – the pool stood right in the middle of the backyard. She looked up and sighed at the slow, soothing rhythm of the palm trees being moved by the breeze. Before, when she used to come here, she would sit at one of the sun-beds that used to be around the pool, under the big ficus tree, and allow the rustle of the dark green leaves to lull her into a peaceful sleep.

Like Joaquin had mentioned, men’s heads were visible from inside the pool with a pile of bright and light blue chips on the edge, which they were probably using to replace the missing pieces inside. Already, the dried grass she had seen from the pictures surrounding the pool had been restored, some horizontal patches lying on one corner, waiting to be planted as well. The entire house was bustling with activity which gave her a sense of ease, at seeing the new owner was as worried at bringing this house back to its prime as she was.

At one side of the hole in front of her, stood a small brick roofed terrace which housed a plastic table, several plastic chairs and a small fridge. In the summers, she used to hang out with her friends there whenever they weren’t at the river. Her friends were always welcome here, though her parents never really interacted with them.

Julia smiled at the memories from the countless times she and her friends had sat under that shade, or inside the pool on the circular stone stools, talking, eating, drinking, listening to music and to each other’s lives from the months they had been apart.

If you were inside the pool and swam to the deep-end, you were able to enjoy a panoramic view of the town below, in the foreground. The background view was formed by the tall mountains that encircled the town and made it seem even more secluded and isolated from the rest of the world.

She circled the fence that went around the pool and found what she could say was her favorite spot in all the property, or had been. A series of white wrought-iron benches located near the edge of the garden. Julia chose the one that was the less invaded by dry weeds and sat. She welcomed the soft breeze as it played with her hair, while she pushed her knees up under her chin and wrapped her arms tightly around her legs.

From here she could see the church, the main square invaded by tiny moving dots from the people who vanished from sight under the cover of the palm and ficus trees, going from one side to the other, and cars disappearing as they drove down the street. She could also hear a woman, most likely selling something, over a megaphone on top of a car that was visible from where Julia sat. It sounded to Julia the woman was selling fresh shrimp, or at least that’s what her rusty Spanish told her.

Since the town was small, most announcements, either regarding the church, the death of someone or someone who wanted to sell something, food, fresh vegetables, or hand labor, were made through that car with the megaphone. Because of the location of the house, the sound always carried all the way up to here so Esperanza had always known at the same time as the rest of the town, when there were fresh tomatoes or when someone in town was having a party. To Julia it had been  like their own personal gossip channel, especially when Esperanza would sit with her and translate the announcements and throw in some tidbits of gossip about the person in question.

To her left, away from the houses and the town, was the cemetery. Its cluster of stones, a reminder that both living and death were increasing their numbers in this town.

Julia was not sure how long she did nothing but sit and listen to nothing in particular, when Joaquin came from behind her and took the space next to her on the bench.

“You know, one of the fondest memories I have, is of you always sitting here all by yourself. Sometimes you’d be with your small notebook writing whatever stories were forming inside your mind or crying because you had a fight with your parents. I also remember seeing the first traces of young love reflected in your eyes. And now, I see sadness, defeat and regret in them.”

Julia put her legs down and rested her head on the old man’s shoulder. She sighed before saying. “I was just thinking if my father would consider this another disappointment from my part. It seems that’s all I did in his eyes. I……..I fell in love with a man who didn’t measure up to his standards and now I’m unable to keep this piece of family pride.”

“Do you blame yourself for your dad’s money problems?”

Julia shrugged her shoulders, clearly saying she did. Even if she wasn’t responsible. Maybe if she’d followed in her father’s footsteps as a lawyer, she might’ve found another way.

No, she shook that thought away. She had never come to regret her decision to pursue her dream of becoming a writer, she wasn’t going to now. She was doing what made her whole, despite the hurt that was always burning a hole inside her heart.

By deciding to become a writer she had alienated herself from her family and she knew there had been nothing she could’ve done. However, she wished there had been a way to have found a compromise between those two worlds: her family and her dreams.

“Julia, this is no one’s fault. These things happen. You must remember that material things come and go, but true feelings such as love, remain. No one doubts that if love were enough to keep this house, then you wouldn’t have to sell it to another person.”

“Somewhere in my mind I know that, but I guess this town has let loose many emotions that I thought I had buried. Some I welcome like seeing you, Esperanza and Sonia again, but others I rather not have them back. It took me a while to purge them out of my system.”

“You’ve done good Julia. If only, you’re father would be relieved you are doing everything you can to keep your mother from suffering or your sister from leaving school.”

“Yeah, I guess he would be happy about that.”

As he had all those times when he had kept her company in this very bench, Joaquin gave her shoulders a friendly pat, then he took her hand and kissed her knuckles.

One of the work men called the gardener’s name. Joaquin stoop up and held his hand to Julia bringing her up to her feet.

“I need to get back. It’s nice to have the house filled with life again. You are responsible for it, Julia. You should feel proud. Things happen for a reason. Don’t worry about that reason. It’s not healthy.”

Before Joaquin joined the men by the pool, she touched his elbow and said. “I’m sorry things got so screwed up in the end. I know my father owed you money, too. And you could’ve left this place. But you stayed and you have no idea how much that means to me. This place survived because of you and Esperanza. And for that I’ll be forever grateful.”

“We love it here. Yes, times were hard but we managed. We knew you would make it all right again. We tried to tend to this place as much as we could but well, we ain’t what we used to. But now we’ll get to see this place come back to life again.”

He gave her a gap-toothed smile and kissed her on the forehead.

“I truly am sorry I stayed away for so long. I shouldn’t have……it wasn’t your fault.” Julia said, unwilling to give words and name to what had kept her away from this house.

“But you’re back now.”

Before Julia could correct him, Joaquin turned around and went to join the work men who had interrupted them.

Julia went back inside. Esperanza wanted her to stay for lunch but she told her she had promised she would get together with the gang at Sonia’s restaurant. The cook made her promise again to stop by before she drove back to Guadalajara. Her flight back to New York left early the next morning and she had booked a room at the airport’s hotel. The old woman like Sonia, was disappointed Julia wouldn’t be staying for the town’s festivities in three weeks.

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