Esperanza had been right. It had been a lovely night. The air had smelled of citrus and of cinnamon as Esperanza had made arroz con leche for dessert. The conversation around her, as Joaquin recounted his day at work and Esperanza told her some of the town’s gossip, had her putting the nasty letter in the back of her mind.
Today was the Tuesday of her second week here. Since Saturday, Julia had been busying herself with putting together her piece about La Providencia, plus revising the last of the notes Zack sent to her regarding her latest manuscript. During the entire time, she avoided Damian, though she didn’t have to put a lot of effort into it. Apparently, the man was more of a workaholic than she was, because after her humiliating tequila moment, she’d barely seen him at the house. At times, it felt like it was only her with Esperanza and Joaquin living in the house.
Julia was still jittery about Saturday’s running episode, so she made up excuses about the altitude and the heat whenever Esperanza inquired why she hadn’t gone out running again.
As she walked across the town square heading to one of the fruit stands a few stores away from Magdalena’s coffee place, Julia took in the morning rituals of the town. The older women heading with their market bags to buy fruit or vegetables, some already on their way back with milk, eggs, fresh cheese wrapped in metallic foil, all from the stores around the square.
A group of ten town workers was preparing the town for the upcoming festivities, trimming the ficus all around the square and repainting the railings surrounding the upper half of the kiosk.
Esperanza had asked her to accompany her to town to run errands. After a few days of self-imposed confinement, Julia had been grateful for the excuse to leave the house. She hadn’t even chanced another visit to the pool after the kiss with Damian.
The cook had suggested she wander around while she ran errands. She thought of looking for Sonia or Magdalena sprung to her mind, but a group of people coming out from the town’s church caught her attention.
The church was located on one corner of the main square, with its two white bell towers and blue and white dome on the back, with a clock that hadn’t worked since Julia could remember, at the top above the main entrance. The church in itself was simple, with not too much fuss about ornamentation on the outside. It had recently been restored because of an earthquake that had made the side walls crack as well as the blue and white tiled floors inside. Or at least that’s what Esperanza had said the other night as she’d given her a detailed account of what had happened during the ten years Julia had been away.
There were many people, old and young, filing out behind the priest. They stood on the corner of the square for a moment, before a black car pulled on the side street and they all began following it. Julia was intrigued because she noticed the amount of people gathered increase, some still coming out from inside the church, others walking out from the stores and joining the group.
She wasn’t sure if it was just writer’s curiosity that had her moving her legs until she joined the last followers and meshed in with them, or if it was something else. There was an air of solemnity to the whole procession, sometimes broken by the squeals of kids, the laughter of men and women or by people talking about anything except the funeral. Only a few were dressed in black, others wore only black headscarves. Elderly women were being guided by their sons, daughters or grandchildren as they balanced them on the uneven pebbled road.
The cemetery was located in the outer limits of town. They passed a few houses where old men sat outside, staring at them, fanning the passing flies with one tanned hand, while they nodded their heads at those who moved forward next to Julia.
The priest walked next to the family and one of his arms held a sobbing woman close as they followed the black Lincoln van. It took a few seconds for Julia to recognize the street they were on. It was where Damian’s house used to be, or still was. His mother still lived here, but as she chanced a quick peek at the house at the end of the street, she noticed its front door was locked. Damian’s mom must probably be out, Julia concluded. She was grateful she would avoid that awkward encounter.
Julia had never gone to the cemetery, not even with Sonia and the rest. It was never a place where they could hang out, and Sonia was always adamant they respected the dead.
As they continued to make their way over the unpaved dirt road, she finally saw the rusted white gates of the cemetery with a little chapel to one side. The grieving family stepped inside with the priest and soon the men who’d been driving the black car, got down and carried the casket inside the small chapel. Not sure how long that would take, Julia followed the rest of the town’s people as they entered the cemetery through a side gate and as casually as if they were sitting on a park’s benches, they lowered down to rest on top of the cement tombstones scattered all around.
Julia followed suit and picked one of the tombstones with no fresh flowers and squinted her eyes as she lifted her face up to the sky, finding the red roof and white structure of the house up in the hill, in the horizon. Even from this distance, its beauty and grandeur were breathtaking. Despite its height, the house was much as part of the town as any of the other smaller houses down here. Something she thought she could be as well, a part of this town. Not anymore.
Lowering her gaze, Julia continued to inspect her surroundings. Some of the graves had fresh flowers, others had been there so long the name of the dead person was no longer visible on the tombstone. All in all, it was nothing different from any other cemetery she’d visited. Except for the vibe around her. It was subdued but light, almost amicable, if such word could be related to a funeral. It was as if the sadness from the family didn’t overlap the sense of peace around her.
A man walked by next to her carrying a bucket with ice, plastic cups and two family-size bottles of Coca-Cola and Sprite, tucked beneath one arm, plus a bottle of rum and another of tequila. Julia was surprised to see some attendants getting up and taking a cup and either just pouring some soda or spiking it up with either alcohol offered by the man. Now that was something she had never witnessed before. Then again, during her travels she’d come with some pretty unusual circumstances when it came to cultures and their relationship with death.
Still, Julia declined when one of the town locals offered her a drink.
Fifteen minutes later, a group of men carried the casket out from the chapel. The priest with the family, followed the men to the eastern part of the cemetery, where a man with a shovel and some fresh cement and bricks in a pile next to him, stood waiting. There was a sort of chamber where the casket would be put and Julia assumed the man with the shovel would seal it with the bricks and cement.
They all gathered around the spot, though Julia was careful to stay in the back, not entirely comfortable that she was in a way, crashing a funeral. Maybe these people had known the deceased but Julia hadn’t, she didn’t even know if it was a man or a woman who was being buried today.
After the priest said a few more words, a woman next to her began to sing in Spanish with a voice so filled with sorrow, Julia felt the tears gather in her eyes, as everyone around her joined in, while the casket was being put inside the hole and the man began to close it off.
Some threw flowers they pulled from the many floral arrangements. Others, probably the immediate family, couldn’t contain their sobs as they meshed with the melancholic voices paying one last tribute on this earth, to another one who had departed the land of the living.
It was then that Julia finally understood why she’d come. Part had been her curiosity but a stronger part had been her own father. By the time Danny had called her to tell her the awful news, her father’s funeral had already taken place. Julia had no idea if many or only a few people had attended. Had he had big colorful floral arrangements? Had anyone sung goodbye to him as they were lowering the casket? Had her mother spoken a few words about her father’s life?
The only thing Julia had done had been to go to his grave and just stand there, still unable to grasp the meaning of it all. Then, the whole situation about the debts and house arose and Julia realized she hadn’t grieved properly, even if it was for a man she hadn’t seen or spoken to in eight years.
She waited until the family and friends who’d come had left the cemetery. No one noticed her and the ones who did, didn’t bother to question her being there. When Julia was finally alone, the wind suddenly picked up force and blowed her hair into her face. She moved to stand in front of the freshly covered hole, while the floral arrangements flapped as the breeze passed through them. Julia took a rose from one of them and held it close to her heart.
When she read the name Luis Sanchez, she couldn’t recall ever having met the man. But still, she wasn’t here for him, she was about to say goodbye to someone else.
“I always thought we would have more time. To forgive and start over. I know it hurt you how things ended with us because it killed me, still does.” Julia rubbed her runny nose and felt the warm tears trickling down her face.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t able to save the house. Don’t worry though, mom is okay and Danny’s school is taken care of. I just wish you had told them or anyone you were having problems.”
Suddenly, a wave of anger filled her and she shook her head, her lips quivering from crying until she was able to say. “Damn it, dad. Why? Why did you shut me out when I needed you the most? When you needed me the most? God, I thought I would end up hating you but I never could, I loved you, always will. It breaks my heart,” her voice broke but she swallowed the sour taste of grief and continued, “it breaks my heart that you’re gone.”
She let her shoulders shake with the new wave of tears that rushed out from the corners of her eyes.
A hand on her shoulder had her taking a deep breath and whirling around, only to come face to face with a woman she thought she wouldn’t have to see while she was still in La Providencia.
Maria Solis looked just as she remembered her. Her long black hair, the color of Damian’s, less untamed, gleamed with the rays from the sun. Maria’s eyes had always been less intense but as expressive and kind as her son’s. Julia had never known what Damian’s father had looked like, but something told her he had inherited most of the good stuff in personality and looks from the woman studying her, intently.
Julia sniffed and dried her face with the palms of her hands. “I didn’t realize I wasn’t alone.”
“I went to visit my parents after everyone left and saw you standing here. It certainly has been a long time since I last saw you.”
How could Julia forget? The woman had been nothing if kind to her, listening to her, inviting her to her home, and sometimes running interference with her father and mother whenever they came looking for her in town or when Julia had to sneak out to meet with Damian. Maria, too, had enjoyed her stories and had supported her dream of becoming a writer. But at times, Julia had wondered if Maria thought Julia was way too much trouble for her son. Maybe she’d been happy Damian had married someone else in the end.
“It has been a long time.” There was a hint of reproach in Maria’s voice, maybe confirming her suspicions that in the end she had viewed Julia as trouble.
“Did you know Mr. Sanchez?” Damian’s mother waved at the grave in front of them.
“Oh no, I………was saying goodbye to someone else.”
Understanding dawned on her face and Maria said. “Oh, Dios Mio. My God. I am sorry. Your father. He passed away.”
“Yes, he did.”
“And were you saying goodbye to him?”
Julia only shook her head in agreement. The tears wanted to continue to spill out since she wasn’t nearly done crying. But she took a deep breath and exhaled shakily before adding. “I didn’t get a chance to.”
Something changed in the other woman’s face and before Julia knew it, Maria was embracing her, stroking her head. Julia lost her control and broke down in her arms.
“I didn’t get to say goodbye.” She sobbed. All the while Maria tried to soothe her.
“It’s okay, it’s okay.”
“God, I didn’t even know he was sick. I always thought we had time.” And just like a dam collapsing, Julia blurted out the words describing the truth about her relationship with her father to Damian’s mother.
“I thought we would be able to forgive our mistakes and just move on. I hadn’t spoken to him since he kicked me out, but I always harbored the hope that one day he would understand and everything would be like before. I didn’t even get to go to his funeral.”
She clung to Maria as Danny had clung to her when she’d seen her after her father’s funeral. Her little sister had been so scared and so devastated, her relationship with their parents not as rocky as Julia’s. But Julia hadn’t cried then, too in shock to muster any kind of reaction.
“Shshsh, it’s okay, it’s okay.” Julia cried harder, while Maria’s arms offered her the comfort she hadn’t known she needed.
It took Julia several more sobs and tears before she was able to pull away from Maria and stare, embarrassed, at her. Only that all that crying had been what she’d needed. Julia felt lighter, like whatever emotions she hadn’t been able to describe, had flown out of her system, leaving her a bit hollow but less burdened and ready to move on.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to……you know, dump all this on you.”
“Don’t be. I’m sorry to hear things weren’t so good between you two.”
Suddenly, chagrined she’d let her guard down and revealed such personal details to a woman who had probably been happy her son had chosen someone else, Julia cleared her soar throat and said. “I should get going. Esperanza must be wondering where I wandered to. I……” Julia shook her head and only said. “Thank you.”
She moved past Damian’s mom and just before reaching the cemetery’s side entrance, she hesitated and turned around, her brown eyes unwavering as she said to Maria. “I’m glad it was Damian who bought the house. He’ll take good care of it. You should be proud of your son. He’s done good.”
For a woman who had presumably chosen her social status and money over her son, Maria realized Julia sounded like the young girl she’d sworn had cared for her son. If it wasn’t for the obvious physical changes from the past ten years, she could swear she was staring at the same girl.
Later, when Maria reached the house where she and Damian had lived since he’d been born, she was still replaying the scene at the cemetery with Julia. At first, she had wanted nothing more than to ask her why she had broken her son’s heart. Why had she decided what they had, hadn’t been worth it.
From the letter Julia sent to her son ten years ago, Maria’s mind had certainly been expecting a woman who fit that cold, aloof and cruel way in which she had broken up with Damian. Only that in her place, Maria was astounded to have found a woman so lost, vulnerable, and one who was definitely still struggling with whatever demons were after her. That was why she hadn’t hesitated in offering Julia some comfort, when she confessed how the situation had been with her father.
Maria took out her keys from her purse but noticed the door was already unlocked. Smiling like she’d been doing lately because her son was back, Maria pushed the door open and scanned the living room for Damian. She heard sounds coming from the kitchen and went over to greet her son.
As she saw him next to the stove making some steak fajitas, Maria couldn’t help but wonder if they had misjudged Julia. If the woman had been estranged from her father for eight years, only two years after Damian had received the letter, then something wasn’t adding up.
If she had finally caved to her father’s wishes of dumping Damian, why had they fought? And it had to have been something serious because she couldn’t conceive a parent kicking his own daughter out from the house, or from the family for that matter. Because if Julia hadn’t had any contact with her father, then she mustn’t had any with her mother and sister as well.
Damian looked over his shoulder and grinned when he saw her. He went over her and bent down to kiss her forehead since he had long since surpassed her in height.
“I hope you don’t mind. I made myself at home while you were out.”
“This is your home my son. That smells delicious.”
“Just thinking ahead. I figured that wherever you were at, you wouldn’t want to have to deal with food. Where were you?”
“At Mr. Sanchez’s funeral. Remember he taught you in high school?”
Damian frowned his brows in concentration and nodded. “Oh yeah, wasn’t he like a hundred?”
“Damian.” Maria slapped his wrist. Despite herself, she let out a small chuckle. “He wasn’t that old, he just looked like a hundred since he was fifty.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
Maria grabbed a glass from the sink and then went over to the fridge and began rummaging for the pitcher of iced tea she’d made earlier that morning. From her bent down position she said. “I ran into Julia at the cemetery.”
Maria brought the glass and pitcher to the table. After Damian got up and took the beer he’d been having before his mother came home, he sat facing her, his face an unreadable mask. Damian might never admit it, but her mother suspected he had never really gotten over Julia. Which was why she had to tread carefully with that she was about to tell him.
“Aren’t you going to ask what she was doing there?”
Damian gave her a guarded stare and simply shrugged his shoulders as if humoring her. “Okay. What was she doing there?”
“Saying goodbye to her father.”
Damian frowned, clearly confused by the answer.
“Damian, how much do you know about Julia’s life after, you know…..”
“After she decided she had been wasting her time with someone not worth losing what she had for?”
“Yes.” It angered Maria that that family, especially Benjamin Andersson, had gotten away with insulting her son.
“No, and I seriously do not care. And I am surprised you care. Why?”
She pressed her lips into a thin line before replying. “She said some things that don’t add up. Did you know she and her father hadn’t spoken in over eight years? Actually, he kicked her out. She said she didn’t even get to go to his funeral.”
The brief flicker of surprise was soon covered by a look she hated seeing on her own son. Of anger and hurt, the same one she’d seen on him when he’d announced Julia had ended things between them.
“So? She probably wore the wrong dress, or lost a case, who knows? Why do you care? And if he kicked her out of the house, so what?”
“Damian, don’t be so harsh.”
“Harsh? I’m sorry, but weren’t you the one who said the farther away I was from that woman’s memory, the better? As I recall, you didn’t like her very much until recently, apparently.”
“I reacted like any mother would when her son is hurt. I just feel like….”
“Like what?” Damian saw his mother get up and pace the kitchen. His eyes followed her until she stopped and she turned around.
“Like there’s something wrong about all this. She said she was glad you bought the house, that you would be good for it. And she sounded sincere.”
Damian was silent for a while, nursing the bottle of beer in his hands. The sound of sizzling meat on the stove whispered around them. After what seemed like an eternity, he stood up and went over by the stove, his mother waiting for a reaction.
“Damian.” She urged.
“Funny she said that to you, because when she discovered it was me who’d bought the house a few days ago she wasn’t as thrilled. Though she was very sincere when she accused me of being messed up in something illegal. Mamá, just let it go. Whatever she said, I don’t care and you shouldn’t either.”
“But aren’t you curious what happened to her after all this time?”
“No. All I am interested in is in that house. I now own the house Benjamin Andersson never let me set foot in. Personally, I hope he is enjoying the irony that it was my money that put his family out of the mess he’d made. That is payback enough, plus watching Julia’s disbelief when she realized who had saved her ass.”
“Damian.” Maria’s tone was the same one she’d used with her son when he’d gotten in trouble or answered back in a rude manner. Despite his thirty-one years, the warning in her voice had him tensing up and sulking. Like he’d done when he’d just been a kid and Maria hadn’t given him permission to go outside and play with his school friends, before finishing his homework.
Her hand automatically went to cup his face and turn it to her.
“All I’m saying is I’m starting to think there’s more to that letter than we know. Maybe if you two sat down and talked, then you could know if she meant what she wrote to you or if there was something else.”
She gave him a peck on the cheek before she began setting the table. For the rest of their time together, Maria was not able to chase away from her mind, the sight of Julia’s teared up face and of the longing she tried to hide when saying what she said about Damian and the house.