For all of today, I wanted nothing more than kumquats. I couldn’t stop thinking of them. Pulp so sour it’ll make your jaw ache and
skin sweeter than straight sugar. Better than candy, huh, dad used to say with his pretty scraggle-tooth smile. Or maybe I wanted nothing more than to go back to Los Angeles, to go back to being ten. Before San Francisco. Before Alden. Before a life of bruises on the bottom of my feet from stepping on stray Lego pieces, before not being able to wipe my own ass because of my gigantic belly, before scrubbing already-clean dishes over and over, scared that otherwise I’d go insane from Nadine’s singing and Janice’s screaming.
But I couldn’t bring myself to ask Alden. I’d even rehearsed before he came home at six from the construction site: Babe, I don’t
know why but I can’t stop thinking about—promise you won’t laugh at me—kumquats. He’d say, What in god’s name are kumquats Rhea? Then I’d say, They’re like mini oranges. But flipped inside out. The size of your thumb. The peel’s edible. Actually, it’s the best part. And he’d say with a soft kiss, You’re too funny Rhea. Thirty minutes and I’ll be back with your kumquats.
But he’d looked too tired. His hair flat across his broad forehead from wearing his hard hat all day in the August sun, his steel-
toed Doc Martens I cleaned just last week caked with dirt. So instead, I gave him his dinner of rosemary salmon and mashed potatoes, asked about his day, smiled as he kissed my now enormous belly, hugged Nadine and Janice good night, and laid down in bed. But the entire time, I could only think of the bright orange orbs I used to pick off the tree outside of Rebecca’s second-floor room window as a little girl.
So, before Alden’s breathing steadied to a slow rhythm, I whispered in the dark, “Alden, I can’t go to sleep because I can’t stop
thinking of kumquats.”
“Rhea, it’s midnight.”
“Do you even know what kumquats are?” I felt my eyes water.
“I promise I’ll bring them tomorrow when I get back from work, okay? Let’s go to sleep.”
“No, you don’t understand. I’ve been thinking of them all day and I really want them right now. It’s like when I really wanted
strawberry shortcake when I was pregnant with Nadine. Remember? Seven years ago. When we just moved to Seattle and slept on the floor because our bed hadn’t gotten here yet. You ran out in the middle of the night and came back an hour later with the best shortcake I’ve ever had.” I heard him sigh and felt my throat close up. A car drove down our street, coloring Alden’s face red for a second. “Never mind. Sorry, I wasn’t thinking.”
Alden was sitting up now. He flicked on the bedside lamp. “Rhea, are you okay?”
No, I wasn’t okay. I was bored. I’ve never been more afraid. I’d never thought it possible for me to be forty-four. The thought of
staying home for at least ten more years made me feel like I was drowning in a rip tide. My skin was beginning to sag. I couldn’t look my own husband straight in the eyes anymore because I was embarrassed of my bloated, discolored hands and face. I had everything I’d ever wanted but wanted nothing more than to run away.
Rebecca climbs on her desk that’s flush against her baroque windows I love so much, pushes them open with a small grunt, and
reaches. She reaches so far I’m already thinking of what to tell her parents when they find her screaming in their backyard with both legs broken. I tried to stop her! She only fell from the second floor and even hit the tree on her way down, so she should be okay!
It feels so good to hold on to Rebecca’s thin ankles. I see a sliver of her back. She’s tan and lanky with hair lighter than what I
know Mexican hair should look like. It’s the Los Angeles sun that’s done that. I know because Mom’s hair, now not a third as thick as it used to be before she and Dad started fighting over nothing at all every day, is darker than dark. Just when I feel that I can’t hold onto Rebecca any longer, she looks back at me and smiles. Her small, sunburnt nose creases and I smile back.
We shovel handfuls of kumquats into our mouths in her closet until it gets too hot and we can’t breathe. She’s scared we’ll get
scolded by her pastor dad. I’m scared I’ll be sent back to the cold of my home. So, we stay as quiet as we can. Rebecca is missing two of her bottom teeth so she can’t bite into them. She mashes them whole with her molars instead and swallows in between giggles. With sticky hands and hair plastered to the sides of our faces with sweat, we talk of how much easier picking kumquats out of her window will be when we grow bigger. Rebecca goes, maybe I’ll even let you be grabber, and I can be holder. I feel something so hot and heavy in my throat I check if there's a hole. A sadness I don’t understand yet. I only understand that I want to stay in this dark closet, giggly and sweaty, until the end of time.
The sun is in my eyes, my lips are so bloated it feels like I won’t be able to speak another intelligible word ever again. My tank top
rode up to my chin while I slept. I don’t know when I fell asleep. Looking down, my breasts look like two monstrous, uneven tumors. My feet are invisible behind my stomach, now ruined by purple stretch marks. Having two kids and one more on the way will do that to you. My belly button is pushed out so far, I’m convinced it’ll dry out and fall off. Alden is gone, his orange hard hat nowhere to be seen. Struggling to sit up, I laugh then cry.
“Woah, Rhea. You’re huge!” Jocelyn gets thinner and thinner every time I see her. I can see her pale scalp now. She still has all
twelve of the piercings I gave her decades ago. I keep waiting for her to take them out, but she never does.
“I know, but you get used to it after two rounds” I say. I try to laugh, but it’s hard to laugh with Jocelyn now. She opens her fanny
pack and takes out her chapstick. It’s cherry flavored. The smell is cheap and sweet, and I feel like throwing up.
“You hear about Embarcadero Freeway? That ugly highway we used to laugh at. Near where Bennie used to work.” Jocelyn takes
a sip of her Agwa Bomb. It’s two-thirty in the afternoon. “Yeah, I know you remember.” She smiles and I see the coffee stains in her teeth. “It’s gone now! Can you believe it? Replaced with a fancy mall and ethnic food trucks.” She opens her eyes wide when saying ethnic. Looks seventeen again.
“Huh. I didn’t know that. When?” I don’t care, and Jocelyn knows.
“When? I don’t remember exactly, but it was a while after you left.” I know exactly what she’s going to say next, and I’m right:
“After you left me.”
I want to say don’t feel sorry for yourself but instead motion the waiter over. He’s tall and lean, with a baby face. I see Jocelyn
eyeing the boy, and I feel the tips of my ears heat up. I look down at the maternity dress I’m wearing. The sneakers meant for diabetics because my feet are too swollen to fit into anything else. I look at Jocelyn. Her uneven haircut and wrists as thin as reed. She looks better than the last time I saw her. Already four years ago.
Jocelyn scans the boy from head to toe while she knows he’s looking, and lowers her eyelids halfway, all sultry-like. My mouth
“Ma’am do you need anything?” The boy knows what Jocelyn is doing.
“The check please,” Jocelyn says. They look at each other in silence for two seconds too long before the boy smirks and whirls
around. I think, this boy, why is he playing with her like that? With this woman that wishes she were young again, with this woman who does not know where to go?
Jocelyn insists she pays every time, even if she and I both know she shouldn’t. It keeps us equal, she says.
“I dreamt of you recently, you know,” I say. I had wanted to go to my hotel right after we left the restaurant, but Jocelyn had
insisted we take a walk in the city. To see the Ferry Building built where the Embarcadero Freeway used to be. Just like the old times, she’d said. Just you and me.
“What was it about?” She points at the waterfront and shakes her head. “Everything is so different, Rhea, I don’t know if I still live
in San Francisco.” After high school, now twenty-six years ago, Jocelyn had gone to SF state for one year and two months before dropping out. She dreamt of moving to Florida to write screenplays. Why Florida? I’d asked. Cheap housing and Disney World, Jocelyn had replied. She worked at a sushi restaurant there for six years until she realized she had no talent for writing and that living day to day wasn’t as romantic as she had hoped. Then, with what she had saved, she wandered. Taking rides from truckers from coast to coast, seeing the world, she’d said. Except it was only the U.S., I’d thought. Why’d you leave school in the first place? I’d asked. Nothing there for me, she’d said. But in her eyes, I saw that she wished she hadn’t left. In her eyes, I saw that she knew she had wasted her twenties away in the musky air of trucks, not knowing what state she was in half the time. But somewhere in me, I felt happy. A world without people like Jocelyn and their dreams would be too cold.
“I dreamt that we were speeding down an empty highway,” I reply.
“Not so different from what we used to do, isn’t it?” she says. I didn’t mention she was driving one of Lou’s sports cars. I didn’t
mention we were both seventeen.
In the dream, I went, slow down, slow down over the roar of the straining engine. Please. But she wouldn’t look at me. The red
arrow hit 180 and Jocelyn wouldn’t stop smiling. Her tomorrow? what’s tomorrow? I only know of today smile. I tried to hit her, but my hand passed straight through her face. I wondered whether I really didn’t exist, whether I really was a ghost, a non-person. Or if it was Jocelyn that was the ghost.
“I should head back. Alden is probably burning the hotel down trying to pack and watch the girls by himself.” A lie. They are at a
mall, having burgers for lunch. I feel sick knowing how much Jocelyn meant to me. Means to me. How scared I was of her. How scared I am. How much I loved her. How badly I want her to disappear.
“Yes of course! Tell your mom I said that the third man’s the charm.” She winks.
We part ways and I sit on a bus stop bench for a long time. I know it will be at least five years until I see her again. And I’m right.
The next time I see her is almost ten years later, at Lou’s place. Lou is dying and I see Jocelyn die a little, too.
We’re on a wagon in Anaheim, weaving through the strawberry fields I used to go to with Dad during summer breaks. The drivers
never change. It’s like they hire from just one family line. Always the empty eyes, sun-spotted hands, minimal knowledge of English, mesh hats. It’s so sunny, I can’t open my eyes all the way no matter how hard I try. Even in late September. My chest hurts thinking of being back in Southern California, of picking strawberries with Dad, of being seven, Nadine’s age.
Nadine is miming peeling a tangerine, Janice is leaning over the shoddy wooden panels of the wagon, and Alden is looking
straight into the sun. I think of Scotty and his spotted eyes. I’m about to reach over and put my hands over his face when I hear a high-pitched scream and a thud. Alden scrambles over to the driver and screams in a voice I’ve never heard before, “Stop the car! Stop the car!” My five-year-old daughter lies on the dirt road, motionless, ten feet behind us. I wonder if she’s dead. Or worse, paralyzed.
My ears ring and the heat of the sun, which was pleasant just before, is unbearable. I whip around to shake Nadine. I can’t help
“Why didn’t you grab your sister?” My voice is hoarse and unrecognizable. First, she looks down at my hands around her arms,
then looks up at my face in silence, her large eyes even larger now. I see her pupils dilate in fear. Then a cry so violent I flinch rips out of her small body. My vision goes dark and I feel Alden prying Nadine away from me. I’m becoming my mother. It wasn’t supposed to be this hard.
Alden does not talk to me once the entire time we are in Malibu for Mom’s third wedding. Janice is laughing again; she is fine
save for the scratches on her left calf and both elbows. Nadine does not come near me. We fly back to Seattle, and all I can think about is how dirty we left the house before we left for Malibu.