Chapter 1: Meet the Family
The small town of Uppercross, New York was nothing extraordinary. The population was small. The people were nice. The neighborhoods were diverse and welcoming to all. It was an interesting group of people living in this town, many of them here for the same reason: Kellynch University.
Kellynch University was no ivy league by any means. However, this small, private liberal arts school nestled in this quaint suburb was the home of some exceptional programs. It had a well-known English and Journalism program that brought in young adults from all over the country. It had an Asian-American studies program unlike any other on the east coast. This program was spearheaded by the Ilao family - particularly the matriarch. Ofelia Ilao started the program with her best friend Lettie Rubia. They had the support of Ofelia’s beloved husband, and fellow Kellynch professor, Walter Ilao.
Thanks to the many job offerings a university brings, there were several pockets of immigrant communities that had lived in Uppercross for quite some time. It seemed negligent that an esteemed school such as Kellynch didn’t represent their community. How could they compete with the neighboring east coast schools without it?
The program grew and grew, and the Ilao family became a staple to the Kellynch community. Walter and Ofelia continued to work at the university and they built quite a life in Uppercross. They had three beautiful daughters - Eliza, Anne, and Maria - and all three daughters grew to learn the Kellynch campus backwards and forwards.
The town was devastated the night that Ofelia passed away. The daughters were so young. How could this happen to such a loving family? So, the Kellynch community stepped up. Lettie Rubia became Tita Lettie to the daughters, a surrogate mother, and Walter’s social circle grew and grew. They promised that he would never have to worry about being lonely.
After retiring from Kellynch University, Walter focused on his social obligations. The daughters were glad that he was able to move on, but soon his comings and goings became a fault. He never liked being home anymore. It was too quiet now that his daughters were grown. And so, he went out almost every night. He and his friends would go to new restaurants or take long weekends to visit the beautiful scenery of rural New York. It was this active social life, one that Walter was quite proud of in fact, that was his undoing.
“Isn’t Eliza supposed to be here by now?” Maria whined. She was anxiously scrubbing the counters of her pristine kitchen. Tita Lettie and Anne shared a knowing look. Yes Eliza was supposed to be here. She was supposed to be here 30 minutes ago. This fact surprised no one. Eliza was consistently late to everything. And yet, Maria flitted around her home mumbling to herself about possible car accidents and drunk drivers.
“I am sure she is on her way,” Tita Lettie replied. “While we wait, we can start discussing options?”
Tita Lettie opened the laptop sitting on the kitchen island, and started clicking on the keys.
“He’s broke. Broke! How could this even happen? He was a professor for decades!” Maria moved on to scrubbing the dishes. Her black hair was falling out of its signature butterfly clip, and suds flew all over her crewneck and leggings. It was the uniform of every stay-at-home mom in Kellynch.
“Well you know Papa. He likes to be out, and Mama was the level-headed one. I guess we just didn’t notice how much he was spending. Plus he likes being a big donor to the school. It makes him look good. Keeps our reputation up,” Anne replied calmly. She didn’t agree with this mindset, but she had heard him explain it over and over again. She sat at the island next to Lettie and watched as Maria took off her cleaning gloves.
Maria paused and looked at the clock that blinked 7:30. She sighed, “Maybe Eliza blew out a tire. We should call. She could be in trouble.” She picked up her phone just as they heard the front door open.
“I’M HERE! I’M HERE! Sooooo sorry. Happy hour with the work crew lasted a little too long. My bad! Totally my bad!” Eliza scurried in while fumbling with her work bag and kicking off her heels. “I hope you didn’t start without me!”
Maria rolled her eyes, “Well maybe you wouldn’t need to hope that if you actually showed up on time, like ever. Also, Charlie is trying to get the boys to go to sleep. Could you not screech when you enter our home?”
Anne sensed Eliza’s annoyance at the remark. Eliza narrowed her eyes, and flipped her long hair over her shoulder. She opened her mouth, but Anne cut her off
before it could escalate.
“You know I have an idea. For what to do about Papa’s…,” she made a vague gesture with her hands searching for a word, “situation.” Anne waited until Maria and Eliza turned towards her. She took a breath.
“Why doesn’t he downsize? He doesn’t need to be living his day-to-day life like he is right now. Cutting back -by a lot - seems like the best option.”
Eliza’s brow furrowed, “What do you mean? Stop seeing people? Getting out of his house? What else do you expect him to do Anne. He’s a retired widower. He’s allowed some fun. We can’t all be hermits like you.”
Eliza walked over to the pantry and pulled out a bag of Chex mix.
“Isn’t cutting back like step one? I thought that was obvious,” Maria watched Eliza pick out all the Chex from the bag.
“Okay, then Maria what do you suggest he cut back on,” Tita Lettie responded.
Maria stood there for a second. Her mouth opened and closed. “You know...like - on his day-to-day…?” She scrunched her nose and started putting dishes in the dishwasher, “ I don’t know! It’s just all so overwhelming! This is why Charlie handles all of our finances. I get so bogged down with numbers. All I know is that Papa can’t keep spending like this or he’s going to end up homeless.”
Anne sighed and Tita Lettie looked at her sympathetically. They knew it would go this way. Eliza and Maria in a frenzy. Anne and Tita Lettie cleaning up the mess. The way it’s been since their mom had passed.
The three Ilao sisters couldn’t be more different. Anne, the calm introverted one. Maria the anxious busybody. Eliza the extravagant social butterfly. But they promised their mom that they would never separate. In the Philippines, family is number one. Family is most important. And so, all family decisions were made together - no matter how long it took.
“I was thinking he could move out of the house. The house is his biggest expense, and he doesn’t need all of that space now that he’s living alone. Plus it’s too much upkeep for him. He could move in here - with Charlie and Maria.” Anne suggested.
Eliza scrunched her nose and Maria chewed on her bottom lip.
“That’s our home Anne. You want him to get rid of our home?” Eliza put the Chex mix bag down. “All of our memories with mom are in that house.” She plopped down on one of the stools by Tita Lettie and put her chin in her hand.
Tita Lettie reached out and held her other hand. “He doesn’t have to completely get rid of it. He could rent it out. Continue being the owner, but make some money at the same time. He needs money. Plus,” Lettie continued turning to Maria, “He would love to spend more time with his two grandsons. You know he would. It might be the only way to convince him to rent out the place. He’s a stubborn man, anak.”
Eliza and Maria looked at each other. Anne could tell they were torn, but she knew that they didn’t have any better ideas.
“You have that in-law suite above the garage right?” Anne prompted. Maria shrugged, “I mean, yeah. We use it as Charlie’s home office though.”
“Well how often does Charlie actually work from home? His office is like 10 minutes away on campus. He works in a bursar’s office,” Lettie reasoned.
Maria paced the kitchen, crossing her arms in thought. Eliza perked up, “Well if he rents it, then I can take control of the business side. I mean, at our office we get a lot of people looking to rent a place before buying their forever home. It would be a good commission for me.” She paused, thinking for a second, tapping her manicured nails on the counter. “Okay, I’m in. My boss will be so happy having a nice house up for rent on the market. All of the other houses are total dumpsters.”
Maria, always the last to agree, looked at the three of them. She sighed, clearly put out, but resigned. “Alright. I’ll talk to Charlie...but really he can’t say anything since his family is always around,” she grumbled. “If we’re really saying this will help Papa, then...well I guess it’s all we got.”
“Thank God! This has been soooo stressful!” Eliza yelled. “I could barely focus on any of the happy hour gossip.” She got up and took off her blazer, and threw it on the counter beside her. “Do you have any of those little ube cakes from that bakery? I only ate bar snacks for dinner.”
Maria looked at her, annoyed. “You find renters for Papa’s house, then I’ll give you the ube cakes.”
Luckily, for the Ilao family and despite all appearances, Eliza was an excellent real estate agent. She found such renters soon after the meeting. A lovely young couple searching for a quieter life - Adam and Sophie Croft.
Unluckily for Anne, sweet and content Anne, she had no idea how much chaos the Crofts would bring.
Adam Croft and Sophie Croft were a picture perfect couple. The two met at college - Adam majoring in neuroscience, and Sophie majoring in psychology. They hit it off immediately, and built a comfortable life together. Adam was a PhD graduate from Yale, and Sophie a successful therapist. Their friends liked to joke that they were opposites in a way. Adam was a golden retriever - eager to please and loved by all. He even looked the part. Golden, windswept hair and a perpetual smile. And Sophie, with her beautiful, brown hair and amber eyes, was more of a cat - demure and lovely, but tough when provoked.
As soon as Eliza showed them the Ilao family home, the Crofts were sold. It had a great location - no more than a 15 minute walk to the university where Adam would soon be working. Plenty of space for their various books and art. It was a quieter pace than what they were used to, which suited Sophie just fine. As soon as Adam had graduated, she had begged for them to slow down and enjoy married life without the weight of schoolwork hanging over their heads. And Adam, always so doting on his wonderful wife, looked for work at smaller schools.
A month passed before the Crofts could fully move in to their new rental home. The month was spent packing up the Ilao home, repainting the walls, and packing up Walter and moving him in with his youngest daughter and her family. Soon, September came and the Crofts were moving in. The Ilao family, sans Maria, went to go welcome them.
“Why do they have so many things?” Walter asked as he, Anne, and Eliza walked toward the moving truck. Sophie and Adam were inside as movers went in and out of the truck.
“They like to collect art Papa! It shows they’re cultured and respectable people. You said you wanted nice and respectable people moving into the house,” Eliza pointed out.
Walter grunted - unclear whether it was a sound of agreement or not. He had not been thrilled with the idea of downsizing, worried it would make him look invalid to his peers. But, he couldn’t argue with their reasoning, and Tita Lettie finally convinced him it was the right move. Walter was a proud man, and liked to convey independence to others. But, his daughters knew that since his wife’s passing, he relied almost entirely on Tita Lettie when it came to important decisions.
“We’re just here to show our faces. We’re their landlords, and we want them to know that we’re available if they need help,” Anne reminded him.
“Exactly!” Eliza paused and looked at Anne. “So, wait. You understood the point of our visit, and you still chose that outfit. Dress to impress Anne! Even Papa dressed up!” Anne looked down at her blue cotton dress.The ordinary person would call it impressive, especially on Anne, but Eliza always wore heels and a pantsuit or a blazer or something of that sort. Anne also thought it was unfair to compare her clothes to Walter considering he always dressed like a professor wherever he went.
They walked through the open door, avoiding the boxes around them. “Knock knock! It’s meeee - Eliza! I brought some of my family. I’d like you guys to meet them!”
“We’re in the dining room!” a voice yelled, and they made their way toward the sound. Adam was peering at the table that they brought, deep in thought and Sophie made her way toward them with her arms open.
“Hi! Eliza! So good to see you again!” Sophie said with a warm smile.
“Likewise of course!” The two women hugged, and Eliza turned toward the other two. “This is my dad Walter, and one of my sisters, Anne.”
They exchanged pleasantries and Adam looked up, “Does this table look too big for this space? Why is our table so big? Has it always been this big? Maybe we should get a new one.” Sophie rolled her eyes and smiled at them.
“He’s been doing this all morning,” she whispered. Then in a louder voice, “Honey it looks great! Come say hi to the Ilaos.” He continued to mumble to himself, but walked over and smiled at them.
Walter and Adam soon discussed Kellynch, and Adam asking questions about the culture and work community. It was the smart move. Walter was an otherwise quiet man, but Kellynch and his life as a professor were the two topics he loved to discuss. He had just started listing the numerous organizations he spearheaded there when Eliza cut him off.
“So, how is everything? No issues with the move-in so far right?”
“Oh no! Everything is wonderful. The new paint looks great, and I think our furniture matches so well. What a quiet and lovely neighborhood - exactly what we were hoping for!” Sophie said.
“Yay! So glad you like the vibe. The neighbors are super nice. In fact, my sister’s in-laws are right down the road. The Mendozas? They’ll probably welcome you soon. Mrs. Mendoza makes the BEST lumpia around here. It’s a Filipino eggroll. They are to die!” Eliza gushed. Adam looked excited and turned to Anne, “You’re married? We’d love to meet your spouse.”
Anne blushed and opened her mouth to correct him, but Eliza laughed and interjected, “Oh God no! Not our Annie. No, our youngest sister - Maria. She’s the married one. Two kids, too. Her husband works over at Kellynch in the bursar’s office. Ha! Annie being married. I can’t even imagine! No. She works at a bookstore.” She said that as if working at a bookstore explained the lack of marriage.
Anne blushed harder, but smiled politely. She was used to it. Sophie’s eyes narrowed imperceptibly toward Eliza and said to Anne, “An independent bookstore? I love to get to know the local businesses in a new town. Especially bookstores!”
Anne nodded, “Yeah, it’s not too far from the campus. It’s called The Uppercross Archives. We like to say we collect books and stories that explain the history and culture of the town. But we sell popular books as well. New releases and such. The store hosts a few different book clubs during the week, if you’re ever interested in that sort of thing.”
Adam perked up again, “Oh that would be great! A great way to meet people, and we love book clubs. We hosted one back in New Haven.”
“Books are nice, but books don’t make grandchildren,” Walter retorted.
Adam’s eyes widened and he looked at Anne. Anne pursed her lips and smiled through the awkwardness. Luckily, or perhaps not, Eliza laughed loudly.
“Too true Papa! Too true!” Anne thought her agreement was odd considering Eliza also had no children, and also had no serious romantic prospects. But Anne would never say that out loud.
“Anyway, the good thing about Anne being single and working at a bookstore means that she is going to be the BEST landlord. Really. Any time you guys need anything, please feel free to shoot Annie an email or text.” Anne looked at her with surprise, but quickly hid it from her expression. She hadn’t realized that this would be the arrangement.
“Her place is so close to here, and she doesn’t have any other social obligations like the rest of the family. She’s totally at your disposal. I’m sending you her info right now.” Eliza pulled out her phone and started typing, as Walter started pacing through the house analyzing the Crofts’ furniture placement.
Anne stood there and looked at the couple, and they looked at her with a sense of new understanding. Eliza’s phone rang, and she excused herself and stepped out of the house. As soon as she was far enough away, Sophie turned to Anne.
“You really don’t have to be available to us very often. Really. I mean, I doubt there will be anything we really need from you. The house is in great shape, so please don’t feel any obligation to come by and check on us,” she paused as her husband nodded along, “and we really do love bookshops!” They looked at her with such unabashed kindness, and Anne smiled.
“Well, to be quite honest if you do need anything, I am the one that will answer the fastest. And, I am also one of the landlords in a way, so I have no problem helping out. Really! I live pretty close by,” Anne looked around for a second and saw Eliza still outside and her father near the front door, clearly ready to leave. “You don’t need to mind my family’s frankness. It’s kind of a...Pinoy thing. Filipino families are very honest with one another. It all stems from a place of love.” Anne wasn’t lying to make them feel better. It was true. She knew her family loved her. They just showed it in a way that was unfamiliar to nonimmigrant families.
Sophie smiled and Anne felt a sense of comfort. It was odd considering they had just met, but Mrs.Croft seemed to have that effect on people.
“Well, we really, really appreciate you and your family. It’s hard moving to a new place. Having kind people close by is a comfort, for sure.”
Adam agreed, “Yes definitely! And we really look forward to seeing this bookstore and exploring the town. Maybe you can give us some good spots to check out.” He reached out and squeezed her arm, then moved to help one of the movers with a large painting. Soon, Anne and her family said their goodbyes and walked back toward their car.
“They were nice, right?” Eliza said while answering an email on her phone.
“Yes, very nice,” Anne agreed. Walter grunted.
It wasn’t until a few days after the initial meeting that Anne heard from the Crofts again. She was eating dinner at her shoebox of an apartment when she heard a ping on her phone, and looked at the unfamiliar number. It wasn’t often that Anne got messages from unfamiliar numbers. Her social circle was small.
Anne put down her spoon and opened the text. It was from Sophie:
--Hey there! I am sorry to bother you, but I had a quick question. Do you guys have a policy about long-term guests staying with us? Some renters really don’t like that, which we totally understand!
Anne thought for a moment, and knew that her dad wouldn’t care. Always be hospitable - that was one of Walter’s unspoken rules. They always had guests coming in and out of their house growing up.
--No, we don’t! Feel free to have a guest. This is also your home now! Just let us know who the person is, and if you need anything to make them more comfortable, you can send me a message. It’s never a problem :)
She set her phone down and finished dinner. She tidied up the kitchen and started to read, when she heard another message come through.
--You guys are the best! We don’t foresee any help to accommodate him, but I will let you know if we run into any issues. The guest is my brother, and he’s pretty low maintenance. He’s a traveler! He doesn’t need much. I managed to convince him to stay with us for a while in between jobs.
--A traveler! Sounds exciting.
Anne assumed that was the end of the conversation, but sure enough she had sent a flurry of replies. It didn’t surprise her that Sophie was a double texter.
--It is and it isn’t. He’s a freelancer, and as amazing as his adventures sound, I prefer him being close to home. But I am his older sister!
--Hey - you actually might know him! He graduated from Kellynch not too long ago. It’s actually kind of why we decided on moving here. Your sister mentioned that you graduated with an English major? When did you graduate?
Anne responded (“Yes I did! I graduated 7 years ago.”) and racked her brain. Did she know anyone with the last name Croft? From the English department? If he was a freelancer, maybe he was in the journalism wing, which was adjacent to her part of the college. It seemed unlikely she would have met him. She didn’t do much socializing during her undergrad. Or ever, really.
--What a coincidence!! My brother also graduated 7 years ago.
--His name is Erick Wentworth. Have you heard of him??
She almost dropped the phone. Of course his last name wouldn’t be Croft - she didn’t know Sophie’s maiden name.
Her heart started pounding and she heard a ringing in her ear. The thoughts started racing - is this a panic attack? Is this what a panic attack feels like?
Anne wasn’t sure how long it had been since Sophie’s last text, but she heard another ping.
--Probably unlikely that you knew him, but if the name does ring any bells he’ll be here soon! Next week actually. You should swing by and say hi!
A week. That’s how long she had to prepare herself. Anne slumped onto her couch and hugged a pillow to her chest. Erick Wentworth was coming back to Uppercross. Erick Wentworth, the love of her life, was coming back.
Not sure if uploads will be this close to one another regularly, but got this one done! I promise Erick comes in the next chapter.
Chapter 3: He's Back
When Ofelia Ilao passed away, all of the Ilaos reacted differently. Walter and Eliza - the most similar ones in the family - took their minds off of their grief by staying out of the house. Focusing their time more on friends and work - the socialites. Maria, the youngest, became the anxious one. Any time someone left the house, she worried about their return. Any time she went into a new situation, she worried about the outcomes. Maria was the worrier, and it translated into her work. She always stayed in, whenever possible. In fact, before meeting Charlie, her job focused on the interior of others’ homes too - design. Now, as a mother of two, she had new things to worry about. And so, she focused on her boys. Always scheduling, and always running around. Often exhausting herself by Wednesday of every week, and taking the rest of the week to recuperate.
Anne was the steady one. She had a knack for observing others. Her empathy was endless, and she often knew how a person felt before they could even comprehend their own feelings. As a child, she immediately sensed her family shift and found it quite unsettling. So, Anne spent her life trying to balance them. Walter and Eliza were always out, so Anne took care of their home - with the help of Tita Lettie of course, the one person she trusted. Maria was always anxious, so Anne would come over and soothe her. Almost every weekend Anne would spend at least one afternoon looking after her nephews, as Maria laid in bed, resting. Anne knew that it was her role to step up. She promised her mom - family first. Always. The only time she considered refusing, letting them fend for themselves, was about 8 years ago. The year she met Erick Wentworth.
It was the kind of love she had only experienced through stories. They met at Kellynch - her last year. He loved her with all of his heart, and she loved him with all of hers. Erick saw her for who she was, and loved her - faults and all. It was the only time she ever felt completely and fully known by another person. It was a whirlwind. It was a love that Anne didn’t think would ever happen to her. It ended about a year after it started. And it was her fault.
The weekend after Sophie texted Anne that Erick was coming back (next week!), Anne spent every waking moment trying to think of anything else. She jogged (which she never did). She took care of Max and Ethan (her unbelievably, wild nephews). She read (which only marginally helped). She tried writing (a story she completed years ago, unread by anyone except for - well). Anne tried, with all of her might, not to think of the night before Erick left. The last time she saw him. It was miserable. They fought. They cried. She broke both of their hearts.
Luckily, no one else knew about this relationship, except for Tita Lettie. She had only met him once, and it didn’t go very well. Fortunately, Tita Lettie was away leading a study abroad trip for the semester. The only person who knew about their horrible breakup, and the circumstances leading up to it, wasn’t around to spill Anne’s secret. They actually never spoke of it after it happened. Just a nod of acknowledgement the morning after, and a whispered, “It’s for the best, anak ,” as she cupped Anne’s face. She trusted Tita Lettie, and she had looked so sure. So Anne forced herself to believe her - it was for the best. She vowed to move on, and so she shoved all memories of him deep down to the very pits of her mind (not to say they didn’t pop up every once in a while. They did - during her loneliest nights. She was human after all).
Going back to work on Monday was an immense relief. At least at the Archives (the shortened name of the bookstore locals liked to use) she could bury herself in her other love - literature. There was a time when she thought she’d stay at Kellynch and work in the university library forever. But, the place held too many memories of, well, him. And so, a few months after graduating, Anne left the library and looked for a position at the Archives instead, and the owners gladly took her in.
The owners were an older married couple - Priya and Eleanor. Anne had met Priya at Kellynch once or twice during her undergrad, and Priya had taken a liking to her. Priya, a writer herself, and Eleanor, the business side of the store, had become quite close to Anne over the years. They always gave her the hours she preferred, and flexible breaks throughout the day. Many of the employees came and went, but Anne was a constant. She led multiple book clubs and planned events at the store. She previewed potential inventory, and stayed late when needed. Like everyone else - they couldn’t imagine what they would do without Anne.
Except this week, Anne was not herself. She restocked books in the wrong place. She gave a customer entirely too much change, or not enough. A customer asked where they kept their historical fiction, and Anne directed them to the fantasy section instead. The other employees took a notice, but waited until Wednesday to broach the subject.
“Hey Anne? Is everything alright dear?” Priya asked during closing. Anne startled and looked up from the stacks of returns, “Hm? Of course! Why do you ask?”
“You just seem...a little off lately. You can always talk to us, you know. If there’s something.”
Anne felt her face warm a little, but quickly smiled, “I know, and I appreciate that so much. It... must be taking care of the new tenants. They're wonderful, but it’s something new - you know? Another thing to think about.”
Priya immediately nodded, “Of course. It’s another responsibility, and you’re always so thoughtful when it comes to other people’s needs.” Priya moved closer, hesitated for just a second, and put a hand on her shoulder. “Just don’t forget about your needs too Anne. If you ever need a change in shifts, you can let us know. Eleanor or I can cover you.” She squeezed Anne’s hand, and Anne felt a twinge of guilt for lying.
She took a breath and told herself to get it together. There was no point in dwelling over him coming back. She didn’t even have to see him! He just happened to be in town, and that was that. There were enough people in Uppercross that it was unlikely they would ever cross paths more than once or twice. Anne was being silly. He probably didn’t even know the connection Anne had with his sister. He wouldn’t be coming back otherwise. She was sure he hated her, and she was sure she deserved it.
This thought was oddly comforting as it quelled some of the confusion she felt at the thought of his return. There would be no romantic gesture or grand reunion - she was horrible to him at the end. She just needed to swallow her pride should they see each other again. Anne was the master of grinning and bearing it.
This thought carried her through the next day, and as she walked home from work Thursday night, she got a call from Maria.
“Anne! What are you doing tomorrow night? Please say nothing,” Maria begged before Anne could even manage a hello.
“Tomorrow? I’m available. Are you and Charlie going out?”
“God I wish!” Anne could practically feel Maria’s nerves through the call. “No, Frances and Luisa invited themselves over for family dinner. Frances guilted Charlie into it - ‘Ay it’s been so long. Why are you hiding my grandsons?’ - Classic! We saw them, like, two weeks ago. We’ve just been adjusting to Papa being here permanently. Can’t the woman give us a freakin’ break?”
Frances was Charlie’s mother - Mrs. Mendoza. Luisa was one of his younger sisters. Frances and Maria have never had the best relationship, but it was a very common relationship between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. The truth of the matter was that Frances was never going to like the woman who married Charlie, her only son. It was petty, but Mrs. Mendoza was not a very reflective person.
Maria had tried really hard at first to be the kind of daughter-in-law that Frances wanted. But things got worse once Maria had her first son, Max. Frances thought Maria was too lenient of a mother, and Maria thought Frances was overbearing and judgmental (the reality was that both women’s ideas of the other were rooted in some truth. The truth was simply exaggerated in their minds).
“So how does this dinner relate to me?” Anne asked as she walked up the stairs to her apartment.
“Frances and Luisa love you! You would be the perfect buffer. Please? Papa has plans with his old department, and Charlie’s dad refuses to come - as per usual. It can’t just be the four of us. You know how they can be.”
Anne did know. Frances and Luisa together against Maria was not great for her sister’s nerves. The two women never thought about how their words sounded to the receiver. Maria, typically the receiver, analyzed every comment to an absurd degree, looking for a deeper meaning when usually there wasn’t one.
“Of course I’ll be there,” Anne replied as she walked into her apartment, shedding her jacket and purse. “Do you need me to bring anything? Wine? Dessert?”
“Wine would be amazing! We’ll need it - trust me.” Anne heard a shriek in the background and Maria groaned. “I gotta go. Max just tripped Ethan and he’s having a conniption. See you tomorrow at 7:00 pm. PLEASE don’t be late! Bye! Max honey why did you-” Anne heard Maria hang up abruptly and sighed. She didn’t enjoy being the buffer of the Mendoza family, but she welcomed the distraction. She needed some sort of event to look forward to instead of thinking of him.
Unfortunately, Friday night family dinner was not the distraction she had hoped for. As soon as Anne walked into Maria’s home, Luisa gave her the news.
“We invited the Crofts over for dessert! Sophie’s brother just got here last night and he is sooooo cute. So cool! They took him out for dinner, so they’ll be here in like an hour or so.” Luisa gave her a hug and walked into the dining room where Frances and Charlie were setting up.
Anne stood in the living room trying to compose herself. Erick would be here? Tonight? She felt herself start to panic as Max and Ethan zoomed around her legs. Maria walked in, already looking tired.
“Oh you brought some wine! Let me open that!” Maria hugged her and whispered in her ear, “Bless you for being here.”
Anne nodded numbly and made her way to the table. She gave hugs to Charlie and Frances, internally freaking out.
Frances peered at her grandsons’ clothes, “Charlie you let your sons wear their pajamas to dinner? This is family dinner, not bedtime.”
“Mama, they already took their baths, and it’s just us. The Crofts won’t care either.” He looked at the kitchen and bent closer to his mom, “Please be nice tonight. Maria worked really hard on this dinner, especially since it was last minute.”
“I’m always nice Charlie! Why do you always say that? Susmariosep! You boys are being so loud! Tamigil ka na!” Frances scolded the boys as they ran around the table.
Anne coaxed her nephews into their seats as Maria brought out the dinner. Charlie went on and on about how great everything smelled and Maria smiled her thanks. Charlie Mendoza was a sweet and well-intentioned husband, but he skirted conflict whenever possible. It was a particular dance he and Maria often had. Her anxieties would run high, and he calmed her down. He enjoyed feeling needed, and she enjoyed being cared for.
During dinner, Luisa wouldn't stop chattering on about their night at the Crofts. The only relief was Frances telling stories about being a full-time nurse and a mom to two little ones (stories that Maria took as a jab for being a stay-at-home mom. Stories that Frances sincerely enjoyed telling).
“We went over there to bring them some welcome gifts, and happened to meet Sophie’s brother, Erick, last night. He is so funny and so smart. Right, Mama? You’ll like him Anne. He’s into reading and writing like you - he’s a freelancer . Isn’t that like, one of the coolest jobs you’ve ever heard of? He’s been to a BUNCH of places around the world. He’s written stories for the New Yorker and the Times and, like, other big publications. It’s so impressive!”
Luisa was sweet, if not a little naive and ignorant. She had graduated from Kellynch a few years ago and moved back in with her parents, working as a nurse. Anne was certain she would stay with her parents until they kicked her out. Anne also knew the Mendozas would never kick her out.
Luisa loved Anne. She always tried to get Anne to go out with her, but Anne almost always said no. She would ask Luisa about her dating life instead. It always worked. Luisa was the loquacious one. They got along well for two sister-in-laws.
However, at this particular moment, Anne wished Luisa would just stop talking.
“It’s true. He’s very impressive and so nice. Quite handsome, too. The whole family! All of them are so good looking!” Frances added.
“Well, I’m glad you guys brought an extra dessert for everyone since you invited them...without telling me,” Maria muttered the last part more to herself, “I actually haven’t had the chance to meet any of the Crofts. This will be...nice!” Maria said as she started to pick up the plates. Charlie agreed, and they all started cleaning up and getting some coffees and teas ready to go with their sweets. Anne watched the clock as she helped clean, and felt her panic increase steadily with every passing minute.
Luisa said that Sophie promised to be there close to 8:00, and when the clock struck 7:55, Anne felt herself spiraling. She quickly excused herself, and went to the bathroom to calm down. She sat on the edge of the tub and put her head between her knees, reminding herself that there was no need to panic. It would all be fine. Maybe he didn’t even remember her (that thought made her stomach clench in a way she refused to analyze). She was taking a deep breath, feeling her pulse slow down, when she heard the doorbell ring.
“They’re here! Where in the world is Anne?” she heard Luisa exclaim from down the hall.
Anne got up and went to the mirror. She fixed her hair and pinched her cheeks to add some color back to her typically tan complexion. She paused, and for the first time in a while, thought about how she had changed over the years. Did she look worse? Better? Her hair, once long enough to hit her waist, was shorter, hitting right above her shoulders. Her face was thinner. She looked - wearier. But it wasn’t a lie. She felt wearier.
Anne took a final breath and walked out of the bathroom. She made her way to the living room, trying to blend into the background. She refused to look toward him, and instead focused on the Mendozas - something familiar.
“Anne! I didn’t know you would be here tonight!” Anne looked up and saw Sophie was making her way toward her, arms open. She let out a soft sound of surprise as Sophie gave her a long hug. “I want you to meet Erick! He said your name was kind of familiar? Maybe you guys have met before?”
Before she knew it Sophie shoved her in front of Erick, and Anne was forced to look at him. Her heart in her throat as she took him in, trying not to look too intently. He looked the same, but also...not. There was a change in him that she couldn’t quite place. But, at the same time, he was achingly familiar. His messy, dark brown hair was slightly more groomed - pushed back and shorter. His clothes were more put together. His skin was sun-kissed in the way that travelers so often looked. For the briefest of moments, she let herself look him in the eye. They were still just as warm and hazel, but closed off and guarded. He gave her a polite nod as Sophie made the introductions.
Sophie asked again if they remembered meeting before, and Erick looked at her and said, “You know, we probably saw each other once or twice in passing,” he paused and reached out his hand, “It’s nice to meet you.” It took her a millisecond to collect herself, but she took his hand and cleared her throat. “Yeah, that sounds about right. Once or twice in passing, I’m sure.” He smiled at her tightly and dropped her hand quickly, and she returned a tight smile. So it was settled. He hated her. Anne was certain of it now. It was a bittersweet relief. She knew where they stood at least.
The rest of it passed in a blur. Erick regaled them with tales of all of the cities he’s visited and stories that he had written - covering war zones and human interest stories all over the globe. Everyone was completely and totally enamored, especially Luisa. She showered him with compliments, and he happily accepted them. Anne sat next to Maria and focused on her tea and leche flan, and as the night went on, she felt herself become calmer. She could do this. She could sit in the same room as him, and survive. She would be okay.
“Anne you’ve been so quiet tonight. What were you up to today?” Sophie asked as dessert was winding down. Anne looked up for the first time that night, surprised that anyone directed the conversation toward her. “Oh, just a little tired. Spent today working,” she replied, shrugging her shoulders.
“Yes, Anne works at an independent bookstore, Erick! What was the name of it again?” Sophie asked.
Anne glanced at Erick, who stared at his empty coffee mug, before responding, “Um, the, uh, Uppercross Archives. Or Archives - to locals.”
Adam perked up, “Hey we passed by that place tonight! Erick said he used to stop by that store while he was a student at Kellynch. Said it was the best bookstore in town!” Erick nodded and made a noise of acknowledgement. She knew Erick liked the Archives. He went there because she took him there.
“Oh yeah, Anne is a staple over there! She leads book clubs, and always has the BEST recommendations for every genre,” Luisa said, and before Anne could stop her, she continued, “She’s definitely loved . Anne’s probably exhausted from fending off all of the thirsty Kellynch men. They’re always hitting on her over there!” Luisa winked and Anne felt herself flush.
“Oh really?!” Adam asked, clearly amused.
“No! No. No no no no, that’s not - no. That’s not true. She’s joking!” Anne stumbled, chuckling awkwardly. She knew it was Luisa’s way of complimenting her. Luisa truly loved Anne, and always wished she had more confidence. Anne just wished she could express her love in another way.
“Ugh come on Anne! It’s a little true. You should own it!” Luisa said. She reached over the dining table and squeezed Anne’s hand, and Anne just shook her head. She refused to look over at Erick, and instead got up and started collecting the empty plates.
“Oh Luisa, always so...um, is anyone done? Want seconds or…?”
“Let me help!” Sophie said getting up, and soon everyone started getting up. The guests, save for Sophie, went to the living room. Sophie, Anne, and Maria started cleaning up the dessert plates.
Then, as quickly as it had started, the night ended and they all said their goodbyes. Anne hung out toward the back of the group as everyone exchanged a “nice to meet you.”
Maria closed the door, and turned back around. “They were so nice! What charming people!”
Anne nodded, and replied, “Yes. Very charming. Very charming indeed.”
As Maria shooed her little boys to the bathroom to brush their teeth, Anne felt a weight lift from her shoulders. The reunion was over. She left her sister’s home last night with the hope that maybe this wouldn’t be so bad. Maybe, the first encounter would be the worst.
A year from this moment, Anne would laugh at that thought. But at least, for now, Anne was hopeful.
Chapter 4: Eavesdropping Isn't Bad if it's an Accident
Heads up, a few cuss words in this chapter. There are also two iconic Persuasion inspired moments. Enjoy!
Much to Anne’s dismay, her life did not go back to normal. As much as Anne tried to avoid Erick, they kept bumping into each other. Walter’s mail was sent to his old address, so she picked it up. She babysat Ethan and Max one weekend. Adam and Erick came by to go to see Charlie. At every encounter, Erick never said anything more than what was expected - a polite hello or a response to a question. At least, not while Anne was nearby. It irked her - the politeness. But she couldn’t expect more from him. She deserved it.
A few weeks passed since the Mendoza family dinner, when one day, Anne got an apologetic call from Sophie. The dishwasher was acting up (as it did from time to time), and she asked if Anne knew a repairman. Anne immediately agreed to arrange the repairs herself.
She told Sophie that she would come by when the repairs were being done to discuss fees and any other issues around the house. When Anne parked in front of her old family home, she thoughtlessly checked her reflection in the mirror. She wiped under her eyes - flicking away mascara flecks - and combed through her hair with her fingers. It was silly - didn’t matter what she looked like for this visit. Didn’t matter who else could be in that house.
Anne got out of the car and rang the doorbell. Sophie answered immediately and gave her a hug before ushering her through the door (the Crofts were huggers it turns out. Anne had mixed feelings about it).
“Hey! J.C.’s been here for about an hour or so. He’s super nice! Thanks for setting this up for us.” Sophie led her to the living room where she had set out some snacks.
Anne stood by the coffee table, “You really didn’t need to set out anything. I’m just your landlord checking in on the house. Not a guest.”
“Oh please!! I used to host small get togethers all the time back in New Haven, and I miss the fuss. Plus, you’re not just a guest or just a landlord. You’re Anne, and you are a friend! Let me get some drinks - water? Soda?”
Anne requested water, and as Sophie walked out of the room, Anne took a look around the house. It was strange seeing it like this - polished, contemporary. Before, Pinoy art and a variety of crucifixes hung on the wall. Now the walls were mostly blank, save for one or two abstract pieces and the occasional family photo. The Croft’s furniture was new and leather. Walter had refused to change their furniture after 2008. An unexpected wave of nostalgia hit her all at once, and she found herself missing the familiarity.
“Okay, I know I just made a big deal about you having a seat and eating a snack,” Sophie said while setting down some glasses of water, “but J.C. just said he’s done if you want to say hi!”
Anne made her way over to the kitchen and saw the short Pinoy man wearing his typical white t-shirt (always tucked in for some reason), and paint splattered jeans. He knew Anne’s mother back in the day - a part of the community outreach program with the Kellynch AsAm studies program. An old family friend, always reliable.
She smiled and greeted, “Kumusta po kayo!” He returned the smile, “Kumusta ka na!”
“So - ano po? What’s the damage?”
J.C. and Anne went back and forth, a mixture of English and Tagalog bouncing between them. Anne liked talking to J.C. It gave her a chance to practice her Tagalog. Her dad never pressed her or her sisters to learn how to speak the language. They understood most of it, of course. It was impossible not to pick up a lot when you were surrounded by it daily. But it had been her mom that wanted them to learn how to speak it fluently. Anne started studying the language on her own in college (Eliza didn’t find it necessary and Maria always gave up so quickly - something Frances always liked to point out), and she didn’t really have anyone to practice with other than the Mendozas.
The dishwasher had been a simple fix, but the two friends continued talking. Anne inquired after his grandkids, and Sophie excused herself. She watched as Sophie made her way to the patio out back, and saw that Erick was working there, staring intently at his laptop.
Soon, the two siblings were having a back and forth, Sophie gesturing back towards the house. Anne quickly averted her gaze. She turned to listen to J.C., but when she looked out back again, she saw Erick looking directly at her while Sophie talked. They held eye contact for a second before he turned away - said something to his sister and went back to typing.
Soon, Anne sent J.C. off with a check in his hand, and Sophie came back inside. As they walked back toward the living room, Sophie apologized, “Ugh, I was trying to get Erick to come back inside so we could all hang out, but he insists on working.”
Anne didn’t know how to respond to that because, truth be told, she didn’t lament his choice. So instead, she took a cookie from the tray in front of her, following Sophie to the couch.
“I love how close everyone is here! J.C. said he knew you guys when you were kids? I love that! A strong sense of community is what we’ve been missing,” Sophie said as she munched on a cracker. “Not the case in New Haven. We had friends of course, but a lot of high society shit over there. So snobby! But, my parents were always into that crowd. I mean my parents are nice, but they’re not like your family - so open and close.”
Anne flinched a little at that, but Sophie didn’t notice. “My parents are...well, the opposite. It’s kind of a miracle Erick and I are close.”
Anne chewed on the inside of her lip, feigning surprise. She actually knew all of this. She knew how tough his parents were on the two of them. It was funny, all the intimate details you learned about another person during a relationship. She never thought about how those details were the details of another person's life, too.
“It’s why I asked him to come stay with us here, actually,” Sophie continued, “He’s been all over the world, traveling nonstop like the past seven years. We’re so proud! It’s always been his dream...”
Sophie paused. Anne waited, hating how much she wanted to know how Sophie would end that thought. She wasn’t even sure why Sophie was telling her any of this at all. But, she wanted to hear it.
Sophie shrugged, “I missed him. And, I think a part of him missed us, too. As much as he complains about mom and dad, as much as he talks about suburbs being boring - I think some roots would do him some good. Settling down in one place - building something more permanent. Erick has always been a runner - always one thing to the next. It might be nice for him to pick a place, maybe even find a partner- not to say marriage is the end all, be all!” She backtracked when she saw Anne flush, but of course Anne wasn’t at all insulted. She flushed at the thought of Erick getting married. Married. To someone else.
“I just think he would like that life more than he realizes.”
Anne mulled that over, thinking about what it would have been like if he had stayed here with her, for just a moment, before dismissing it altogether.
“Well, sometimes that kind of life isn’t for everyone,” Anne offered.
“Yeah, you’re right,” Sophie sighed. “I’m his older sister! I just want him to be happy.”
“You don’t think he’s happy?” Anne blurted without thinking. “I mean, you said it was his dream? So, maybe he is happy.” She shouldn’t have asked that.
She could tell Sophie was really thinking something over, trying to choose her words carefully.
“I think,” she said, finally, “I think he thinks he’s happy. But there’s more to life than a job.”
She hoped Sophie was wrong. Hoped that he was happy.
Suddenly, Anne’s phone started ringing, and sure enough it was an Ilao - Maria this time. Anne excused herself and walked over toward the window, “Hey Maria - what’s going on?”
“OH MY GOD ANNE - OH MY GOD - IT’S MAX!” There was crying in the background, and Anne felt her heart start racing. “He broke his arm - oh my god - Anne I need you to come over!”
Max and Ethan had been playing hide-and-seek in the backyard. Maria had been gardening when Max climbed up a tree. He fell, a freak accident, and broke his arm. The doctor said it didn’t look too bad, a standard break, and sent him home in a cast.
Maria was beside herself. Anne did what she could to help, stopping by after work. The Sunday afternoon after the incident occurred, Frances and Luisa were also there, cleaning up the kitchen.
Max and Ethan sat in front of the TV in the living room, and Frances kept looking over at the bright orange cast on Max’s arm. “Ay, my poor apo ! Look at how fragile he is.”
“Mama, boys fall down. It happens,” Luisa reasoned while drying off a dish that Anne had passed her from the sink.
“I know, I know. Maria just lets them play too rough! And she’s always in her head - she gets so distracted. That’s how things like this happen. A mother needs to be vigilant.”
Luisa and Anne looked at each other, and Luisa shrugged.
Anne tried to tread carefully, “Well, Maria had her back turned. It happens sometimes.”
Frances shook her head as she started putting the dishes away, “Yeesssss, but you know your sister! She is always so,” Frances mimed with her hands - frantically moving them back in forth, a look of panic in her eye. Luisa laughed sharply, and Anne gave her a look. She sucked her lips in and focused back on drying.
“I am not trying to be mean. I just love my grandsons. She is a smart woman, and she tries. Just - the boys listen to you, Anne. They’re sweet with you, and you take good care of them. Maybe you can talk to Maria about this, huh? Tell her how you do it?” Frances gave her a look.
This wasn’t the first time Frances tried to use Anne as a mediator, but Anne felt very uncomfortable telling her sister how to parent. It crossed a line she wouldn’t dare cross.
Luckily, Luisa stepped in, “Oh Mama look! It’s almost noon. I gotta go take a shower.” She turned to Anne and winked. “I’m seeing Erick later this afternoon!”
“Is it that late? Ay, I have to go check on your dad,” Frances said, wiping her hands, and gathering her things.
Luisa frowned, “Why? You know he hasn’t gotten up from the couch.”
“Exactly! He needs to get up and stretch! He won’t do it unless I tell him.”
They left soon after that, and Anne found herself alone in the kitchen. She puttered around the living room, taking care of this or that. Maria was upstairs, doing something - Anne didn’t know. Soon Max walked away from the TV, exclaimed he was hungry. And so, Anne pulled out some noodles to cook some mac and cheese. Max sat at a little kids table, coloring while he waited, his tongue out, concentrating on working with one free hand. The doorbell rang, and Maria ran down the stairs to answer it.
“Sophie hey! Come on in - oh Erick! Didn’t know you were coming with. Welcome!”
Anne froze as she cleaned off the counters, waiting for the pasta to cook. She heard them walk in, chatting about how Max was doing, and she mentally prepared herself for the ambush.
“Look who came over!” Maria said and Anne smiled and gave a wave from the kitchen island. The two boys yelled hi over the noise of the TV.
“I finally found an office space up for lease!” Sophie shared putting down her bag, “Eliza really is an amazing realtor. It’s just the right size, and not too far from home. I am so thrilled!” Sophie was so excited she was practically bouncing, and Anne gave her congratulations.
“I offered to share some of my contacts for design and some cheap furniture stores around here,” Maria explained as she checked on Ethan, who stared at the TV, rubbing some crumbs off his cheeks, “You here to help out Erick?”
He looked up at his name, and cleared his throat, “Uh no, I’m not sure I’d be much help in the design department. Luisa mentioned some free tickets to an exhibit at the Kellynch museum. A photographer that’s supposed to be great. She and some of her friends were going to take a look. Thought I’d tag along,” he rubbed his hand through his hair, “She said she would be here…?”
Maria looked at Anne, and there was an awkward pause until Anne realized they were looking at her for an explanation. “Oh! Uhh, yes she was here, and she’ll be back. She just had to run home for something.” At that Anne turned back to burner with the noodles, stirring it mindlessly.
“Well, we’ll be down the hall here in my old office space. Anne, you’ll look after the boys right? Make yourself at home Erick! Thanks!” Maria led Sophie out of the kitchen.
There was a beat of silence, and Anne felt her face turn hot. She heard his footsteps, and she turned around to see him sit on the couch by Ethan. He pulled his phone out of his pocket and started perusing. Anne sighed - relieved.
The silence dragged on for what felt like hours, until Max’s lunch was finally done, “You still hungry Max?” Anne asked, and Max looked up from his drawing. “I’m a monkey!” He yelled holding up his picture of a brown blob surrounded by green blobs. Anne smiled and made a sound of approval as she bent down to find the kid sized bowls. She couldn’t find one anywhere when suddenly she felt a weight bear down on her shoulders and neck.
“I’M A MONKEY!” Max screamed monkey sounds in her ear, and Anne felt him pull at her throat. She tried to stand up and managed a half crouch as Max continued making monkey sounds.
The boys usually listened to her, but they had their moments - this being one of them. She tried to gently coax him off, but he latched on tight.
“Max, honey, it’s time to let go. Listen to your Tita Anne. Max. We’re not playing.” He laughed, because of course, he assumed it was all a game. A monkey game. She kept trying to untangle him, but it was getting hard to breathe. “Max, you're choking me,” Anne croaked.
“Aaaaalright little monkey, that’s enough.”
Anne felt his weight being lifted off, and she took a deep breath, one hand touching her throat. She turned around and saw Erick letting Max climb on him instead. She wanted to thank him, but her voice stuck in her throat.
“ME, ME, ME!” Ethan yelled, and she turned to see him running laps around the kitchen island. She quickly moved a stool out of the way as he zoomed toward Erick and Max playing. Anne finished scooping the pasta into a bowl, and turned back around.
“Alright Max, it’s to time to-”
It almost happened in slow motion.
Ethan knocked down the stool that Anne had moved, and she stepped forward without checking. Before she could catch herself, she and the stool fell forward, bowl of pasta in hand.
Anne let out a surprised yelp and closed her eyes, preparing for the tiled floor. She felt someone catch her instead, and she took a moment to catch her breath.
Anne heard footsteps and Maria say, “Oh my god, we heard a scream and a bang! Is everyone okay?” She opened her eyes and saw Erick looking at Maria and Sophie, still holding onto a nearly horizontal Anne. He looked down at her, and she looked at him in shock.
“Anne?!” Maria prompted. Anne quickly untangled herself, and stood up. She realized belatedly that her instinct was to hug the bowl of pasta to her chest, and as she stood she felt mac and cheese fall down her torso. Ethan and Max started laughing hysterically, and Anne ran over to the sink assuring Maria, “I’m fine! I’m fine, really. A wounded ego, more than anything.”
“Nice catch,” Sophie said, with a hint of amusement in her voice. Anne carefully wiped the mac and cheese off her shirt and into the garbage disposal, trying to prevent any of it getting onto the floor. She turned around, holding out her now sticky, cheesy shirt, and saw Sophie suppressing a smile, looking at Erick.
“TITA’S TUMMY! TITA’S TUMMY!” Max and Ethan yelled, laughing and pointing at Anne. She looked down and realized that her tummy was indeed exposed, and she heard Erick clear his throat. He turned away, and she saw a hint of a blush creeping onto his face.
“Okay boys, leave Tita Anne alone!” Maria shooed them out of the room, and said, “Anne, take any shirt from my dresser upstairs and throw that shirt into the washing machine. I’ll wash it for you. Ugh, thank God you didn’t break your arm. Then I’d really be screwed.”
Anne gratefully ran upstairs and cleaned herself up, unbelievably mortified. She splashed some cold water on her face, and sat in the bathroom while she calmed down. She was being ridiculous! She was a grown woman acting like a flustered schoolgirl. She could barely get a word out around him, and she made a fool of herself. In that moment, Anne vowed to be better. She heard Luisa come in while she hid in the bathroom, and was pretty certain that she heard her leave with, she assumed, Erick. Anne checked her watch and saw that she would be late to the store’s Sunday night book club if she didn’t leave soon. She quickly folded her dirty shirt, and went down to the garage to throw it into the washing machine.
Once she stepped out, however, she heard Ethan and Max yelling in the backyard, plus Luisa’s voice.
“Oh my God - poor Anne! She has the worst luck sometimes. I’m glad you were able to catch her in time before she sliced her head open or something.” Anne froze, certain that Erick was telling Luisa about her humiliation.
She heard Erick make a sound of agreement, and Luisa continued, “It’s also a good thing my mom wasn’t there. God, she and Maria would have started bickering about ‘being vigilant’ for the thousandth time this week. I swear, sometimes I think that Charlie should’ve just married Anne. It would’ve made our lives a lot more peaceful, that’s for sure.”
Yes, Charlie had shown an interest in Anne at one point, when he first moved back to Uppercross and started working at Kellynch. They had run into each other a few times on campus, when she still worked at the library there. She feigned ignorance at his flirtations, and eventually introduced him to Maria.
“Oh? I didn’t know that they were together,” Erick said, and Anne’s heart started pounding. She shouldn’t care what he thought, and yet.
“No, no, no. Charlie definitely tried, but Anne was totally not into it. She introduced him to Maria to get him off her back. Ha! I mean - Charlie didn’t realize that’s what she was doing. He thought she was clueless. He still does, actually so don’t tell him that. But I mean, it was pretty obvious what happened there. Charlie was butthurt about it at first, but he got over it. Realized later on that it just wasn’t Anne’s thing.”
“What do you mean?”
“Oh well. I mean - she just doesn’t really date. We’ve all tried setting her up over the years, but it never lasts more than a handful of dates. And it’s not like there’s no one interested. She’s always getting offers at that bookstore. Not even totally lame offers like you would think - usually cute college students or TAs. But, I guess some people just aren’t into that - ya know?”
There was a pause in the conversation, and she heard the two boys laughing. Erick cleared his throat, “So...she hasn’t dated...anyone?”
“Hmmm, not for as long as I’ve known her. Not seriously anyway. I mean, God, I can’t even imagine. What would that even be like? Not because she isn’t - I mean, any guy would be lucky!” Luisa paused, and Anne waited, not sure what Luisa would say next.
“I mean Anne is the best! I love her to pieces! I just -” she sighed, “This family would fucking fall apart without her. Not just us, but her dad and Eliza, too. You’ve met them. You know what they’re like. They’re all over the place! We need Anne. She’s our problem solver! If she just wasn’t there...?” Luisa let out a scoff at the thought. “Anne is our glue. She deserves happiness, a hundred percent, she does. I just...I wonder what would happen if she wasn’t there to hold us together anymore. Maybe it’s fate - put on this Earth to hold us all together. One happy family.”
The sentiment was sweet, and she knew Luisa didn’t mean for it to sound so...sad. In fact, she’s certain that Luisa meant it as a compliment. But the words made something in her stomach drop. It brought Anne back to about 7 years ago. The night she and Erick ended things.
“I get what you’re saying Anne. I do. Really. But love doesn’t have to be this self-sacrificial act all the time. Your family loves you, but it’s on their terms not yours. It’s not healthy. You always put your family first, but would they even do the same for you? You can choose to walk away from that. You can choose yourself first.”
She didn’t understand what he meant then, or she did, but didn’t want to admit it.
The memory made her skin crawl, and Luisa’s words confirmed what he said all those years ago. Luisa loved Anne and wanted her to be happy- but what- not at the expense of Luisa’s happiness? The family’s happiness? What would they do without her?
She told herself at the time that she was letting him go for noble reasons - for her mom, for her family - for reasons he didn’t understand. Really, she knew it was more than that.
Anne had heard enough. She quietly went back into the house, and crept out the front door to her car. She couldn’t think about this right now. She had worked so hard to move on. But, as she drove to work from the Mendoza’s, she couldn’t stop the memories from trickling back to the front of her mind.
Chapter 5: Eight Years Ago
Eight years ago - September
Anne loved her job at the Kellynch main library. Her sisters didn’t understand why she would choose a customer service job at a library, but it fit Anne perfectly. She loved the books, the predictability, and quite frankly, she liked being very good at her job. She especially loved the tranquility.
Outside of the library, the unavoidable pressures of life - familial expectations, social expectations, academic deadlines leading up to graduation - were suffocating. She already had a potential job lined up at the library, so she was luckier than most. But still, the thought of what would happen after May, the uncertainty of it all, caused her anxiety to endlessly swirl around her head. Her shifts at the library, however, stopped that anxiety - just enough to let her breathe. In between busy hours, she spent time reading for classes or reading for pleasure. She savored the act of restocking returned books, perusing unfamiliar titles, noting them for her to-read list.
It was the beginning of the semester. She sat at the customer service desk, and flipped through a book for one of her elective courses. The sun was streaming through the large windows - the hustle of the new year just starting. A calm before the storm.
“Excuse me? I think I have some books on hold? I think - I mean I tried to put them on hold, but it was giving me this weird message back, and so…”
She looked up and saw the owner of the rambling voice. He was jittery. As a customer service worker, she was used to jittery students. Anne, in all other aspects of her life, was not outgoing. But, not here. Here, she took charge with confidence.
“...So you think you have some books on hold?” Anne said, finishing his sentence for him, and giving him a polite smile. “Last name?”
She turned toward the computer in front of her, and he responded, “Wentworth - spelled like it sounds.”
“Erick. Ends with a -ck.” Anne typed away looking through the list of books on hold, checking and double checking before saying, “Hmmm. I’m not seeing it here.”
The guy cleared his throat. “Uh, it might be under Frederick Wentworth? I put Erick on a bunch of forms, but legally it’s Frederick.” He grimaced as Anne raised her brows, unconsciously. “I know, I know - it’s an abominable name. I’ve thought about changing it, but it was my great-grandfather’s so - Mom wouldn’t be too happy with me if I did.”
Anne fixed her expression, and tried to look more neutral. “Well, you know, it is a very stately name. You don’t hear a lot of stately names anymore. It’s nice. People will remember it.”
He grinned. “Stately. I like that. A much kinder word than abominable.”
She grinned back, and went back to the computer screen, looking for the name Frederick.
“Hmmm, I’m not seeing it under Frederick either, but sometimes the system messes up reserve orders if the student ID number is new. Did you just register here?”
“Uhhh, I did, actually. You’re good. Transferred for my last year.”
“Congratulations. To graduate from Kellynch is to graduate with honor.” She said it without even thinking - one of the phrases plastered everywhere around campus, especially now, it being the beginning of the school year. It was a little joke students liked to say when things were getting tough - midterms, finals, etc.
He laughed sharply. “Do they train you to say that?”
“When your father is a professor here, you learn all of the mottos by heart.”
“Makes sense,” he replied with amusement. Erick was boyishly handsome - a mess of dark brown hair, and a splattering of freckles here and there. It wasn’t like her to chit chat like this with students. She was polite, of course. She offered advice when asked. But Erick was nice. Something about him...Anne felt herself blush.
She picked up a pencil and a sticky note and cleared her throat. “If you give me the titles of those books, I can pull them for you now. Won’t take me long.”
He rattled off three names, and off she went. She didn’t need to look up the call numbers - they were books she had read more than once. She knew where they were like muscle memory. Anne was back with four books in hand in no time at all.
She spread the titles out in front of him, and told him to verify they were the correct ones, and his eyes widened. “Okay, I was kind of joking earlier when I said you were good, but now I am very seriously saying - Wow - you are good. That was fast,” Erick said.
Anne warmed at the compliment. “I’ve been here for a while, so, makes the job easier.”
“Uh, I didn’t request this one though,” he noted, picking up the fourth book at the end.
Anne nodded. “I recognized the other titles. I have a hunch that if you are requesting these three books together then you must be taking Professor Russell’s course?”
“I thought so,” she remarked. She pointed to the book in his hand. “It’s not on his syllabus, but he references that book all the time. Trust me. It’s easier to get through his work if you have it. Plus, if you reference it in one of the first classes, he will be thoroughly impressed. And trust me, he is not easy to impress. Can I see your student ID?”
“Uh yeah, sure.” Erick handed it to her, and Anne scanned the ID, then started scanning the titles as she rattled off the return and renewal policies.
She stacked them neatly, and pushed the pile on the counter toward him. He looked at her with an awed expression. “Are you like my Kellynch fairy godmother? Here to guide this new chapter of my life?” Anne laughed again, more genuine than before. He smiled wider in response.
She shrugged. “I’m just doing my job. But thank you! Students don’t usually compliment the library customer service.” Anne sat down again, and pulled a complimentary bookmark from her desk, sticking it in the first book of his pile. “Usually it’s just a list of demands or a complaint, and then a huffy exit when we take too long to give them what they want.”
“It can be. But I love it here. So, it’s all worth it in the end.”
“Oh? Are you saying this is the best campus spot? Another insider tip?” He joked, leaning against the counter, books nudged over to the side.
She thought it was the best, but it wasn’t a student body favorite. Most students favored other areas - the grassy lawn in the old part of campus, or the new student center with a cafe that sold the best local coffee.
“Well, I’m not sure you’ll find another student who says this is the best spot on campus. But - I do think it is very underrated. It’s quiet. It’s got the best lighting, the best seating options. Open desks for spreading out your stuff or for study groups. Secluded corners for when you need peace. But really…” she paused, twisting her mouth in thought. She rested her chin on her hand as she continued. “For me, it’s the atmosphere, the feeling. Libraries are a total escape from reality. They house the most incredible journeys - love stories, tragedy, adventure, articles that reveal unknown histories - this place houses the human soul. It has a surplus of possibilities, all lined up on the shelves for us to read, to love, to think outside of what we know. I mean, it’s almost...surreal when you think about it.”
Anne had lost focus of what she was in front of her. It was quiet for a beat, and she looked over at Erick, having almost forgotten that he was there. She realized that they had unconsciously leaned toward one another, faces closer than before. He was looking at her - quite intently, in fact. The intimacy jolted Anne back into her seat, and she tucked her hair behind her ears.
“Um,” she cleared her throat, and started rearranging the pencils and pens in her cup, “I’m an English major. That fact is probably abundantly clear to you right now.” He nodded absently, and Anne continued to fidget with the things in front of her to stop herself from rambling any further.
Erick snapped out of his reverie soon after, and abruptly stood up, rubbing his hand through his hair. “Oh uhhh, I mean - I thought that was -”
“- Intense! Yeah. I am sorry. I don’t usually ramble off to strangers like that. I am -” Anne covered her face with her hand, pretending to scratch her forehead. “- embarrassed. Um. Sorry. Again.” Anne felt her face get hot, but Erick shook his head quickly and disagreed.
“No! Please! Don’t be sorry. I was going to say that I thought it was...um, beautiful. I thought it was beautiful. ‘It houses the human soul.’ Wow.” He paused, looking at her briefly. “And you’re right! It’s completely true. I mean, I’m a journalism major, so I agree - literature can be very powerful. It can reveal a lot about humanity. Things that we like to overlook. So...I get that.”
Anne took a breath, and felt her face cool down. “Right. Exactly. That's exactly what I meant,” she said, and he nodded, unsure of how to continue, but clearly not ready to leave just yet.
She gave a small smile. “Well...” Anne said quietly.
They looked at each other. Erick opened his mouth as if to say something else, but then the customer service phone rang in the back office, bringing them back to reality.
“Uhh, I need to get that, but um, enjoy those books,” Anne got up. “If you need to reserve books again, the online system should start working for you within the next few days. So...enjoy!” She turned around and walked to the back before he could say anything else. She didn’t know why he had made her feel so...out of sorts. It wasn’t in a bad way. Not at all. It was almost...exhilarating.
But exhilaration can also be scary. And so, Anne stayed in the back office, sorting through paperwork until she was certain that he had left.
During her next shift, a few days later, Anne was distracted. Her eyes kept drifting over to the entrance. Each time she heard the automatic doors swish open, her head popped up. It was silly. It’s not like she expected him to come back. Not really. She just thought it would be nice. To see him again. Enough days passed for her to almost forget it ever happened when, lo and behold, he was back.
Anne had just finished a call in the office with an annoyed student, when she went back to her desk, writing a note for her boss as she walked. She paused to finish writing her last letter, when she looked up and saw him standing by the door, looking back at her. Her mouth opened in surprise and she looked behind her as if, for some reason, he might be looking at someone else (illogical considering the only thing behind her was a copy machine). He smiled and waved, and she returned the gesture, sitting down by her computer, pretending to flip through some notes.
He stopped in front at the counter. “Hi...again!”
“Hi!” They looked at each other for a second, both of them smiling stupidly. “Um,” Anne started, and he looked at her expectantly. “Did you...need help...with something?”
Erick looked at her, confused for a second, before realizing what she meant. “Oh! Uh, no. I don’t - actually.” She waited for him to continue. He looked like he had something to say, but couldn’t find the words.
“I just um...I came back the next day to talk to you, to thank you for your help, and you weren’t here. So, then I came back the day after that and you still weren’t here. I figured, ‘maybe come back the same day as the first day at the same time. People tend to work the same shifts.’ And I was right! Here you are. Monday at 2:00 pm.”
He came back to see me , Anne thought. The thought made her exceptionally pleased, so much so that she forgot to say something back.
His smile faltered at her silence. “That made me sound creepy, didn't it. I didn’t - I mean I’m not trying to be creepy. I just -”
Anne realized that rambling was kind of his thing. It was endearing. “I didn’t think it was creepy,” she reassured him. “I work Mondays, but then don’t come back in until Thursday. Missed me by one day.”
He bowed his head a little. “Of course I did.” He looked back at her, and started drumming his fingers on the counter. “Okay, um, I came back to thank you for your help. So, thank you.”
Anne nodded, responded with an of course, and waited. She didn’t want him to go, but didn’t know what else to say.
“Right, well - um,” Erick turned slightly, then stopped. “You know what,” he faced her fully, a look of determination on his face. “Actually, I also came back because I was wondering if you would like to...hang out sometime. Together. Coffee or tea or…?”
Anne never said yes to random men asking her out for coffee or tea or...anything. Sure, she had dated in high school. One boyfriend lasted a few months actually. He had been sweet, and he treated her well, but that was the extent of it. She just found that many of them just weren't worth her time. She had so many other things to worry about, so many other responsibilities. But Erick... exhilarating .
She smiled, and said, “I would really like that.”
His eyes widened, surprised, his grin so wide that it made her heart flip. “Great! That’s great! I am so glad you said that.” He laughed and looked visibly relieved. He looked at her, a little embarrassed. “I probably should have asked this first, but um. I don’t actually know your name.”
She laughed, his excitement contagious. “It’s Anne. Anne Ilao.” She stuck out her hand. “It’s nice to meet you Frederick Wentworth.”
He smiled back, beautifully, shaking her hand. “Anne Ilao. Nice to meet you, too.”
Anne spent as much free time as possible with Erick. If she wasn’t working or taking care of her family or studying, they were together.
She learned that he wasn’t always a rambler - only when he was nervous. Running his hand through his hair was another nervous tick. He was always fidgeting, just a little. A bit of a restless energy. But it wasn’t the type of restlessness that might lead one to believe he was annoyed or anxious. It was the kind of infectious restlessness - the kind that made a person want to ask where he was going, and if they could tag along. He was constantly moving from one thing to the next, dragging her along if he could. It was what brought him to Uppercross. He said he transferred for Kellynch’s award-winning journalism program, but really it was because he had gotten tired of New York City. Tired of the other students at Columbia. She asked him how he could ever feel restless in the city. It seemed impossible.
“There’s always something to do, but, I don't know. It gets repetitive I guess,” he explained one day. “Besides, I can’t stay in the same place for too long. Gotta see what’s out there if I want to write about the world.”
That was one thing they had common - writing. Erick preferred writing about current events wanting to educate those without access. Anne wrote more as a form of therapy. She wrote about her observations - vignettes inspired by moments from everyday life. In fact, she had written about half of what could be considered a novella. It was a fictional story of course, but very much inspired by the thing she knew best - her family. Her dad, her sisters, her mom. How they affected her. How she wished they would be. It had all of the things she wanted to say to them, but didn’t know how. She didn’t let anyone read any of her writings though. She would be too embarrassed, too vulnerable.
Even though she and Erick were quite different, there were never any pretenses. It was a balance. He never pushed her too much, but enough to make her try new things. And Anne kept him grounded in the moment, focusing on what was in front of him. They just worked - an instantaneous click.
“Why did we do this again?” Anne asked as they walked back to her room. He had one arm around her shoulders, the other holding a half eaten ice cream cone. Anne cupped a bowl of vanilla in hers.
“Because we wanted ice cream.”
“It’s freezing! My lips and hands are freezing.”
“I could...warm them up for you,” Erick laughed as Anne cringed at the innuendo. He knew she hated that cutesy stuff. Knew she would cringe. He loved it.
It was a classic November night in Uppercross. Cold, with a clear view of the stars. They were bundled up in coats walking back to his room across campus.
Anne stopped abruptly, forcing Erick to stop, too. “Hey - I think this is where my parents met. By this bench over here.” She walked over to examine the plaque affixed on an old worn down bench. Erick followed. “‘In honor of the Lovings: love conquers adversity.’ My dad always made a joke about how he met the love of his life on the Loving bench. It’s named after that couple and the Supreme Court case, for some reason. Weren’t they from Virginia?”
“Eh, you know universities. They like to show that they’re inclusive. The message is nice though.” Erick leaned down to read the plaque, and Anne started back toward the path. Erick sat down, and Anne looked at him. “What’re you doing? It’s cold.”
“Just sit with me for a minute,” he said, and she cocked her head to the side. “Come ooon . Just a minute. The sky looks nice.”
Anne couldn’t say no when he looked at her like that, with a look of complete adoration, and so she sat, and looked up at the stars. They did look beautiful. They sat in silence for a few minutes, taking it in.
“You know - you don’t really talk about your family,” Erick said. Done with his cone, he threw his napkin into the nearby trash can from where he sat.
She turned to him, amused. “What do you mean? I talk about them all the time. Just this morning I told you about Maria calling me about a C she got on her paper. Remember? She said she’s going to transfer here, which we all know will never happen because she’s already threatened it 4 times.”
He laughed, and nodded. “Yeah I mean you talk about them like - how they called you or how they asked you to do something or how you can’t hang out because your dad needs whatever. But I mean, you don’t talk about other stuff. Like - memories or how you feel about them or...”
Anne considered his words as she scraped at her near empty bowl, and he continued, “I’m not, like, trying to call you out and I’m not trying to imply anything either. I just noticed that whenever you talk about them it’s more like a chore on your to-do list.” He leaned back and looked at her. “Trust me, you know I am not close to my parents. At all. They are the dictionary definition of high society WASPs. I get weird family dynamics. But your relationship just seems...I don’t know.”
She knew he must have been thinking about this for a while. He was careful about the personal questions he asked - could tell she was guarded. Didn’t want to step on her toes.
Anne looked at him, his expression kind and open. His hair was getting long on top, and it flopped over his forehead. She pushed it back affectionately. “My family is complicated. We’re close, and we’re also...not close.” She pursed her lips, and he waited for her to find the right words.
“When my mom died, she told my sisters and me to always remember that family comes before anything else. I mean, that’s how it had always been, but especially after she passed. Family first. And, um, I don’t know. I’ve always been the...responsible one, which I know isn’t surprising in the least.” She shook her head, unsure of how to explain it all to him. “So, we take care of each other, but...feelings and emotions - they aren’t really our thing. So, we’re close, but also...”
He replied, “...not close.” She nodded. Then, Erick asked, “How do they take care of you?”
She looked at him confused, and he pressed on, “You listen to Maria on the phone about her grades, you help your dad sort through his bills, and you help Eliza study for her realtor’s license.” Anne was surprised he remembered that much. “But, I haven’t seen you ever call them . So - who takes care of you?”
Anne thought. She hadn't really thought about it that way before. She didn’t need help. She was Anne. She was the one who took care of things. “Well...there’s Tita Lettie. She’s always been there for me.”
“Yeah, to help you with your family. When you need help putting out fires. But, you’ve never called her to help you with something - just for you.”
They looked at each other and Anne, unsure of how to respond, playfully squinted at him. “You’ve been keeping tabs on me.”
He pretended to think and said, “Hmmm I think it’s called listening and caring, actually.”
She looked at her crumpled napkin and bowl. “You’re not...wrong. I take care of them. I’m the problem solver. They’re so...I don’t want to burden them with my stuff. I keep the family together. We promised my mom that we would think of each other first. I just happen to be the most adept at that. And I know that it seems odd or maybe even unhealthy, I don’t know, but that’s how it is in a Filipino family. It’s not just about you. It’s about all of us.” She frowned. “It’s complicated,” she finished, and she felt him put his around her shoulders again and pulled her close. They sat like that for a while, not thinking about the cold anymore.
“Thank you for explaining it to me,” he said, pressing his lips against her head.
“Thank you for asking,” she responded cheekily. He laughed, and rubbed his hand up and down her arm.
“If you’re looking for someone, I happen to be available for the ‘take care of Anne’ position.”
She laughed. “I can take care of myself, you know.”
“Oh I know, you are incredibly capable,” he said, and with a more serious tone continued, “but, you don’t have to take care of yourself all the time. It’s nice to have someone else do it. Every once in a while.”
She closed her eyes, head tucked between his shoulder and face.
“Well, how about a deal.” Anne lifted her face to his, the tips of their noses touching. “We can trade off. You take care of me, and I take care of you.”
Erick grinned, and rested his forehead on hers. “Deal.”
The holidays came and went - as did their first fight. Erick suggested staying in Uppercross with her family, but Anne had resisted, which in turn made Erick upset. It made him think that she didn’t take them seriously. He worried that he cared more about her than she did him. Of course, that wasn’t the case at all. It was the opposite.
Anne saw her life with Erick and her life with her family as two totally separate worlds. In one, she was Anne - loved, understood, and seen for who she was, warts and all. In the other, it was the opposite - she was lonely but also never left alone. Loved, but it was a complicated love. She did love her family. Couldn’t imagine her life without them, but - families are sticky.
The idea of Erick stepping into their household - it was too overwhelming. She couldn’t imagine the marrying of her two worlds. She cared about Erick more than anything. She wanted to protect their relationship from reality. Protect them from any obstacles.
A few nights after their initial argument, Anne let Erick read the draft of her novella. It was the only way she knew how to express how she felt. Verbalizing her feelings was not her strength. Writing was something she knew he would understand. He gave in, once he finished it. They agreed - Erick would go with his family to Lake Tahoe and Anne would stay here. They would keep their relationship private until they felt ready to share it with their respective families.
The truth was, though Anne knew he wouldn’t say it, Erick was a little relieved. He and his parents didn’t see eye-to-eye on a lot of things. His parents hadn’t been too happy about him transferring for one year. Any time he talked about them, it was with some contempt or frustration. His sister looked out for him, stood up for him, but she was also the golden child. The Yale graduate. Erick backed off because he understood how Anne felt - it was the feeling of being misunderstood, feeling out of place amongst the ones who were supposed to love you the most. They handled that feeling in very different ways. Anne stayed right in the middle - trying to feel some sense of control, or need. Erick avoided them as much as he could.
Erick had gotten back earlier that night, souvenir in hand - a horrendously neon Lake Tahoe magnet. Anne had very jokingly ended one of their calls with, “Bring me back a magnet.” So, of course, he brought the ugliest one he could find. A reminder that he knew exactly how to make her laugh. That he remembered everything she said - even a passing joke. She had missed him - a lot. More than she had expected.
They had a little holiday celebration together, before break, and promised to talk as much as possible while away. They texted constantly, and called each other almost every night before bed, but it wasn’t the same. Over the course of a few months, Erick had become Anne’s rock - her constant. It was jarring, and quite frankly, a little unsettling to be so dependent on another person. She knew he felt the same way. She could feel it in the way he hugged her when she walked into his apartment that night. Felt it in the way he kissed her, right after.
“Hey. You awake?” He whispered.
Anne had just started to doze, but her eyes popped open. She glanced at the clock on his bedside table, and saw it was a little after midnight. She rolled over and looked at his profile. Erick was lying on his back, hand in hair, the other on his stomach, staring at his ceiling. “You have 5 minutes,” she said, and he grinned, but only briefly. He was buzzing with nerves. She could feel it.
“So, um, I talked to my parents. About what I want to do after graduating,” he started, and Anne tensed. They hadn’t talked about ‘after graduation.’ Not yet anyway. She didn’t realize he was even thinking about it.
“I told them the truth. I want to travel. I want to write about what I see. I want to be a journalist, covering political unrest and...well you know all of this already.” Anne did know. He had mentioned it before, but she hadn’t really wrapped her head around what that meant. Him leaving. She rolled onto her back, mirroring his position.
“Okay,” she said, waiting for him to continue.
“They were...unsure at first, but, turns out they know someone. Someone they graduated with from Yale.” He rolled his eyes at that. “But turns out, he isn’t a pretentious ass. The guy is legit. His name is Craig Harville. I’ve met him once or twice, in passing. He’s based in London, but he tracks stories across the world. We spoke on the phone last week, and…”
Anne waited, stomach churning.
“He said he could use an assistant. It would be like a paid internship, I guess. He said it would be a year - at least. If he likes me then it could be longer. Introduce me to connections on the way. I mean, I know I’m only getting this chance because I know the right people, and that part feels shitty, but...it feels like a good fit. It feels right.”
“Wow...that’s - I mean, that’s amazing. Really, Erick. It’s incredible.” And it was incredible. Anne meant it. It just...well.
They laid there, listening to the rustle of the branches outside.
“Do you…” Erick started, “Do you think there’s any way you might come with me?”
Her brain halted. That wasn’t what she expected him to say. She expected him to say something along the lines of ‘making the most of the time they have left,’ or ‘maybe they should stop this now. So it won’t hurt as much later.’
She looked at him, and saw his gaze on her. “Come with you? To…”
“To London, first. Then - anywhere, I guess.” He rolled over, and propped himself up on his arm. “I know it sounds crazy. I know. But, I’ve already worked through the budget and expenses. Talked to Craig about you coming with us. He said a lot of people bring their partners and spouses along on trips. And, if you’re interested, he said he could pay you to edit pieces. You’re great at editing!” He looked at her with such earnestness. “I mean, you don’t have to commit to any permanent position with him,” he continued, “It could be piece by piece if you want. And it also wouldn’t pay much, but it would be something, at least. Something to get us started.” All of the words had spilled out of him, like water breaking through a dam.
Anne focused on her breathing, her brain moving in slow motion. It was a lot to process. Erick knew how she worked. Knew she was thinking. He waited.
Could she go with him? Leave Uppercross? Leave her family? The thought of leaving her family made her both thrilled and nauseated. But...he already worked through the budget. He included her in his plans. He asked about a job for her. He wanted her to be there with him. To travel across the world together. He wanted to live his dream with her.
‘ Something to get us started.’ God, she loved him.
She turned on her side, and they looked at each other, gauging how the other person was feeling. Anne spoke first, voice barely above a whisper, “A year of us traveling the world together. That’s a big commitment. You could get sick of me, you know.” Anne smiled weakly to soften the blow, but she was serious. She knew, logically, that he loved her, of course. She was still worried, though. What if he did get sick of her? What if something happens that causes him to push her away? Like he does with his family? Erick was an avoider. If he did that to her...it would crush her.
He looked at her intently. “I would travel the world with you for the rest of our lives. If you wanted.” Erick paused, his eyes searching her face. “I know it hasn’t been long, but...there isn’t anyone else for me. You’re it. I’m in this. All in. If you are.”
Anne knew what he meant - there wasn’t anyone else for her either. She was certain of it. But when she tried to picture it, the future, she panicked. Anne had always pictured herself staying here, in Uppercross, for the rest of her life. Of course she wanted to see the world, but she couldn’t actually picture herself doing it. It was like a scene from an alternate universe. Nice in theory, but unrealistic. And on top of that, could she leave her family? What would happen to them if she wasn’t here - holding them together? Would that make her a bad person? A bad daughter? It was all too much, too fast. So many uncertainties racing through her mind.
But - when she looked at Erick, he was so sure, so confident in them - together. It was a love that filled her to the brim. He looked at her like she was magic - a look that made her heart clench. How could she tell him - the one person who really understood her, the person she loved with all of her heart - how could she tell him no?
Anne scooted toward him until her face was on his pillow, hands on his chest, and he wrapped his arms around her as she did. They stayed like that for a minute, looking at each other.
“Okay,” she whispered, “I’m in.” Erick didn’t move at first, blinking slowly.
He leaned back and studied her face, a grin starting to form. “Are you serious?”
Anne felt her heart thudding in her chest. She nodded, and he immediately started peppering her face with kisses. She laughed, trying to push him off as he pulled her in closer.
The truth was, she wasn’t sure. At all. But, she wanted to be, so badly. So, she pushed all her worries to the side. She savored this moment with the man who loved her, the man she loved, and forgot about everything else.
Chapter 6: Some Space Would Be Good
In case it isn't clear - this chapter jumps back to the original timeline
**Major typo the first posting!! Paragraphs got rearranged somehow. If you read it when I first posted it, you might want to go back and reread it. So sorry about that!!
Over the next few weeks, Anne couldn’t stop thinking about the conversation between Erick and Luisa. She didn’t resent Luisa. She couldn’t really. Anne had spent most of her life prioritizing her family. Luisa had been right. She was their glue - holding the pieces together, drying until transparent - hidden from sight.
Every time Maria called, it was in a state of panic. When Eliza called (rarely) it was because she needed a favor or help. Anne’s calls with Walter were short, and consisted of questions like - “how are your sisters? When is Lettie coming back? Did you hear about…?” No one called her to talk about the bookstore. No one called her to talk about how she was doing. No one checked in with Anne.
She started avoiding her phone altogether. Calls went to voicemail, texts answered hours later. Eventually, her phone stayed hidden - in her bag or in a drawer or underneath the Archive’s front counter. It wasn’t out of spite or anger. Not really. She just needed to breathe, needed a break. She tried to ignore her guilt. Anne knew the mature thing to do would have been verbalizing her need for space. But if she did that, they would ask her why, and, well, she didn’t have an answer. She barely understood it herself. All she knew is that every time her phone rang or buzzed with one of their names across the screen, anxiety crawled up from her stomach and sat on her chest. That anxiety overpowered her guilt. So, she avoided.
Anne looked up from the Archive’s computer where she had been reviewing some emails. Eliza stood in front of her, hand on hip, eyeglasses perched on the top of her head.
“Where have you been? I have been trying to talk to you for days! We have a lot to discuss before this Saturday.”
This Saturday - the Kellynch annual holiday party, a huge event for all their employees. The Ilaos went every year, even after Walter’s retirement. They would chat up his former coworkers, families they knew from their time spent on campus. It was a fancy event - dinner, drinks, and dancing. Every year they honored a small group of people, thanking them for their contributions. This year Walter had been chosen.
“We all have our invites, and we sit at the same table every year,” Anne said as she moved away from the computer, shuffling through some receipts instead.
“Well, if you answered any of my calls, you would know by now that this Saturday won’t be the same as the other years. This year is going to be a little different.”
Anne looked at Eliza, trying to gauge the seriousness of this situation, when she heard, “Is now a bad time?”
The two sisters turned their heads, and saw a young man standing a few feet behind Eliza, holding some books, ready for checkout.
Anne cleared her throat and put on her customer service face, “No, not at all Elliot. Sorry about that. I can take you right here.”
Elliot Hamada was a regular Archives customer. Anne saw him a couple of times a week. He would peruse the shelves or purchase a coffee from the small cafe that adjoined the store. He attended every Sunday night book club - the one Anne often led.
Eliza scrutinized his face, “Have we met? You look familiar.”
He laughed lightly as Anne scanned his books, “Yes, we have. You’re Anne’s sister right? Or - I should say one of her sisters. I was a TA for your dad during his last year at Kellynch.”
“Ohhhh,” Eliza said, nodding. “That’s right! Elon?”
Anne made an apologetic expression towards Elliot. “No, it’s Elliot. Elliot Hamada. His dad and Papa still golf together?”
It was a little ridiculous that Eliza didn’t remember Elliot. Mr. Hamada had worked with their parents to build the Asian American studies program at Kellynch. The whole reason Elliot was a TA for Papa was because of their families’ connection. They ran into his parents multiple times a year.
She shot a disapproving look at Eliza, but her sister just shrugged, unaffected.
“That’s okay. It was close,” Elliot said, though visibly a little irritated. “I couldn’t help but overhear you two discussing this Saturday. I assume you’re talking about Walter’s honor at the holiday party.”
“Yeah, the whole family will be there. We’re definitely proud,” Anne replied, scanning his purchases.
“As you should be! Walter was an amazing mentor. He was always such an advocate for the humanities despite being a part of the STEM program. It’s quite admirable, really. The humanities are never given as much credit, but they really are just as important.” He tapped as he said his last three words, to emphasize his point. “Since he left, I’ve made sure to do the same. I host a series of book studies throughout every semester. Without the humanities, where would the world be? But of course you know - you being a Kellynch English major yourself. You’re proof enough that supporting the arts is worthwhile.” He turned to Eliza, and said, “The conversations she leads at the book club here - so thought-provoking. I think about them for days afterward.”
Eliza looked at him with thinly-veiled disgust. Anne just nodded. She knew that nodding along was really the only effective response when conversing with Elliot. He continued, “The holiday party is always a fun time. Being surrounded by friends and colleagues, eating a five-star meal in our finest clothes.”
“Last year it was an overcooked chicken breast,” Eliza retorted, and Anne threw her a look.
Elliot pushed on, “It’s really a lovely night.” He paused, looking at Anne’s face closely. “Since we’ll both be there, maybe you can save a dance for me?”
Eliza’s jaw dropped, and she looked at Anne scandalized.
“Your sister is always so busy! We can never get to spend time together after book club or after work,” he explained to Eliza. He turned back to Anne, and leaned on the counter. “We can finally talk about that Ocean Vuong book - it was mesmerizing .”
This was not the first time Elliot had proposed they spend time together outside of the store. In fact, he was quite persistent.
Anne smiled nicely and remained vague. “We’ll see!”
He looked encouraged at her response, and nodded his goodbye as he walked out. Eliza watched him leave, then quickly turned around to look at Anne with a raised eyebrow. “You’re always busy are you? What are you always busy with?”
Anne gave her a look, and Eliza shrugged and continued, “I’m just saying! He’s a little annoying, sure, but he’s definitely cute. You could do worse, you know.”
Eliza wasn’t wrong - Elliot was handsome. He had a charming smile, and dimples. His black hair though a little long, had a nice curl at the ends, a trait inherited from his Italian mother. Honestly, Anne had always been a little envious of his hair. But, she didn’t like the idea of dating a regular customer. Also, Elliot was…a lot.
“I don’t date customers.”
Eliza rolled her eyes. “Whatever.” She moved to stand right in front of Anne, and said, “I need you to come over to Maria’s tonight at 6:30. It's a required family meeting.” She leaned in and whispered, “Everything will be revealed then!” With a wink, Eliza left, not waiting for Anne to say whether or not she could make it.
She didn’t like surprises, and she certainly wasn’t in the mood for one of Eliza’s schemes. Eliza’s surprises usually involved a horribly rash decision (the night she got a misspelled tattoo) or a poorly planned event (Maria’s second baby shower. Eliza forgot to invite Frances, a fact Frances has never forgotten). On top of that, Anne didn’t love the idea of going back to the Mendoza house. As her shift neared its end, Anne put off leaving work for as long as she could. She offered to restock, close out the register, lock up. Then, she took the long way to Maria’s, driving through neighborhoods, mentally preparing herself for whatever Eliza had up her sleeve. Eventually, she ran out of things to do, and parked in front of Maria’s house. Much to her disappointment, she saw the Croft’s car parked in the driveway, too. Of course they were here. Exactly what Anne needed.
She sat in her car and took some deep breaths. This shouldn’t bother her so much. This was just a typical family meeting - no big deal.
“OH MY GOD! Where have you been? I’ve been worried sick!” Maria said, running towards Anne as she stepped through the door. She engulfed Anne in a hug with such force that Anne almost fell backwards.
“Yeah, way to be late Anne,” Eliza yelled from the dining room.
“Am I late? Sorry - work was...you know.”
Maria pulled back and studied her face with confusion, “You’re never late! Never! I thought you had gotten mugged or something. It’s already past 7:00! Your phone kept going straight to voicemail!”
Anne had turned it off at 5:30. Eliza had been texting her reminders nonstop, and Maria was texting her about Eliza being a nuisance.
“Oh yeah,” she said, taking off her coat, and walking toward the rest of them, “It, um, died this afternoon. Battery is conking out.”
She heard Maria mutter with a confused tone, “Your battery never dies.” Anne ignored her and walked into the dining room, toward Eliza’s voice. She heard Charlie and the boys playing in their playroom down the hall. She walked in and saw Sophie and Luisa were there, too. Anne waved hello, avoiding eye contact with Luisa. Seeing her made her stomach clench. At least Erick wasn’t there - at least there was one reprieve tonight.
“Anne!! Long time no see!” Luisa jumped up from the table and gave her a squeeze. She had clearly come straight from a shift at the hospital - still in her scrubs, her ombré blonde hair pushed back by a thick headband. “I’ve missed you!” she said, as she pulled away from Anne. Luisa was still Luisa - sweet and loving, and Anne felt some of her anxiety lessen.
“Hey Anne! Here to help us look at some design ideas?” Sophie asked, gesturing towards a plethora of paint swatches in front of them. “I can’t choose a color scheme. The color scheme and design really set the tone for a therapist’s office, and tone is everything.”
“No, no, no! Anne is here for our big family meeting!” Eliza pushed the paint swatches into a pile. “Finally,” she said under her breath.
“Where’s Papa?” Anne asked, putting down her things.
“What do you mean? You know he’s always out. I filled him in weeks ago. Now, if you will all follow me!” Eliza said, clapping her hands to hurry them along.
“I thought this was a required family meeting,” Anne responded, but Eliza ignored her. She had been forced to come to this meeting and Papa was nowhere in sight. They were planning for his night.
“Ohhhhhh, this sounds exciting!” Luisa exclaimed.
Eliza ushered everyone into the living room, where Anne saw three dress bags hanging from the fireplace.
“Are we a part of this?” Sophie asked, as she and Luisa sat on the couch.
Maria smirked, “No, Eliza just likes an audience.” Eliza cleared her throat dramatically and waited for all of them to be seated, looking at her in very mild anticipation.
“As you all know, this Saturday is the Kellynch holiday party. What some of you do not know is that the holiday party was also the setting for our family’s Christmas card picture.”
Anne looked at Maria, and they both shared a confused look. They stopped making Christmas cards as soon as Mama passed. It had been too much the first year, all of them still mourning. The second year was better, but then Papa forgot to plan the outfits. By the third year, they decided to scrap the idea altogether.
Eliza started lining the coffee table with all of their past Christmas cards, and they all leaned closer to take a look. They looked so happy, so sweet in their color-coordinated outfits. Sophie and Luisa cooed appreciatively.
“But!” Eliza yelled dramatically, and they all jumped a little. “Our very last Christmas card picture was never sent out. We printed the picture of course, but somehow, the picture mysteriously vanished.”
“Meaning that Papa misplaced it,” Maria explained.
“That is...until today!” And with a flourish, Eliza placed a stack of the missing picture on top of the laid out cards.
Anne and Maria gasped, and immediately grabbed a copy each. There they were, their last holiday party together, sitting on the grand staircase of the Kellynch Arts’ building. Mama had decided that they would all wear green that year. She even custom ordered a barong with green detailing for Papa. He normally wore a traditional barong, but Mama wanted it to be special. Different. They all knew, subconsciously, that it would be her last Christmas with them. There in the picture, she was frail, with a wrap covering her head. She was still beautiful of course, smiling widely in a beautiful, off-the-shoulder dress, one arm linked through Walter’s. Anne remembered watching her mom walk down the stairs of their home that night. She looked like a movie star.
“Where did you…?” Maria asked, an obvious lump in her throat.
“Found it when we cleaned out Papa’s house. I wanted to wait until now to show it to you.” Eliza plopped herself down next to Anne, the three sisters piled together on the couch. Eliza put her chin on Anne’s shoulder, and wrapped her arms around Anne’s waist.
“Your mom was beautiful,” Sophie said, admiring all of the pictures laid out.
“She was the best,” Eliza replied fondly.
“This was the last time we all took a picture together. Like a family,” Anne said softly, still staring at the picture in her hand. She heard Maria sniffle next to her, and Anne felt tears start to form.
“Awwww you guys! Stop! You’re gonna make me cry!” Luisa said. Anne looked at Maria, already wiping at her eyes with a tissue, and then to Eliza, whose tears flowed freely from her face.
“Who’s making you cry?”
They turned around and saw that Charlie had entered the room. Behind him were Adam, and unfortunately, Erick. Max and Ethan ran around the dining room table.
Anne quickly wiped at her eyes, and shook her head. “It’s nothing! Sorry, we’re a mess. It’s...just a picture.”
Eliza swatted her shoulder. “It is not just a picture, Anne.” Eliza got up, taking the picture from Anne’s hands, and she held it out for Charlie. “It’s the last family picture we took with our mom. It was supposed to be our Christmas card that year, but we lost it. Thought it was gone forever!”
Charlie took it, and the three men looked at the picture together. Anne realized, quite suddenly, that this was the first time Erick was really seeing her as a part of her family. Here with her two sisters. That picture, with both of her parents. She had tried so hard to keep them separate all those years ago. It was ironic, really, that he would be here during this moment.
“That’s beautiful!” Adam said, “What a wonderful thing to find!”
“Yeah,” Erick agreed, “It’s nice.” He was still looking at the picture, but he looked at Anne, for just a second. A small acknowledgement that he understood what this meant to her. Whether it was purposeful, she couldn’t say, but it was enough for her. Anne cleared her throat, wanting to move on.
“So, what are the dress bags for?” Anne asked.
“Well,” Eliza started unzipping them while she explained, “To celebrate Papa’s special night, I thought that we could bring back the Christmas card tradition! And what better way than by recreating this very picture.” Eliza gestured a la Vanna White toward three, beautiful green ensembles. “Ta-daaaaa!”
The color of each matched the outfits from the picture perfectly, and at the end was a dress that looked almost exactly like the one Mama wore that night.
“Oh la laaaa, this off-the shoulder one is hot,” Luisa said, standing up to admire it.
“I know, right? Anne is going to look amazing in it,” Eliza gushed, holding up the old picture against the three outfits. “Ugh, it’s going to be such a beautiful photo!”
Anne started at this. “Wait - you want me to wear that one?” It was a beautiful dress. And it really was similar to their mother’s one. Mama had always been bold - a scene stealer. Anne was not.
“Of course!” Eliza looked at her. “I’ll wear the jumpsuit. Maria will wear the Kate Middleton inspired number, and you will wear that one.”
The idea of wearing that dress made Anne’s skin crawl. It was low. It was tight. And it looked too much like her mother. She would be exposed - in every way.
Anne shook her head. “I mean, it’s nice, it’s just not...really me. Maybe Maria should wear it?”
“Babe, you’d look beautiful!” Charlie said supportively, but Maria scoffed.
“No way! I can’t fit into that. Not after two kids. I like my dress just fine.”
“Come on, Anne, you have to! It’s so similar to Mama’s!” Eliza turned to the guests. “Our mother was quite the fashionista. An inspiration!”
“It is a little showy Eliza,” Maria said, looking at it with hesitation. “Mama’s wasn’t so...fitted? This is a university holiday party, not a night out in Vegas.”
Maria and Anne stood next to each other, wearing the same hesitant expressions.
Eliza rolled her eyes, “Oh my Gooooood you guys are such prudes. Come on - it’s snug, but it stops at the knee! This is barely Vegas worthy. At most it’s a night out at a Manhattan fundraiser.”
“That is so specific, and yet so spot on,” Adam said quietly to Sophie.
“Why don’t you wear it?” Anne countered.
“I was going to wear that dress, but then I found the jumpsuit. And truth be told, I’m the only one tall enough to pull it off.”
Maria snorted, “Wow, thanks.”
“I think you’ll look amazing Anne! The professors won’t know what hit them!” Luisa said, wiggling her brows.
Anne cringed at the thought of an old professor ogling her. It wasn't about how she would look, it was about how she would feel. A mixture of anxiety and annoyance started bubbling up in her chest. Eliza continued, “Yeah! Besides you promised that Elon guy a dance on Saturday. He’d love to see you in this.”
Maria and Luisa let out a collective ‘ooooohhhhh’ and Anne pinched the bridge of her nose in frustration.
“Eliza, I didn’t promise anyone anything. I don’t date customers.” Anne was starting to feel prickly, overstimulated - the photo, the dress, the nostalgia, the people.
“Yeah well, you don’t date at all,” she muttered.
“Yeah well, who are you dating right now? Oh that’s right, no one,” Anne snapped back.
“Oh shit!” Luisa cackled, “Anne came out to fight tonight!” Charlie started laughing with her and jeered, “Daaaaaaaaamn!” Maria swatted at his arm, and told him to stop. Anne felt her cheeks burn. She didn’t mean to say that.
She looked around and saw Sophie’s eyebrows raised in surprise. Not judgment, but surprise. Adam looked like he was trying not to laugh. Anne couldn’t look at Erick right now.
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that.” Anne rubbed her forehead, suddenly feeling tired. She sighed, “I really appreciate this. It’s a nice idea. A lovely idea, really. I’ll - I’ll wear the dress.”
Eliza, who was pouting petulantly, perked up at Anne’s acquiescence. “Yay!! I knew you would come around!!” She wrapped Anne up in a bear hug. “It’s going to be so great. And just an FYI,” Eliza said, pulling away from Anne pointing to the rest of the group, “I had a date last Saturday. It went very well , if you catch my drift.”
Charlie made a noise of disgust. “Alright, I’m out. Time to put the boys to bed. Come on you rascals!” He playfully picked up Ethan, and Max ran after them up the stairs squealing in delight.
Eliza clapped her hands excitedly and ran off to the kitchen. “Time to open the champagne! Maria - I’m going to need your champagne flutes!”
“She brought champagne?” Maria asked, and Luisa laughed, following Eliza into the kitchen, offering to help.
Maria looked at the dress, then back at Anne and sighed. “It’ll be fine. Besides, you are the one who looks most like Mama. Plus, you’re the one who...well, you know. Out of the three of us, it makes sense that you would be the one sitting in for her.”
Maria squeezed Anne’s hand affectionately, then made her way to the kitchen. Anne watched her leave.
“You really do look like her.”
Anne turned, and saw the rest of them studying the picture, too. Sophie looked at Anne’s face, then back to the photo.
“She worked at Kellynch, right?” Adam asked, genuinely curious. Erick was looking at the layout of old Christmas cards, studying them closely
Anne nodded, and Sophie continued, “What was she like? If you don’t mind me asking.”
“Um, well…” Anne thought for a second, unsure of where to start. She perched herself on the arm of the couch while she thought. “She was...incredibly smart. Very social. Uhh…she always went after what she wanted - didn’t care what anyone thought. People liked to call her a rebel. I mean, she had to be if she wanted to work at the school at the time. You know, there weren’t a lot of other Asian professors there, especially female ones. So, she had to be her own advocate. Well until Tita Lettie got there.” Anne smiled at the memory of her mom always rallying around a cause or a group of people. Always speaking up. “Um, but she was also really caring, and empathetic. People were always stopping by our house - either asking for help or dropping off a thank you gift. Her arms were always open.”
Anne, caught up in the memory of her mom, cleared her throat and ended with, “She was loved.”
Sophie smiled, “Sounds like you.”
Anne laughed humorlessly, “Right.”
“Caring, empathetic, arms always open? Is that not you? Tell me I’m wrong,” Sophie looked at Adam and Erick for support.
“That’s nice of you to say. I just meant…” She got up again, and stared at the dress, figuring out how to articulate her thoughts. “My mom - she never took no for an answer.” Anne smiled ruefully, “She would always say - ‘Anne, speak up! How can anyone know your brilliance if you always stay so quiet?’”
She swallowed, feeling another lump in her throat. Anne didn’t know what possessed her to say any of this out loud - maybe the nostalgia was too powerful. It was cutting off her filter.
Anne stayed in Uppercross because leaving her family made her feel an unbearable amount of guilt. They had all been so broken after Mama had passed. The idea of them splintering even more, the idea that she caused that splintering, felt like disrespecting everything her mother stood for - family always. Family first. They needed to be there for each other, no matter what. But now...What would her mom say? Anne - always hiding, always so cautious. That didn’t exactly align with Ofelia’s philosophy, either.
“Anne…” she heard someone say, as she rubbed her forehead again, hiding her face - she needed to go home.
“Okay - champagne has been poured! Some of us already had a glass,” Eliza said carrying the bottle and some champagne flutes.
Anne turned around and ducked her head. She picked up her purse, stuffing a copy of the photo inside of it. “I’m going to pass on the champagne for tonight.” Her throat felt tight, the words difficult to get out.
“Wait, what?” Luisa said, walking in behind Eliza. “We haven’t hung out in ages! Stay!” Maria joined in her pleas, but Anne could only focus on going back home - her safe place. She zipped up the dressing bag and swung it over her shoulder.
“Do you need someone to drive you?” She stopped. Erick was looking at her, concerned. “It’s just...you seem a little out of it.”
He knew she wasn’t okay. He could always tell. It was nice, knowing that he cared, at least enough to ask. But, the concern made Anne’s throat constrict even more.
Anne shook her head, and feigned confusion. “What? No! I’m fine! Totally fine. I just - haven’t been getting much sleep lately. Daylight savings maybe. It always takes me a while to get over that. Or stress?”
She pulled on her coat, and gathered her things.
Maria stepped forward. “Anne, you’re never late, your phone never dies, and you always answer calls and texts. Or at least return them! If you’re that sleep deprived, maybe you should just stay here tonight.”
“Yeah, enjoy a full night of sleep in a house with two toddlers,” Eliza said sarcastically, while taking a sip from her glass.
“The three of us were going to head out soon. You can ride with us, if you don’t feel up to driving. Come back tomorrow to pick up your car,” Erick suggested, looking over at his sister to see her nodding in agreement.
Anne felt bad for causing so much worry and concern. But she couldn’t help but feel frustrated by it all too - where was this concern before? Over the last seven years? Since Mama died? (She knew that thought was illogical. Knew they loved her, really. Knew she wasn’t acting like herself. But she was too upset to care).
She walked to the door, and put a hand on the knob. “Really guys, I appreciate it, but I feel fine. I’m fine! Maria, I promise I will text you as soon as I get home. Eliza, I will be there on Saturday - dress and everything! Okay? I’ll see you guys later.”
Anne walked out, and speed walked to her car, and threw all of her things in the back. As soon as she sat in the driver’s seat, she put her head on the steering wheel, and focused on calming down.
Anne drove home, and texted Maria, just like she promised. She hung the dress bag on the front of her closet door, and placed the old picture on her bedside table. Earlier, she had been so entranced by her mother - her smile and her elegance - that she hadn’t even looked at herself. There was Anne, sitting in front of her mom. Mama’s free hand rested on Anne’s shoulder, protectively. She was so young, no older than thirteen. She smiled, shyly at the camera. Anne looked at her younger self, wishing that she could go back, and tell her...well, she wasn’t sure what she would say. But she knew that at some point - some point since that moment - she made the wrong decision, chose the wrong path. She just didn’t know when it happened.
She dreamt she was on a racetrack.
She was running - sprinting really - trying to reach the finish line. She heard the sound of the other runners behind her. Their feet hitting the ground. She pushed herself harder at the cheer of the crowd. She was out of breath, sweat sticking on her skin. She was winning. She was in the front.
She turned to the side to search for her family in the stands, but remarkably, the stands were empty - quiet. She looked behind her. The other runners were gone, too. She faced forward, and looked at the track itself, and saw that there was no finish line. Nothing. Just an endless, unmarked loop.
Anne slowed down, and stopped, her breath heaving in and out. She couldn’t remember why she had been running - sprinting - like her life depended on it. How did she get here? She looked around, feeling lost. She put her hands on her knees, trying to catch her breath.
She looked up, and saw her mother standing there, in the dress, far enough away that she couldn’t reach her.
“Anne,” she said again. “What are you doing? Why are you running?”
Anne tried answering, but she couldn’t. She didn’t have the answer. Her mom tilted her head, and looked at her, worried.
“ Anak , you’re so tired. You need to stop.”
Anne closed her eyes and sat down on the track. She really was tired. So tired. But when she looked up again to tell her, Ofelia was gone.
She rested her head on her knees. How did this happen?
How did she end up alone?
Chapter 7: Party Time
Is it Jane Austen without a dance?
Anne stared at the dress hanging on the closet door. She knew it was just a dress. Logically, she knew that. But the longer she stared, the more it seemed to morph into its own being, symbolizing the complexity of her family. A life full of love and loyalty. A life full of selfish and codependent behaviors. And, to make it worse, the dress reminded her too much of her mother. Her bold, loving, and compassionate mother whom she missed more than she ever cared to admit. It reminded her of the promise she made, the promise that she had been living behind for years.
Anne thought about skipping the holiday party. She even considered telling Maria that she was sick (she figured out of the three, Maria would be the least hostile), but she couldn’t bring herself to make the call. Eventually, she forced herself to step away from the closet. She mindlessly got ready - curling her hair, putting on her dressy gold earrings, throwing things in her purse - dreading the idea of being in that big event room, with tons of people she felt obligated to greet. The idea of sitting at a table with not just her family, but also the Crofts and Erick. Erick witnessing her family’s dysfunction.
Anne put on the dress, ignoring how claustrophobic it felt. She stepped in front of the mirror for one final check, and saw, for just a moment, her mother. The resemblance so startling she had to do a double take. The same mouth, one that Anne had always felt was too big. The same slender, flat nose. Walter and her sisters were more angular in their features, high cheekbones and pointed noses. Not Anne and Ofelia. They were soft, both in demeanor and in appearance.
When Anne was a kid, everyone always said she was a carbon copy of her mother. There was only one clear difference - their skin. It was one of the most notable traits that Anne shared with Walter. The two of them had the same golden brown complexion, while the other three members of their family were fairer. More of a golden beige. Walter liked to say that Anne was the best combination of her parents, his skin and her mother’s everything else. “It’s good skin . Thick skin. It’ll protect you,” Walter would say, with a wink.
And it was true, in a way. Ofelia wore her heart on her sleeve, but not Walter. He kept his feelings hidden and locked away. Another commonality between Anne and her father. It was a trait she had been grateful for in the past. During her mom’s funeral. When she ended things with Erick. Grateful to have that thick skin. But now it felt like a barrier, a protectant that had done more damage than intended.
Anne stepped away from the mirror and tried to take some calming breaths. Her nerves already pent up, and she hadn’t even left her building. She decided a walk might alleviate some of the tension, so she grabbed her big coat and made her way to campus. Unfortunately, she was wrong. Anne, so wrapped up in her mood, walked onto campus through the West side entrance, the side she usually avoided at all costs. It wasn’t until she saw the Billings Suites sign, that she stopped, realizing her mistake. She looked at the sign, startled. The last time she stood in front of this building, it was covered in ivy, spring flowers in bloom. The end of May, a few days after graduation.
Their plan had been so naive, so innocent. In hindsight, they should have predicted it wouldn’t work, but they were hopeful. Anne planned on breaking the news to her family after graduation. Then, she would spend the next three months making sure they would be okay without her - she would coach her dad through paperwork, make sure Eliza had a steady income, and so on. During those three months, Erick planned on splitting his time between his parents’ home and Uppercross. They agreed that he would meet the Ilaos a week after the news broke, so they would have time to process. Then, he would start visiting as much as possible to show them that he and Anne would be fine. Show them how happy they were together. And, Anne hoped, to show them that she was doing the right thing.
But, Anne couldn’t handle the anxiety leading up to it. She had been so stressed about their decision, so stressed about telling her family that she was leaving, that she needed to confide in someone. Someone she trusted. Someone to tell her that she was making the right decision. So, Anne went to Tita Lettie.
Tita Lettie had only met Erick once (a serendipitous run-in on campus, before any of this had been planned). He told her about his passion for current events, his desire to travel. Going wherever the story took him. Though Tita Lettie thought he was nice enough, she didn’t want that life for Anne. She didn’t want Anne to get hurt, to get left behind. Anne had been through enough, and she deserved stability. And so, when Anne revealed how scared she was about taking this leap, Tita Lettie was more than willing to persuade her.
“He isn’t like us, anak. His parents send him off - they don’t care. That’s how his world works, and that’s fine. He doesn’t understand what family means to us. This plan is self-indulgent. People from here, that’s how they live their lives. Leave home and forget about their families. But - think about your father Anne. How will he take care of your sisters? How will your sisters take care of him? We always, always look out for each other. This plan is not you Anne. This boy likes new things - like a tourist. What happens when he wants to move on to the next woman? You’ll be alone. Your family is what you can depend on. Not him.”
Presently, Anne stood in front of Erick’s old building, replaying that night in her head. She remembered walking over to this very spot, going up the stairs, and telling Erick she was staying here. Despite their months of planning, despite what she said earlier, she couldn’t leave Uppercross.
The sound of her phone ringing in her purse brought her back to reality. She took a deep breath and, without looking at the call (she knew it was Maria. Would bet a lot of money on it), made her way to the party. Anne shook her head, willing her mood to go away. It was just a building, and it was just a dress. Anne was being ridiculous. She pushed through the hordes of acquaintances, waving to friendly faces, glancing at the time as she did - about 15 minutes late. Not too terrible, but she knew what was waiting for her at the table.
“Anne - where have you been?!” Maria asked from her seat, as soon as Anne walked up. All of them looked at her. Walter stood behind Maria’s seat, but walked towards Anne as she approached.
“It’s usually Eliza running late! I wasn’t expecting it from you tonight,” he said, opening his arms for a hug. She smiled weakly, and apologized, giving him a kiss on each cheek. He looked great - dressed in his custom-made barong from all those years ago. Just like the picture. She thought of the Walter in front of her and the Walter back then. He had always been stubborn, always a little negligent. But he had changed so much over the years. Walter didn’t even sit with them at the holiday party anymore. He mingled at as many tables as he could. Eventually the girls stopped saving him a seat.
“VA VA VOOOOOOOOOM! Anne looking hot!” Luisa hollered from her seat by Erick.
Anne stood uncomfortably as the other people at the table made similar remarks to Luisa’s (except Erick, of course. He took a drink of his beer and focused on reading the label).
“All of you guys look so glamorous together!” Sophie remarked, gesturing to Walter and his daughters.
Eliza flipped her hair over her shoulder as she turned around to inspect Anne and Walter. “We really do. My styling is impeccable.”
Maria rolled her eyes, but Walter looked at Anne. He squeezed her hand, and quietly said, only loud enough for her to hear, “Ay - you look so much like her.”
He smiled slightly, but it was gone almost as soon as it appeared, Anne’s heart clenching as it did. He cleared his throat, and she wanted to tell him that it was okay. She missed her, too. They all did. But before she could get the words out, Walter excused himself - telling all of them to have fun as he left. Anne watched him leave, the warmth of his hand still on hers.
“Everything looks so pretty, right?” She heard Luisa ask. Anne nodded while she surveyed the room, the hall already crowded - a sea of tables with white tablecloths set up around the room. One square of the floor set aside for dancing after dinner, the band slowly setting up their instruments.
Anne took a steadying breath, as she sat between Eliza and Sophie. Everyone looked so dressed up. Charlie in a sports coat, the fanciest piece of clothing he owned. Adam and Sophie, in color coordinated maroon ensembles, took the place of the older Mendozas (Frances never missed an opportunity to babysit). Luisa, dressed in gold complimenting her ombré hair, kept peeking at Erick.
It was odd that Erick was even there at all considering he and Walter barely spoke, but Walter insisted that he attend. He wanted everyone to be there. Apparently there had been a lot of back and forth, but Walter had won in the end. He usually did. Either way, Erick looked great. Anne didn’t want to admit it, but he did. Black suit, black tie. Simple, but classic.
“Late - again,” Eliza said, bitingly.
Anne felt a flicker of annoyance, and poured herself a glass of wine from the bottle sitting at the table. “But here. In the dress. Right?”
“You really do look amazing! All three of you do - together like that,” Luisa said, smiling so genuinely. “I love it!”
“Yeah Elon is going to looooove seeing you tonight,” Eliza teased again.
“You have to know his name isn’t Elon at this point,” Anne rebutted.
Eliza shrugged, “Eh, he acts like an Elon.”
“Oh man, that is so not a compliment,” Charlie said, cringing.
“Who is Elon? Or - not Elon?” Adam asked, looking confused.
Before Eliza could answer crudely, which Anne knew she would, she said, “He’s a customer from the Archives. He goes to my book club every Sunday. And his name is Elliot. And that’s it! He’s just a customer.” With that, Anne took a big sip from her glass, and Sophie’s eyebrows went up.
“Well, well, well, looks like we’re having fun tonight!” she remarked, taking a sip of her own drink.
Maria learned over Eliza, much to her annoyance, and asked, “Anne, why were you late? I checked Find my Friends, and it said you were on campus ages ago. Your dot was just stuck in front of some student apartments. The one that starts with a B…?” That confirmed Anne’s suspicions. It was Maria who called her.
“Oh, Billings?” Adam offered.
Anne heard a loud cough, and they all turned. Erick was chewing on a piece of bread, and seemed to get some stuck in his throat. Adam thumped him on the back, and told him to slow down. His face turned red, “Right - just went down the wrong way.”
Anne feigned confusion and muttered some excuse about spotty service and a lot of foot traffic, before swiftly changing the subject.
During dinner, Anne tried to focus on her conversations with Sophie or Maria, but couldn’t help but notice the two people sitting across from her. Luisa was clearly smitten, giggling at Erick's jokes, roping him into every conversation. Erick would smile and laugh, but Luisa’s flirtations were never reciprocated. Clearly, at least from Anne’s perspective, it was an unrequited crush. She wondered if she should warn Luisa, or encourage her to find someone else, but found herself cringing at the thought of getting involved. Getting in the way of Erick’s life again.
They were all enjoying dessert, enjoying the conversation, when all of their attention turned to Erick. Charlie, not knowing anything about journalism, kept asking about the odds and ends of the work - what journalists did daily, what the pay was like, and so on.
“Okay - here’s a question,” Charlie started, sitting up in his chair. “What’s the worst part of the job?”
“Oh my God, Charlie,” Luisa said, rolling her eyes. “Are you a kindergartener?”
But, Erick thought for a second, tapping the spoon from his coffee mug on the table, and answered, “The worst part is when you hit a dead end. Sometimes you start following a lead, and it turns out to be a total dud. All that time spent on nothing. Pretty disheartening,” he said.
“I would have guessed the constant travel, and sleeping in shitty hotels,” Charlie responded, and Maria nodded in complete agreement. “Oh I know! I would die without my nightly rituals. Ugh - and who knows who slept in that bed before you!”
“Yeah, I really try not to think about that,” Erick responded.
Sophie put her elbows on the table, cupping her chin in one of her hands. “It would be nice to have one place to come back to at the end of every night. Maybe a person to come back to…”
“Sophie, leave him alone!” Adam rolled his eyes and laughed, and she playfully shoved his shoulder.
“I’m just saying! It would be nice to have someone with you. They could even travel with you.”
Erick smiled, obviously used to her badgering. “You would think so, but…” he paused, poking at the crumbs on his plate, “There’s a lot of uncertainty that goes into the kinds of pieces I write. I’m not sure I could have a partner with me. Not sure if I could do that to someone else.”
Anne refrained from visibly fidgeting. This conversation was veering toward a topic she did not want to discuss.
“Oh please! There are tons of women who are into that sort of thing. Hello - female reporters!”
Erick shook his head, and sat up in his seat. “It’s not at all about me being a man.” Sophie shot him a look, and he continued, “Really, it’s not. Tons of women out there are way tougher than me. I just meant that the environment isn’t great for anyone trying to sustain a relationship. Especially if your partner isn’t also doing the same work. It’s a lot of waiting around,” Erick shrugged. “Trust me. I’ve seen it happen. It’s best I do it alone.”
Anne’s heart raced, and she saw Luisa’s face drop. Maybe it was all for the best then. She hoped he was happy - happier than he would have been with her there.
Thankfully, the music started and the topic was dropped. The band leader announced that the dance floor was open, and they all watched as couples started moving to the center of the room.
“Anne Ilao - you are a vision tonight!”
She had been in the middle of taking a drink, and choked on her wine as soon as she heard Elliot’s voice. Sophie started rubbing her back, and Eliza whispered excitedly, “Oh this is gonna be good.”
As soon as she caught her breath, she turned around and smiled tightly, “Elliot, nice to see you.” She made the introductions to everyone at the table.
After they all exchanged their hellos, Elliot crouched down by Anne and took a hold of her hand. “Anne - ”
“Oh um,” she started, as she leaned away from him.
“ - you really do look stunning.” Anne tried her best to freeze her expression, blushing from secondhand embarrassment. He tried to bring her hand to his lips, but she pulled her hand away quickly, placing it in her lap.
“No - I, um…” Anne cleared her throat. “Thank you,” she mumbled, turning her face away from him. Charlie started laughing, but tried to disguise it as a cough once his wife elbowed him.
Maria tried speaking over him instead. “So, Elliot! We hear that you go to Anne’s book clubs?”
“Oh yes. The Archives hosts a few book clubs throughout the week, but Anne’s is by far the best. So enthralling. So thought-provoking. I, myself, am a STEM man,” Anne swore his chest puffed out just a little as he said this, “but she has really opened my eyes to the joys of literature.”
Thankfully, he stood up again, giving Anne some space. “I always thought reading wasn’t for me, that I needed a tactile activity to stimulate my brain. Now, I go into bookstores with eagerness and abandon. In fact, it was Anne that told me about the incredible selection on our own campus.” She could feel Elliot’s eyes boring into her, but she kept her eyes on her wine glass instead. “I’ve discovered a lot of favorites right in that very library.”
“That’s so…” Sophie pursed her lips, clearly searching for a word, any word, “cool.”
Eliza muttered under her breath, “Jesus Christ.”
“You're a fan of the Kellynch library?” Erick asked.
“Oh yes! Are you familiar with it?” Elliot looked at him, curiously.
Luisa sat up and put an arm around the back of his chair. “Erick graduated from here! He was a journalism major. Now he’s a freelancer.” Elliot made a sound indicating that he was impressed.
“You could say that I’m pretty familiar with the library here.” Erick smiled, and Anne almost laughed at the underlying joke. The joke no one else would get.
“Ahhhh, right.” Elliot nodded his head. “Many students spend a lot of late nights in the library, usually procrastinators cramming. The library doesn’t kick anyone out until 2 a.m.”
Sophie’s brow raised at the implication Elliot was making, but it was Erick who answered, an edge to his tone, “No, I just liked the library - found it calming. You could get lost in a whole other world if you wanted. Or find a world just like our own. That’s the thing about literature - it reveals the full spectrum of the human experience.” He paused. “In fact, one might even say that very library houses the human soul.”
Anne’s head shot up, but saw Erick’s attention was on Elliot. She made eye contact with Sophie instead, who looked just as confused as Anne felt. Sophie looked at her brother, trying to decipher his motives.
There was an awkward silence as Elliot cocked his head to the side, clearly trying to formulate a rebuttal of some kind. Eventually he said, “Aren’t you the wordsmith!” and laughed lightly.
Agitation passed on Erick’s face, but he quickly covered it with a smile. “Well, it’s my job, so.”
Anne felt Eliza’s arm wrap around her shoulder. “You know our Annie was just talking about how much she loves to dance.”
Anne shot her a look, and immediately rejected the statement, “Oh, no - that’s not true.”
“She’s shy!” Eliza whispered conspiratorially, winking at Elliot.
“No, I’m not -”
“Why Anne - I would love to have a dance,” Elliot said, as Anne shook her head. He presented her with his hand, and she looked at it, eyes wide. She knew that she should say no. It was on the very tip of her tongue, in fact. But Eliza shoved her out of the chair, and she stumbled right into Elliot’s arms.
“Oh - a little clumsy, but that’s okay! I’ll take the lead on the dance floor.”
“Anne - “ Sophie started, but he had already whisked her away, hand much too low on her back for her liking.
Anne had danced with duds before. There was freshman year homecoming (the only one she went to), and senior year prom. However none of them quite compared to Elliot. His dance moves were just as graceful as his conversational skills. He moved too quickly, jerking her around as he did, and the fit of her dress made it even more difficult for her to keep up. He spoke nonstop, right into her ear - about his job, about the bookstore, about the people. It was overstimulating, trying to stay on beat with the music and listen to his inane thoughts. To make it worse, his hand continued to rub her lower back, a sensation that made Anne’s skin itch.
As soon as the last note played, she disentangled herself from him, thanked him curtly, and rushed back to her table, absolutely fuming. Furious at Eliza. Furious that she never seemed to listen.
Eliza cackled as Anne sat. “Wow - he was just as good as I expected him to be.”
Maria leaned forward. “He looked handsy from this angle. Was he handsy?”
Anne didn’t answer, but downed the rest of the wine in her glass.
Charlie shook his head. “Wow - he really does act like an Elon. Whaaaaaaat a douche.”
“Whatever! He’s a douche, but he’s a hot one. Anne will thank me when she goes home with him tonight,” Eliza said smugly, nudging her with her elbow.
Erick barked a sarcastic laugh, and Anne looked at him, his face red. Sophie cleared her throat and they shared a look. Erick took a breath, clearly biting back whatever words he wanted to say. He focused on the beer bottle in his hands instead, peeling at the label with his thumbs.
It was like a scene from past Anne’s worst nightmare. Her family ignoring her. Erick - disgusted by their actions, disgusted by her own weakness. She desperately wanted to reach out, then and there, and apologize for everything. Sorry for her family. Sorry it ended up like this.
Anne stood up a little too fast, losing her balance for a second.
“Whoa, are you okay?” Adam asked, reaching out.
“It’s just, um,” Anne picked up her purse, “a little warm in here? I think? I just need a breather.”
She walked away before anyone could respond, and pushed past the drunk partygoers, making her way to the back patio. The air was chilly, but she didn’t mind. Sitting on the concrete stairs, Anne put her head in her hands, and focused on her breathing. Focused on the cool breeze. She wished that her family didn’t affect her this way. Wished she wasn’t so sensitive. They meant well, she knew that. That should be enough.
She wasn’t sure how long she had been sitting out there when she heard the sound of heels coming closer.
“Mind if I sit?”
Anne looked up, and saw it was Sophie with a cup of water in her hand. She nodded her head, and Sophie sat next to her on the stairs, handing her the cup.
“Thought you might want some water. You said you were feeling warm, right?”
“Yeah - thanks for this. Just a little crowded in there.” Anne sipped, both of them gazing at the dying community garden. They sat in a comfortable silence for a few minutes. The sound of the band, blaring behind them.
“Families can be tough,” Sophie started. Anne laughed, and looked at the now empty cup in her hands.
“Is this a therapy session? My family is so crazy you’re giving me a freebie?”
Sophie chuckled with her. “No - just a friend reaching out in case their friend wants to talk.” She scrunched her face, in thought. “Though, if I’m being totally honest, I am an expert on family relationships.”
Anne leaned against the post of the railing next to her. “I’m overreacting. My family means well. And I know they love me. It’s just...how Eliza is sometimes.”
“They definitely love you. It’s clear how much you guys all love each other.” She paused. “You know a lot of the time, people love others the way they want to be loved. We often assume everyone else wants the same thing. We forget that other people’s minds work differently than our own.”
It made sense. Maria worried about everyone because she wanted to be cared for, not forgotten. Eliza was outlandish and pushy because she loved being the center of everyone’s attention. Papa was...confusing. He pushed people away. Like Anne. Maybe they were more similar than she thought.
“I just want them to understand me. I just...want them to think about me as much as I think about them.” Anne looked at Sophie. “Does that make sense?”
Sophie shrugged her shoulders, smiling softly. “Of course! Everyone wants to be validated. But they’re not mind readers. Your family...needs more guidance. Guidance that, unfortunately, only you can give them. If you want to, of course. You don’t have to do anything that you don’t want to do.”
Did she want to? She could just cut them out - wait for them to get it. But that didn’t feel right either. Anne mulled over her words. “You’re a good therapist,” she said, finally.
Sophie laughed. “Thank you. Please - tell everyone you know. Office opens in a few weeks.”
They sat like that for a while. Silent, but comfortable. By the time the two of them made their way back to the party, their group had dispersed. The only two people left at the table were Adam and Erick, talking and laughing.
“Where’s everyone else?” Sophie asked, as she and Anne put down their things.
Adam thought for a second. “Well, Charlie and Maria went to go call Frances for the third time tonight. And Eliza struck up a conversation with some professors, and convinced Luisa to be her wingwoman.” He looked around the room. “Not sure exactly where they ended up.”
Sophie took a seat, as the notes of a familiar jazzy tune started to play. Her mom’s favorite song. Anne’s heart jumped to her throat, and she watched as couples filed out onto the dance floor, swaying to the beat.
“Anne?” Anne turned to the sound of Sophie’s voice, and realized the three of them were looking at her. Sophie laughed. “Did you hear me?”
“Oh, sorry, I -” Anne turned back to watch the dancers, “- Sorry, it’s just this song. It was, um...it was my mom’s favorite.” She smiled at the thought of her parents dancing. “She would drag my dad out to the dance floor, every year they played it. The band skips it, sometimes. It’s been a while since I’ve heard it.”
Anne felt a lump in her throat, and she looked around the room - trying to find her dad or her sisters. They were nowhere in sight. When she desperately needed space they couldn’t leave her alone. Now, they were gone. She heard the sound of a chair being moved. Felt someone come up beside her.
“If you want, we could…”
She had expected Sophie, but it was Erick standing next to her. He looked at her, briefly, before looking at the dance floor again. “We could dance. It’s a nice song...I won’t force you though.” He smiled, just a little. Anne looked at him, shocked by the offer, her guard melting at the kindness.
She nodded. “I would like that.”
He nodded his head toward the dance floor, and they made their way out there, Anne fidgeting with her hands as they did. He stopped at the corner of the floor, and they stood in front of one another, uncertain. Erick held his hand out, and she took it, placing her other hand on his shoulder - his other hand on her back.
They swayed in silence. Listening to the music and the chatter of the people around them. Anne’s heart was beating like crazy, and she could tell by the blush on his cheeks that he was nervous, too.
“You didn’t - I mean, I really appreciate the offer to dance. But - you didn’t have to.” Anne kept her head turned away from his as she spoke.
“Well...it kind of seemed like you needed...I don’t know. Tonight has been…”
“A mess?” Anne finished for him. She felt him move his head towards her quickly, and then away again.
“Well, I wasn’t going to say that exactly…” She heard the amusement in his tone.
“I mean - it was kind of a disaster at one point.” She rebutted.
“Well, as a professional wordsmith, I can say with certainty,” Erick said as they spun, “that at least it wasn’t anywhere near a clusterfuck.”
Anne laughed, surprised. An elderly couple threw a disapproving glance towards Anne, and she realized how loudly they were speaking. She smiled apologetically, but the woman just gave her a withering stare.
After a moment, Erick said, more seriously, “But I’m sorry tonight hasn’t been...easy.”
Anne was touched that he would offer an apology, but was quick to say, “Why? You didn’t do anything tonight. I’m sorry my family is nuts.” She shook her head, frustrated. “Tonight was supposed to be a night commemorating my dad and my mom, but... ” Anne was aware that she should probably stop talking, but found herself confessing everything. “You know the first time they played this song after my mom died, Eliza and Maria couldn’t stop crying. The three of us just sat at our table, and I held their hands. My dad...he put his arm around us, and we just sat there. Together.”
Erick waited for her to finish her thought.
“And now I don’t even know where they are.” They were quiet again, and Anne thought about the irony of it all. She chose her family over Erick, and it was Erick who was here right now. Here when she was upset. She looked at him, feeling guilty for putting him through this. For dumping all of this on him when she knew it wasn’t easy.
She sighed. “God, I’m sorry. You really didn’t need to do this or listen to me complain.” Anne focused on her hand on his shoulder, suppressing the urge to nervously pick at the lint on his jacket. “I mean...you must hate me. Which I get, you know. So - you really don’t owe me anything.”
She felt Erick's hand twitch on her waist. “I don’t hate you,” he finally answered. She scoffed, “Right.”
He shook his head, and tightened his grip on her hand. “I’m sorry that you ever thought that I...hated you. But - I don’t.” He paused, considering his words before continuing, “I mean, maybe I shouldn’t have pretended that we had never met that first night, but it’s not because...It just seemed like the best option at the time. And then we started hanging around your family a lot, which I didn’t expect. And, honestly, being back here in Uppercross and Kellynch, around where all of this happened and ended-”
He was rambling. Anne missed his rambling.
“- I don’t know Anne. It’s been…”
Anne finished the sentence for him, “Hard. It’s been hard. I get it.”
“But I don’t hate you,” he said, after a beat.
Anne smiled, ruefully. “You should. You have every right to hate me. I wouldn’t blame you.”
He laughed, lightly. “I know you wouldn’t blame me. You’re Anne. The only person you ever blame is yourself.”
She looked at him, and saw he was looking back. His expression was softer than it had been in months. Still guarded, just a little. She was certain hers was the same.
He looked around the room. “So...Elliot? He’s…”
Anne cringed. “I know.”
“Why don’t you just tell him - ” Before Erick could finish, Anne cut him off, shaking her head, embarrassed.
“I know, I know,” she said, “But...he means well. He’s not a bad person. Really. He’s been nice to me in the past. You know, it hasn’t been all bad. We’ve had some...pleasant times together.”
It was silly to defend Elliot considering she didn’t even like the man, but he felt like a reflection of herself. Anne could have told him to stop months ago, but she didn’t, and she didn’t really know why. She expected Erick to say something about being too forgiving, but he was quiet. She looked at him, and found that he was studying her closely, as if trying to figure something out.
“Are you - ,” he started, “Are the two of you-”
People started to clap, and the two of them realized that the song was over. The other couples on the floor were walking towards their tables. Anne and Erick separated, still looking at each other. She waited for him to finish his question.
“Anne!! Hello!!” Anne looked over her shoulder and saw Eliza waving at her from the side of the dance floor. “We’re about to do the picture! They’re handing out the awards after this!”
She turned back to Erick, who was looking at his shoes. He looked back up, his expression guarded, again.
“You should go,” he urged, nodding his head towards her sister.
Anne wanted to ask him about his question, but it was clear that the moment had passed. So, instead she nodded. “Thanks for…”
He shrugged and shook his head with a smile. “Nothing to say thanks for.”
Anne shifted her weight, hesitating, before she walked off. Eliza yelled, “Finally!! Been looking for you everywhere!” She dragged her towards the stairs where Maria and Walter sat, both looking exhausted already. Charlie, ready with the camera.
They took what felt like hundreds of pictures, Anne’s cheeks throbbing from too much smiling. Her hand too warm, resting on her dad’s arm. Soon after, they were calling Walter's name up to the dance floor, as well as the other honorees. The three sisters stood at the side of the room, clapping for their dad, watching as he accepted his plaque. It should have been a nice moment, a moment of warmth and pride. But it wasn’t. It felt like a scene out of a show. Like they were all playing a part - a big happy family. As soon as the party started to wind down, Anne snuck out to get her coat.
She heard Elliot sidle up next to her at the coat check. “Anne, we missed each other the rest of the night! Too bad.” She scooted away.
She scooted away and plastered on her customer service smile. “Had a lot of people to say hi to tonight.” She shrugged apologetically.
“Do you...need a ride home?” He asked, moving closer, but before Anne could answer, she felt an arm around her.
“Oh it’s okay! She’s coming home with us - right Anne?” Sophie looked at Anne expectantly, and Anne nodded along. Sophie pulled her away before Elliot could say anything else, and they hurried out to the front where Adam and Erick waited.
“Ugh, what a creep!” Sophie said letting go of Anne’s shoulders.
“He’s harmless, really,” Anne responded, buttoning up her coat.
“Doesn’t mean he’s not a creep,” Sophie muttered, and Anne smiled, putting a hand on Sophie’s arm.
“Thank you. For tonight. Thanks.”
Sophie looked at her warmly, and put her hand on top of Anne’s. “Any time.”
“Do you need a ride? Our car is right there,” Adam offered, pointing down the street.
Anne looked at Erick, and he looked at her. She didn’t want to push her luck. Plus, the air would do her some good.
“No, it’s okay.” She waved off Adam’s protests, “Really! I live so close by - it’s like a 10 minute walk. Tops.” She started walking in the direction of her apartment. “There are enough people on the street. It’s totally safe, I promise.”
Adam threw up his hands in defeat, and Sophie linked her arm with his. “Goodnight!” They called out as they walked towards their car. Erick stayed put, watching Anne back away. She stopped. “Goodnight,” she answered.
He waited a beat before nodding his head and walking away.
It wasn’t until she got to her apartment, and took her shoes off, that she realized that no one in her family had come looking for her at the end of the night. Neither of her sisters, nor her dad had offered her a ride. Not a single one of them had said goodnight. And if she was being honest with herself, she hadn’t expected anything different.
The morning after the holiday party Anne was exhausted, her motivation for Sunday night book club incredibly low. She laid in bed, and weighed the pros and cons. Going to her book club would be the professional thing to do. It could take her mind off of her family. She could busy herself during the afternoon - prepping snacks and notes etc. On the other hand - if she skipped it, she wouldn’t have to see Elliot.
So, Anne called Priya and told her that she must have eaten something bad. She couldn’t be there for the meeting tonight. Priya, always incredibly understanding, offered her as much time off as needed. Anne pushed the guilt down, and reminded herself that it was okay to take a sick day if she needed it. And she needed it. Last night was a lot to process - her family, Elliot, Erick. Anne laid in bed for a little while longer. Replaying it all in her head.
She thought about Eliza pushing her out of her chair. She thought about Maria’s frantic energy and her father’s distance. As an empathetic person, it was easy for Anne to understand another person’s perspective. Her family, though...The worst part of it all was that Anne doubted any of them were at all aware of her frustration, let alone their responsibility for it. Then there was Erick, but she wasn’t quite ready for that yet. Not ready to think about how nice he had been to her.
Elliot was a whole other story. It was unsettling the way he touched her on Saturday - his hand too low on her back, his mouth too close to her ear. Unsettling how he moved her around the dance floor. How he offered to drive her home. When Anne went back to work that Tuesday, taking an extra day to recuperate, she swore that if he came into the store she would handle the situation like an adult. Every time the front door chimed, she felt her pulse quicken, expecting to see his face. Expecting a confrontation. Of course, it was when she least expected him that he showed up.
She was taking inventory of the books in the memoirs/biographies section, when she heard him say, “Anne Ilao - as I live and breathe.”
Anne jumped, startled. She took a step back, and bumped into a shelf.
“Elliot! Um, hi,” Anne crossed her arms, hugging the clipboard to her chest. “Can I help you find something?”
“Of course not. I know my way backwards and forwards in this store.” He looked at her confused, but smiled. “I haven’t seen you around lately. Where have you been?”
“Oh, Priya didn’t tell you? I must have eaten something bad on Saturday. Nasty stomach bug,” she said, and he leaned back, just a little.
“Really? I didn’t hear about anyone else getting sick after the party.”
Anne shrugged, and went back to taking inventory. “Must have been something from earlier that day. Or Friday even.”
Elliot hmmed, and Anne walked away. She normally indulged his small talk, but his presence alone disturbed her. Elliot seemed to sense her discomfort, but pressed on, following her as she moved down another aisle. At the other end, a woman skimmed through a book, and looked up as they turned the corner. Anne smiled politely, and the woman shot back an irritated look. Anne averted her gaze back to her clipboard.
“I really enjoyed our time together on Saturday,” Elliot said, a little too loudly, as if volume would pull out a response.
Anne nodded, but didn’t look up. She continued her work. He cleared his throat. “Perhaps we should…”
Anne waited for him to finish his sentence, and was forced to bring her attention back to him when he didn’t. He was waiting for her to finish the sentence for him. Wanted to see what she was going to say. Anne tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, and discreetly looked at the customer nearby, hoping to avoid an awkward confrontation. The customer had clearly been eavesdropping, her head quickly turning back to the book in her hand. Her curly brown hair blocking her face.
Anne sighed, and looked back at her clipboard. She wanted to be honest with him. But, she also didn’t like confrontation. Especially at her workplace.
The front desk phone rang, and Anne excused herself. Luckily, it was one of their shipping companies returning a call. They were having difficulty with an order, and Anne stayed on the phone longer than usual. She watched Elliot leave, waving weakly at her on his way out. She breathed a sigh of relief, the tension leaving her body.
While Anne manned the register, perusing titles that Priya wanted to stock, she heard a woman clear her throat. She looked up, and saw the customer from before. On closer inspection, Anne realized that she was actually quite young - a Kellynch shirt, a tattoo visible on her arm, a flower on her deep brown skin. She had to be a student. Anne smiled.
“I can take you here, if you’re ready for checkout.”
The young woman nodded, and placed her books on the counter. Anne started scanning them, when the young woman spoke up.
“I’m sorry about eavesdropping on your conversation earlier. I know that it’s like, super rude. I didn’t mean to.”
Anne waved her hand, dismissing the apology. “The aisles are small. It’s hard not to hear other people’s conversations. I’m sorry if we were disturbing you.”
“Oh, you didn’t! Not at all. If I looked annoyed, it was because, um…” The girl stopped there, and shook her head. Anne finished bagging up her books, and asked, “Was there an issue?”
She opened her mouth to speak, and then closed it.
“You can tell me,” Anne assured her. “I won’t get offended.” The girl took a deep breath.
“It’s just…” she started. “That guy you were talking to? Professor Hamada? Are you guys...like dating?”
That was not what Anne thought she was going to say. “Uh, no. Not at all.”
The girl looked visibly relieved, and kept going. “That’s good. That’s...really good, actually. Um. This probably isn’t my place at all, but...” She leaned in closer. “He’s not a very good guy. In case you were considering his offer. He’s done some skeezy stuff.”
Anne felt her jaw drop. Elliot? What could he have possibly done that this girl felt the need to warn her about him. Her mind started spinning with the possibilities.
The girl continued, “I would feel bad if I let another woman go out with someone like him - with no warning.”
Anne looked around before lowering her voice to ask, “Are you okay?”
The girl shook her head vigorously, her curls moving with her. “Oh, no! He and I never...thank God. He didn’t do anything to me. Well, not directly.”
Anne checked the time on the computer in front of her. It was a little past noon, and she hadn’t taken her lunch yet. She looked at the young woman again. Her face was round, a feature that only emphasized her age. Anne put out her hand, and introduced herself.
“My name is Anne. Anne Ilao.”
The girl smiled, kindly. “Leah Smith.”
“Leah...would you consider having lunch with me? My treat.”
Professor Hamada, a champion of the humanities at Kellynch, was actually not a fan of literature at all. But he was a fan of using his power on young female students.
Anne and Leah spent over an hour discussing everything she had heard about Elliot’s behavior over lunch. Apparently, he advertised weekend book studies to all of his students, but especially to his female students. Most of the studies were attended by first and second year students, wowed by his faux expertise. He never did anything explicitly against Kellynch policy - he was smarter than that. Though, he definitely toed the line.
According to Leah it’s led to more than one inappropriate relationship with a female student, her former roommate included. Late night texts, and hangouts at his apartment alone. Leah had tried to warn her friend, but she was flattered by his attention. Flattered by his words. It wasn’t until months later that they discovered Professor Hamada had a string of young female friends, all of them receiving the same treatment as the others. It was humiliating and degrading, and a clear sign of predatory behavior. Of course, none of the students felt comfortable stepping forward, afraid that it would hurt their reputations more than his. Some of them were convinced that it was their own fault, not his.
The more Leah talked, the more disgusted Anne felt. How did she not know this? She had spent months telling her coworkers that the man was harmless, when in fact, it was the opposite. For a young professor to abuse his power like that over young female students! It was appalling. Anne made sure to exchange contact info with Leah, and promised her that she could talk to her at any time. When Priya came in that afternoon, she took one look at Anne, and sensed a problem. So, Anne took her back to her office and divulged the full story to her, withholding Leah’s name, but needing guidance on how to handle the situation.
They were still talking about it as they closed up the store, sending the part-time workers out the door as soon as they could. Both of them leaned on the front counter.
“We need to report it to the head of his department and HR. Really follow up on it. Make sure they listen to us. I have some pull over there.” Priya said as she chewed on her nail thoughtfully. Anne nodded next to her.
“But, I don’t think we can stop him from coming into the store as a customer. We could get into some legal issues there.” Priya stood up and sighed. “I can talk to Eleanor. She understands policies better than me. I’m sure there’s some work around.” Priya huffed, putting one hand on her hip, and the other over her mouth. “Ugh! So disgusting. I don’t feel comfortable with him lurking around here near you!”
“I appreciate that,” Anne said gratefully.
“Of course!” They both stood there, lost in thought, the sounds of an Uppercross night outside the store filling the silence.
Priya shook her head, crossing her arms. “Oh Anne. I am just so glad that you said something! I had no idea that he had been so persistent with you. For months now! That alone would have caused me to do something.”
“I didn’t want to make a fuss about it. Figured I could handle him myself.”
“I know, and I understand that. I do,” Priya replied kindly, “But you don’t have to do everything yourself, you know. Reaching out can help.”
Anne nodded in response, and thought about her statement. Priya continued tidying up the store, double checking the aisles for anything astray. Anne should have reached out earlier about Elliot, but maybe now she could reach out about something else.
“Priya, I know this is...off-topic. But, can I ask you something kind of personal? Please feel free to say no if -”
Priya waved her hand and said, “Anne! I’ve known you for years. You can ask me anything.”
Anne sat on the stool behind the counter, and watched Priya walk over. “Your family...you’ve said before that you guys are close, right?”
Priya’s parents were from India. They lived in Connecticut with Priya’s younger brother and his wife, along with the rest of their extended family. Every week she was on the phone with someone - whether it was her brother talking about taking care of her parents or her aunt talking about an issue with their family’s store.
Priya chuckled. “Oh yeah. Probably more than I would like if I’m being honest. But, you know how immigrant families can be.”
“Has that ever bothered you?” Anne asked. Priya looked at her, and furrowed her brow. Anne continued, “I just mean like - Have you ever wished that your family could be normal?”
She waited as Priya thought. “Firstly,” Priya walked over to the other side of the counter by Anne, and sat next to her. “I would say that there is no normal family. Normal is all relative. If you’re asking if I wish my family weren’t so invasive, as they so often are then...I would say no.”
“Really. Don’t get me wrong! My family can be a huge pain in the ass.” The two of them laughed. “I mean, seriously! Constant calls! Constant gossip about aunties and cousins. Always some party to go to, and then you’re rude if you don’t go. And their unsolicited opinions - they’re endless!”
Anne felt validated. “Yes! Exactly! It’s overwhelming. I love them, but…”
“But you wish they could back off, and leave you the hell alone. I know. That I understand!” She laughed again. Priya paused, and held Anne’s hand. “When I told my family I wanted to open this bookstore...they did not get it. They thought I was wasting my time. But - you know who showed up on opening weekend? Every cousin and aunt and uncle that lived within a two hour drive. I love them for that.”
Anne smiled weakly. “So, what do you do? When it all gets to be too much? When you need your space?”
“I tell them! And sometimes they listen, and sometimes they don’t.” Priya shrugged. “It’s frustrating when they don’t, but I can’t control them, and at least I know that I tried.”
Anne nodded thoughtfully, and Priya kept going, “I know that seems like something we don’t do.” She gestured to the two of them sitting together. “It goes against what we were taught. We worry it will make our parents mad or...that we’re bad daughters. That we’re too American ,” at this Priya used air quotes, “if we say no to our parents. But there’s nothing wrong with asking for the treatment you need. Even if it means saying no. And the wonderful thing about my family, and I think yours as well, is that they are full of love. They have the capability of changing, if you talk to them.”
Anne picked at the edge of the counter, and said, after a beat of silence, “You know, I’ve always done what my dad and my sisters have wanted or needed. I would always tell myself that family comes first. But...I’m just now realizing that I haven’t really thought about...what I want.”
Priya beamed at her, and Anne laughed. “Does that sound dumb? I’m basically 30 and I’m just now realizing this?”
“Definitely not dumb.” Priya shook her head. “I’m just so very glad you said that.”
Anne looked at her, confused, and Priya explained, “Anne, you are an incredibly good person. And it’s hard for an incredibly good person to say no. But everyone has to at some point. We all have our limits. Keep thinking about what you want. You deserve that.”
Priya patted Anne’s hand that was still being held within her own. Then, she got up to finish working, her words floating around Anne’s head.
She continued thinking about it over the next few days. One night, as she ate her dinner, she tried thinking back to what she did that made her happy. Reading, of course. But she did a lot of that for work.
Anne looked over at her desk facing out of the living room window. It was small, and the view looked out on main street. She could see the Kellynch campus from here. Could see the students walking frantically across the grass, preparing for finals. On her desk was a cup of her favorite pens, a neat pile of sticky notes, and a few of her journals from years past.
She sat down on the padded chair, and pulled out an old journal. One from the beginning of college. She skimmed through it, trying to grasp onto something. Find some hints from before. Anne paused at an entry unlike the others. It was a poem. Something trite, and short, but it made her laugh. She remembered writing it right after one of her poetry classes at Kellynch. She had been so inspired by Audre Lorde's work that she entered an intense poetry phase - writing down any idea that came to mind.
She soon learned that poetry was not her strong suit, but she remembered loving it anyway. Loving the freedom of it. Expressing herself and the world through verse. Eventually learning how to make her prose sound lyrical like poetry. Learning how to make her prose, her strength, feel as free.
Anne picked up her phone, and wrote out a text :
-Hey! Do you still teach that writing workshop at the community center? The night school classes?
Priya answered almost immediately.
-Why yes! I do. Do you know someone interested?
Before she could overthink it, Anne answered.
-Me! I would really like to join.
Priya’s workshop was not for slackers. Anne realized that five minutes into her first class. She loved it, though. The people were nice, and Priya was an amazing teacher. She would watch as Priya’s tall figure circled the room, a pen perpetually stuck behind her ear. All the students in awe of her. Anne found herself having fun again, getting lost in the world of literature like she had in college. She had forgotten how much she loved this world. Forgotten how fun it was to have a back and forth with another writer, and talk about their work or hers. She had forgotten that writing didn’t have to be so solitary.
The class agenda wasn’t always the same. Sometimes they worked on short narratives or writing exercises. Other nights were dedicated to working on their own pieces. Whatever piece they had. A safe place to get feedback or some quiet time. At first, Anne wasn’t really sure what to work on during those nights. She was rusty. Most of the other students were writers hoping to get published one day or students that Priya had been working with for years.
Anne sat at a table, and thumbed through her notebook, thinking about possible ideas, when one of her classmates noticed she seemed stuck.
“Writer’s block?” Leonard asked. They often sat near one another. He was kind. An older man who specialized in satire.
Anne nodded. “Yeah...I feel finished with the pieces we started in class together. It’s been a while since I’ve written anything new, so.”
“Hmmm,” Leonard tapped his pen on the table, looking at his laptop thoughtfully. “Well, sometimes I like to go back to pieces from years ago. Revisit stories and see if there’s anything there. Do you have anything like that?”
Anne opened her mouth to say no, but remembered that she did have a story like that, actually. The one she let Erick read all those years ago. The one about her family.
Her expression must have shown this realization, because Leonard laughed and said, “Glad I could help!”
Anne said thanks and pulled her laptop out of her bag. She hovered the mouse over the folder on her desktop titled ‘Ramblings.’ It had been a while since she had gone back to this story. She opened it right before Erick got here, but didn’t make much progress on it. Too distracted at the time. She started reading over it again, but all of it, though true, felt stale. Inaccurate. It was written through the lens of someone who didn’t see their family for who they were at the time. Didn’t see herself for who she was, either. So, Anne started deleting.
Over the next few weeks, Anne wrote nonstop. It was cathartic, and exactly what Anne needed. Finally, a way to work through her frustrations. A way to understand her family - by putting them in writing, and seeing the world through their eyes, their perspective.
Her protagonist worked through all of Anne’s issues right there on her screen. Her ruminations on grief. The complexity of identity - how to be the perfect daughter, the perfect sister, the perfect employee. How striving for perfection only revealed the mangled parts of a person. And perhaps, those twisted little knots within a person’s mind, needed to be revealed. Exposed. Mended.
As she worked through the draft, she tried to think of all the possible resolutions. Tried to imagine how her character would reach that end. She knew that this version of Anne was one who got what she wanted in the end. An Anne who was happy, eventually.
The only problem was that she didn’t know what that happiness looked like. Not really. She mulled over her options, thinking through each path, and found that she enjoyed considering all of the different endings. Enjoyed the thrill of the uncertainty because, ultimately, Anne knew it didn’t really matter that the details were still fuzzy. It was good enough that she had started thinking about it at all.
She had been leaving the community center, just finishing one of her classes, when she heard a familiar voice call her name. She turned around and saw Sophie jogging towards her on the sidewalk.
“Sophie? What are you doing here?” They hugged.
“My office is at the end of the block! Just finished my last appointment for today. What about you?” Sophie looked up at the sign, reading the name Uppercross Community Center.
“Oh, um,” Anne paused, unsure of how to continue. “Well, I’m taking a night class actually.” She shrugged. “It’s new.”
Sophie’s smile widened. “Good for you Anne!”
Anne said thanks, and the two of them looked at each other. She hadn’t realized how much she had missed Sophie, nor had Anne realized how long it had been since they had seen each other. Sophie looked at her watch.
“Is there any chance you haven’t had dinner yet? Adam is working late, and Erick is out of town. Was going to eat all by myself tonight. I know it’s a little late...”
Anne would have normally said no. She didn’t like last minute plans, but she found herself wanting to go to dinner with Sophie. She wanted her company. “Dinner sounds great! There’s a place down here that I like.”
The two of them walked to the restaurant, and chatted as they did. It was nice catching up with Sophie. Nice to have someone to confide in who wasn’t in her immediate family or, well, her boss. It was easy to picture having regular dinners with Sophie in the future. Funny, how life worked out that way.
“So, you’re taking a class?” Sophie prompted towards the end of their meal. Anne nodded as she chewed on her dinner.
“A creative writing class,” Anne explained.
“Oh, that’s so cool!”
Anne smiled at Sophie’s genuine excitement. She paused to take a sip of water. “Yeah, it’s been fun so far! I’ve always been a writer, in a way. I mean Eliza mentioned that during the holiday party, but, nothing serious. My boss runs the class, and she’s been really constructive.”
“That’s so awesome that you’ve picked it back up again. A lot of people forget that they’re job doesn’t have to be their life, you know?”
“Yeah, um,” Anne wondered if she should be saying this, but she did anyway. “I wanted to do something for myself. Writing has always made me feel better. I’ve even gone back to a story that I started in college. Working through that, again...it’s felt great. ”
Sophie’s eyes widened, clearly impressed. “Like a short story or…?”
“It started out as a novella. Although, after working through some of my classmates’ and Priya’s feedback, it’s getting a bit long.”
“Anne! A long novella is a novel. That is a legit book. You could get it published!”
Anne hadn’t thought that far ahead. Didn’t even think that was an option. She laughed. “Well I don’t know about being published or anything. But it’s been fun and therapeutic to write again. To take it more seriously.”
“I’ve never been good at anything related to literature, but Erick talks about that a lot. Says it helps him relax.” Sophie put down her utensils, done with her meal, and leaned back in her chair. “I would totally buy your book, though. Multiple copies, actually. If you do decide to go that route.”
“Well...If the opportunity came up, then…” She stopped, and really considered Sophie’s hypothetical situation. “I don’t know. Writers write what they know, so this story is actually pretty similar to my own life,” Anne explained, while Sophie nodded. “A lot of it is kind of about my family, so...”
At that, Sophie’s eyebrows shot up. “Like - what about your family?”
“Nothing scandalous! We have no scandal in my family.” Anne fidgeted with the unused knife lying next to her plate, mirroring Sophie’s position in her own chair. “About...our relationships, our dynamic. How it affects me - or the protagonist I should say. Though, it’s pretty clear that it’s inspired by my own life.” She focused on her hand resting by her plate. “It talks about...how complicated families can be, and how people grieve in different ways. That grief can change us, for better or for worse.” Anne looked up at her friend. “I haven’t really decided where I stand on that last part yet.”
Sophie nodded her head slowly, mulling over this new information. “Have you told them about it?”
“No, not yet. I mean…I wrote it to work through my own frustrations, not for any other reason.”
“You don’t have to tell them. I mean, you’re writing for yourself. But, if it’s meaningful enough for you to write about, maybe it would help to talk it out with them - the inspiration.” Sophie smirked. “Sorry - that was the therapist in me. I can’t help it sometimes.”
“No, I mean - I understand what you’re saying. It’s just...,” Anne smiled, “My family can be a little dramatic.”
The two of them laughed. “Who? Your sisters? Never!” Sophie said, chuckling still. They both sipped at their drinks, and the waiter came by to get their plates and give them their bills.
Anne thought the discussion was over until Sophie said, “For what it’s worth, I think your family would be more understanding than you think. They talk about you when you’re not around. Nothing bad! Well, too bad anyway. Eliza is still...”
“Eliza?” Anne finished for her.
“Yeah,” Sophie cringed slightly, then said, “Your sisters really look up to you, though. Even Eliza! She just doesn’t know how to express it.”
Anne knew that Sophie genuinely didn’t intend any guilt, but of course Anne felt it. She had been absent, and she didn’t regret it, but maybe it was time to reach out again.
Eliza sighed. “I’m so glad we could do this! I was not looking forward to my microwave dinner tonight. Erick’s been helping out with dinners lately, and with him out of town, Adam and I are still working out our cooking routine.”
“Erick is temporarily out of town or gone on another trip?” Anne kept her eyes on her bill, pretending to read it over again.
“Just out of town for now. Though it’ll probably be a while before he’s back, now that I think about it.” She finished signing her receipt, and continued, “Right now, he’s in the city visiting some friends from his Columbia days. Then, Adam and I will be meeting up with him to spend some time with our parents.” She rolled her eyes. “The parents always want to spend Christmas in a different part of the country. If you have money, you have to flaunt it somehow.”
“Sounds exciting,” Anne replied, also finishing her bill. So, Erick was gone for a while. She pretended she wasn’t bummed about the news.
“Yeah, it’ll be nice. We were going to travel up to the city together, but Erick wanted to leave pretty soon after the holiday party.” She shrugged. “Typical him. Always on the move.”
Then, Sophie got a sly smile on her face, and Anne looked at her amused. “What? Why are you smiling?”
“Oh nothing,” she feigned nonchalance. “Just that you and Erick seemed to have fun at that holiday party. Together. He talked about it a little before he left.”
Anne’s face froze as her heart beat faster. “Nothing bad I hope.”
“Of course not!” Sophie said. “You guys looked like you had a nice time dancing together at the party, which I happened to mention to him, and he said that he had a good time. He thought it was admirable how you handled yourself that night. Considering all the...madness, for lack of a better word. He seems to like you.”
Anne knew that she was visibly blushing, and she willed her face to stop. “Well that’s very nice of him to say. I, uh,” she paused, considering any possible ramifications for her next sentiment. “I...like him, too. As a person. I mean, he seems like a nice person. I don’t know him very well, but all in all...nice.”
This caused Sophie’s smile to widen, and Anne regretted her words. “Sophie…” she said with a warning tone.
Sophie put her hands up to appear innocent. “I didn’t say anything!” A beat of silence before, “But, for the record, I think you two would be really lovely together.”
Anne closed her eyes, and leaned her forehead head against the tips of her fingers, exasperated. Sophie laughed. “What?! I’m just being honest! I want the best for my brother, and you’re the best! Plus, you guys are more similar than you know.”
Oh, how Anne wanted to tell her that she did know, actually.
“Sophie, I appreciate that. Really. I’m flattered.” Anne took a breath, and regrouped. She decided to pivot. “But I don’t think Erick is interested in me in that way. In fact, maybe you should be talking to Luisa instead.”
“Oh please!” She guffawed. “Those two were never anything. Poor thing. I told Erick to stop flirting with her if he wasn’t serious, but men and their egos, you know? Besides, Luisa moved on as soon as he left. She’s already gone on a few dates with some new pharmacist at the hospital. Ben something.”
Anne cooed, showing more interest than she truly had, hoping to stay on this topic instead of the last, but Sophie saw through her.
“Look, it’s something to think about. My brother is really thoughtful and smart, and...You guys haven’t spent that much time together, but I can tell that he likes you. He hates dancing! He wouldn’t have offered if he didn’t like you. Plus, whenever I mention you, he pretends he’s not interested, but I know it’s a front.” Sophie looked off to the side, and scrunched her face in thought. “He just never wants to admit it, for some reason. I hint that he should talk to you more, but...” She shrugged, as if to say ‘what’re you gonna do?’
“Sophie,” Anne laughed softly, really at the irony of the entire conversation, “I think there’s a chance you might be projecting what you want onto what is reality .”
Sophie pursed her lips. “Well, I’m just saying.”
The two of them stood up, and put on their coats, gathering their bags as they stood. As they walked out of the restaurant, Sophie said, “Erick would probably like your book.”
Anne rolled her eyes with a smile. “Message received.”
Later that night, back at her apartment, Anne thought about Sophie’s words. Anne had promised herself that she would stick to writing. That she would focus on herself. But she also didn’t want to leave her family out of the loop. She was proud of the work she had been doing, and Anne wanted to share her success. It was an odd feeling. A new feeling. Anne didn’t usually want to share any personal news with them. She just didn’t think her news was ever newsworthy. That it didn’t matter as much as theirs. And also - if she was being really honest - she worried that they would ruin it. That they would invalidate her success or question her choices.
It’s why she didn’t tell them about Erick all those years ago. It’s why she backed out of leaving with him that summer. She knew that if they had questioned any of it - their relationship, the job - that she would start to doubt herself, too. Because truthfully, she valued their opinion more than she valued her own. Her self-doubt and anxieties had taken control of so many aspects of her life. It was exhausting. She didn’t want to live like that anymore.
As she fell asleep, Erick drifted through her mind, too. It was nice to think about. Nice to think that maybe he did show an interest when she wasn’t around. Ultimately, though, Anne knew that he wasn’t interested in a relationship with her. Not anymore. Their chance was gone. There was no way that Erick would want to be with her again, especially after seeing her family. He fled as soon as the holiday party was over. It was clear what he wanted - space.
She had thought a lot about what she wanted, and she was taking the steps to get there. But in the case of Erick Wentworth, what she wanted didn’t really matter.
Oh my God, this chapter was a DOOZY to get through. It's been a lot - wrapping my head around the details of how I want this to end.
The good news is that it's all drafted! So, hopefully I can edit at about the same speed as I have so far. Enjoy!
Chapter 9: Moving Forward
Christmas and New Years passed by in a blur as always - the Ilaos splitting their time as an immediate family and with their extended family and with the Uppercross community. The Crofts and Erick spent both holidays in New York City, and their absence was definitely felt. The trio had become so ingrained in their daily lives over the last few months, it was odd to the Ilaos and the Mendozas to not have them around for the holidays. Almost like a part of their family was missing.
Another member of their family, however, was returning. One who had been missing for quite some time - Tita Lettie. Her study abroad trip was over, and she was due to return soon. Anne felt relieved, but also uncertain about her dear friend’s return. She knew that Lettie would inevitably find out about Erick being back in town. She hadn’t gotten a chance to meet the Crofts before she left, and Anne never mentioned the connection to her ex - unsure of how Tita Lettie would react to the news. Unsure of how she would react to Tita Lettie being critical of Erick yet again.
Anne thought about all of this in her writing class, unconsciously counting down the minutes to Lettie’s welcome back dinner. She kept her phone right next to her laptop, looking at the time every few minutes or so.
“Is everything alright?” Priya asked, pulling out a chair and sitting by Anne. Anne looked up, and made an apologetic face.
“Yes! Of course, I’m just...distracted. I have a family dinner tonight. Tita Lettie is back from her trip.”
“Awwww, so exciting! I know how much she means to you! It’ll be nice having her back around.”
Anne made a sound that she hoped sounded more agreeable than she felt. Priya looked around at the other students, many of whom were bouncing ideas off of their classmates. Then, Priya leaned in closer.
“There’s actually something I want to talk to you about.”
Anne took in Priya’s expression, and said, “Seems serious.”
Priya quickly shook her head. “No! Not at all! In fact, I hope you’ll be quite happy about the news.”
Anne cocked her head, intrigued. Priya explained, “This past weekend I went up to the city to meet with my publisher. We were chit chatting, talking about work and new releases. Shop talk. And, well…” Priya folded her hands in front of her, and looked at Anne’s face closely. “She asked me if I knew of any female authors, particularly women of color, looking to get their work published.” She paused. “You see, the reason I love my publisher so much is that she likes to highlight marginalized voices, being a woman of color herself. She works at a small publishing company, and they want to expand. They’re all trying to reach outside of the city.”
Anne thought for a second. “Did you want me to contact some of the local writers around here? Use the directory from our store? We could reach out to the English department at Kellynch.”
Priya sighed exasperatedly. “No, Anne!” She looked over her shoulder again, and whispered, “I was hoping that you would be willing to meet her. Show her what you’ve been working on.”
Anne felt her jaw drop. “You want me to meet...a publisher?”
“Yes!” Priya reached out and grabbed Anne’s hands. “What you’ve written is an incredibly well-thought out story. Your voice is engaging. A lot of people could relate to you, Anne.”
She shook her head, “I don’t know if it’s good enough.” Priya shook her head, dismissing that idea immediately. Anne smiled. “Fine, clearly you think it’s good enough. It’s just...if I’m being honest, this story is really personal. Not just to me, but…”
“To your family.”
Anne nodded, and so did Priya. “I understand that, Anne. Really, I do. It’s an incredibly personal story, which is what makes it so powerful. Honesty and vulnerability make a compelling book.” They were quiet for a few seconds.
“It might upset my family. Having their business out there, published in a book. Don’t you think?”
“Well, it is partially their business. That’s true. But this isn’t their story. It’s yours. They’re simply a part of it.” Priya let go of Anne’s hands, and pushed her chair back. “Look, I don’t need a concrete answer any time soon. It is completely up to you, on your timeline. All I’m suggesting is a meeting. But it’s good, Anne. You deserve this.”
During dinner that night it was hard for Anne to focus on anything - her conversation with Priya still circling around her mind.
“Anne, what have you been up to? I barely heard from you towards the end of my trip.”
Anne had been pushing the last bits of rice on her plate. She looked up, and saw Tita Lettie looking at her. The last email Lettie had sent was right around the holiday party. She had simply asked for an update. Anne tried to respond quickly, but didn’t know what to say. She never felt comfortable lying to Lettie, and any update she could give would be incomplete. So, she never responded.
“Hellooooooo? Earth to Anne? Are you having a stroke or something?” Eliza said, waving a lumpia in front of Anne’s face when she didn’t immediately respond. “She asked you what you’ve been doing.”
“She’s not deaf, Eliza! You don’t need to yell,” Maria said, trying to convince Ethan to take one last bite before running off to the living room to join Charlie and Max. “Come on, honey. One more bite! Papa and Max finished their dinner. No dessert if you don’t finish your dinner.”
He harrumphed and took the smallest bite of adobo before running away. Maria sighed. Walter walked in from the kitchen, toothpick in hand. “You said one more bite. He took one more bite. Marunong siya. ”
“Anne?” Lettie prompted.
“Well, actually…” Anne started, looking around the table. “I’ve been going to a writing class. Once a week. The one Priya hosts at the community center.”
“Didn’t you get a degree in English? Why would you need to take more classes?” Eliza asked, nibbling on Ethan's leftover adobo and rice, picked at it with her fingers.
Walter sat in his chair. “Does she offer you a discount? Since you’re an employee?”
“Um,” Anne said, “I’m taking the class because Priya is an amazing teacher, and, well, I’ve been writing more in my free time. It’s been really empowering to take it more seriously, again. Also, she did not offer a discount, nor would I have taken one.”
“I think it sounds like a really great idea Anne,” Tita Lettie offered. “Always keep the mind working!” Anne smiled, appreciating the support.
Maria wiped the table with a napkin, sweeping loose grains of rice into her hand. “Is that a safe part of town? By the community center?”
“This town is like 800 square feet. There is no dangerous part of town,” Eliza said.
“You could have asked her to tutor you after work, or during lunch,” Walter continued, cleaning his teeth with the toothpick. “Then you wouldn’t need to pay anything.”
Anne furrowed her brow. “Well I’d still need to pay her, Papa. She would be offering a service.” He waved her off. “Also, it’s not tutoring. It’s more about the collaborative atmosphere of a classroom. A way for writers to work with other writers.”
They all made a noise to show that they were listening, or at least partially listening. Anne kept going, “She suggested I meet with her publisher. Priya likes my work, and her publisher is interested in writers like me. She thinks it would be a good fit.”
That caught their attention. All of them started speaking at once - exclaiming surprise, questions about money, and worries of a scam.
“Wait,” Eliza said, pointing a rice-covered finger toward Anne, “Are you saying that your work could actually be a book? And you could, like, make money off of it?”
Anne pursed her lips in thought. “Well, what I’m saying is that there is a possibility that I might meet a publisher. She might like my work. And if she happens to like it, then it might get published. Money - I’m not sure.”
“You could be famous!” Eliza exclaimed. Anne wondered if she had heard anything she just said.
“What’s your story about?” Maria asked.
“Ugh, I hope it’s a bodice ripper. That would be amazing,” Eliza said.
Anne looked at their open and curious faces, feeling slightly uncomfortable by their undivided attention, while also enjoying it.
“Umm...well it’s fiction. About the size of a novel, though that could change once it goes through the publishing process. But…” She stopped, and Tita Lettie reached out and squeezed her hand. Anne looked at their hands together, and thought back to that night she ended it with Erick. Thought about the sacrifices she had made since then. Always putting them first, convinced that it was her duty to care about them more than she cared about herself.
Anne sat up. “It’s about a family, and grief. How they all react to their mother dying, spanning over several years. It centers around one of the daughters, and how she observes all of the people she loves the most...lose themselves. How she reacts to them changing. And ultimately, how she uses that grief to hopefully become a better person.”
They all looked at her, putting the pieces together, then looked at one another. Lettie pulled her hand back.
“It's about us.” Walter stated, matter-of-factly.
“It's a story that includes inspiration from my life...but it’s not really a story about you. It’s a story based on what I’ve learned, my observations. The characters aren't really you.”
They were quiet for a minute, the only sound coming from the TV in the other room - Max, Ethan, and Charlie laughing at the movie.
“Sounds sad.” Eliza cringed, wiping her fingers off on a few too many napkins.
“It’s about grief? Have you been depressed this whole time?” Maria asked, worriedly, “Are you depressed now? Oh my God!”
“I’m not depressed,” Anne responded, calmly.
“Well it sounds depressing,” Eliza said. Then, she asked, eyebrow raised, “Does this mean you’ve been, like, taking notes on us or something? Super creepy.”
Tita Lettie gave Anne a confused look, but held back.
“Anne,” Walter started, voice serious. Eliza and Maria leaned back. “If you publish this, everyone will know it’s about us. They’ll know our business. I don’t like people knowing our business, anak . This is a small town. I know a lot of people in this town. I spend a lot of my time with those people.” His hand closest to her was clenched around a crumpled napkin. Anne reached out and put a hand over his. She felt him loosen his grip, releasing some of his tension.
“I know, Papa. And if it really bothers you, I’m willing to turn down the meeting. But...I would like for you to read the draft first. Before saying no, completely.”
Anne didn’t really care about Eliza and Maria’s concerns, not anymore. She could handle her sisters. She knew that they would listen to her, eventually, but Walter was different. She understood him more than she realized. Understood that the walls he had been putting around his daughters weren’t due to a lack of love, but from an abundance of it, and the sadness that comes from losing someone you love so much. Walls were her specialty.
He looked at Anne’s face, then Lettie’s. Anne saw her nod her head, just a little, and Walter sighed, frowning. He let go of the napkin in his grip, and turned his hand over, holding Anne’s hand in return. It caused a warmth to grow in her chest, this small gesture. It gave her hope that maybe, finally, they were moving in the right direction.
Eliza broke the silence. “So does this mean we could, like, all be famous? Because I would be into that.”
Later, Anne helped wash the dishes with Maria, the rest of their group leaving soon after dessert. The two sisters had been chatting about Max, and his social skills with the other kids in the neighborhood. Anne listened as Maria prattled on about different articles about how to prepare him for Kindergarten.
“Well, I know it seems daunting, but Max is more than ready. He’s learning how to share and socialize. Everyone reads with him. It’s everything a Kindergarten teacher would suggest to a parent,” Anne assured her, as she dried a plate.
“Hmmm, I guess.”
The two of them continued cleaning in silence, the only noise coming from the living room where Charlie sat with their two sons.
“You know,” Maria started, “I’ve missed having you around the house.”
Anne steeled herself for whatever Maria was about to say. Ready to defend her distance if necessary.
“But, now that I know it’s because of your writing classes with Priya...I get it. This seems good for you. You seem happy.”
Anne put down the dish she was drying, along with the towel. She leaned against the counter. “Oh, um...thanks. That’s nice to hear.”
“Yeah, I mean,” Maria continued, wringing a washcloth in her hands, “I thought you were, like, mad at us or something. It’s nice to know that you’ve been away doing something you like. You know, since you’re always taking care of the rest of us. Plus, I’ve always liked reading your work. Makes me feel closer to you, somehow - a little peek into your mind.”
Anne watched as Maria started wiping down the kitchen surfaces. All this time, she thought Maria was always in her own head, but she had underestimated her. She noticed more than she ever let on.
“I didn’t realize you felt that way.”
Maria smiled, and walked back to the sink, closer to Anne. “I figured.” She started washing her hands. “I should probably say it more, but...We do appreciate you, you know. Charlie and I definitely do - I mean you’re the one that introduced us! And you’re the one who looked after me...you know. After…”
At that Maria turned off the faucet and dried her hands. She leaned against the kitchen island and crossed her arms, the two sisters mirroring the other’s position. Looking at one another with new understanding.
“So...Forget what Eliza and Papa said. I think, reading about what our family from your perspective might do all of us some good.” She shrugged. “You’ve always been the smart one, anyway.”
Anne opened her mouth to say something, but couldn’t find the words. Instead, she wrapped Maria into an embrace, and they both hugged each other tightly.
When they finally separated, Maria took a breath, and said, “Just be careful, okay? You never know who could be a scammer. Look into whoever this publisher is that you meet. I’m going to send you an episode of a podcast I listened to last week about signs of a scam. Would you listen to it?”
Anne stepped away, and held Maria’s hands. “Sure.” She looked at her little sister, affectionately. “That sounds good.”
The next day, Anne printed the draft of her book for Walter, and dropped it off in his room while he was out. She knew it would take him a while to go through it, and that it wouldn’t be easy, and so she left telling herself to keep her expectations low. While she and Priya set up the snacks for Sunday night book club, Anne relayed the conversation she had with her family. Explained that Walter would read the draft first before she agreed to a meeting.
“I think that makes a lot of sense.” Priya smiled. “You’re a good daughter.”
Anne laughed. “Yeah...It’s annoying sometimes.”
Priya laughed in return, and walked over the door. She put out the usual book club sign out front - ‘Book lovers meeting, but please come in and shop!’ Some of the book clubbers were already there, also helping set up - putting chairs in a circle, laying out complimentary pens for anyone who wanted to take notes.
Anne went to her stool behind the register, and she watched as Priya made her way to the meeting area. She heard the front door open, and was surprised to see it was Adam and Erick walking through the door.
“Hey!” Adam said cheerfully, bounding toward Anne. He leaned against the counter, and Erick stood a little behind him.
“Hi!” Anne smiled, widely. “I didn’t realize you guys were back in town.”
“Oh yeah, got back a few days ago. Had to come back to work, you know?”
She nodded, and looked at Erick, who gave her a smile.
“Are you guys here to shop? I can make some recommendations.” Anne started to push away from her seat.
“Actually,” Adam reached into his coat, and pulled out a small paperback of tonight’s book club pick. “I am here for tonight’s book club. I was serious about joining! Back when we first met? I’ve been waiting for you guys to start a new book that caught my interest.”
“You have?” Anne was surprised.
“Oh yeah! Been checking the website regularly. Book clubs are so enriching, both socially and academically. And this book has been fantastic so far! I’m only two chapters in, and I’m hooked.”
Anne grinned. “Well, I’m glad you like it. That book was my pick.” Adam looked at her impressed, and Anne turned to Erick. “Are you also joining the meeting tonight?”
“Uhh, no, actually.” Erick took a step closer to the counter. “I just thought...It’s been a while since I’ve shopped here. Wanted to browse.” He looked around. “It seems different. Bigger, somehow.”
Anne opened her mouth, ready to explain the renovations from a few years back, but turned at the sound of the store’s door opening again. It was Elliot, clutching tonight’s book club choice. He had a sour look on his face, no doubt still mad at Priya.
Priya had not been kidding when she said she would follow up with Elliot’s boss. She made sure she was there when his boss gave Elliot the news that he was under investigation and would need to take a leave-of-absence. Priya wasn’t in the meeting of course, but outside of the office, waiting to speak to Elliot face-to-face. Once he walked out, she informed Elliot then and there that he was no longer permitted at their book clubs due to this investigation. She couldn’t prevent him from being a customer at the Archives, but the book club meetings were a community event. Each member signed on with the understanding that this was a safe space, and under those rules, Priya could ban him. She hoped that his ego would be wounded enough that he would stop shopping at the store altogether.
Which was why Anne wasn’t quite sure what he was doing here at the moment. She looked over to the meeting area, but she couldn’t see Priya anymore.
“I am allowed to step into the store, am I not?” Elliot asked, haughtily. Adam and Erick looked at him confused, then back to Anne. She stood up and squared her shoulders.
“Yes, of course. Priya made it clear that you could still shop here.”
He stepped up to the counter, Adam and Erick moving aside so that he could stand in front of Anne.
“Well, I’m not here to shop. In fact, the opposite.” Elliot placed the book on the counter, the receipt sticking out of the front cover. “I bought this book with the intent of participating in tonight’s book club, but since it seems that I am no longer welcome, I would like to return it and get my money back.”
Of course he did. Anne nodded, and slid the book closer to herself. “Right. I can take care of that for you.”
Elliot nodded his head, and eyed Adam and Erick. He cleared his throat. “Would you mind giving the two of us some privacy? I’d like to speak to Anne alone.”
Adam and Erick looked hesitant, and Erick turned to her. “Anne?” he asked. Anne looked at Elliot. He couldn’t do any harm to her at this point. She knew his secrets. She knew to protect herself.
“It’s okay. It’ll only be a couple of minutes,” she said. Neither of them looked convinced, but the two of them walked a few feet away, pretending to peruse the shelves. Close enough to intervene.
“Anne, I’m not sure what you’ve heard -”
“Let me stop you right there, actually,” Anne stated, while finishing his return. She watched him lean away, thrown off by her abruptness, and she lowered her voice. “The only reason Priya heard anything is because I was the one who told her about it. A young student was so disturbed by your actions that she felt the need to protect a total stranger - me.” She paused to collect herself, his proof of return printing. She continued, calmly, “It is disgusting that a man in your position would abuse that power. I have no interest in hearing your excuses or reasonings. I should have said this a long time ago, but I will say it now: I would like for you to leave me alone, or I will report your behavior. I am making myself very clear. This is no.”
His face was red, with anger or embarrassment, she wasn’t sure. She pushed his return slip towards him, but he leaned forward and grabbed her arm.
“Anne - you have to believe me. I do truly care about -”
“Excuse me! Please take your hands off of our employee!”
The two of them jumped at the voice, and Elliot immediately moved away, as did Anne, crossing her arms in front of her. Priya was walking toward them, and she stopped in front of Anne, blocking her from his view. The other customers were whispering amongst themselves, and she saw Erick and Adam inch closer, concern on both of their faces.
“I need you to leave now,” Priya said sternly. Elliot huffed, and tried to look at Anne once more, before turning on his heel and walking out. Priya watched him walk away until he wasn’t visible from the store window. “Are you okay?” she asked, and Anne nodded.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” she said.
“Good!” Priya huffed. “I can’t believe the nerve of that man. Walking in here tonight! He could have returned that book any day of this week, but of course he chose tonight. Well!” She put a protective arm around Anne. “I doubt he’ll be coming back any time soon.”
“Wow. What happened?” Adam asked, walking back up to the counter.
“Oh, I’m sure you’ll be hearing about it around campus soon,” Anne replied.
“Did he do something to…?” Erick nodded his head towards Anne, and she pieced together what he was trying to say. She shook her head vigorously.
“No! No, thank goodness.” His shoulders dropped, relieved.
Priya clapped her hands, getting the attention of those who were still in the store. “Let’s get this book club started, shall we? I know Sunday nights are usually Anne’s nights, but tonight I’ll be taking over! She’ll be back with us next week. I have to go grab something from my office, but let’s start in saaaaay - two minutes?”
Everyone started moving towards the circle of chairs. Adam looked at Anne again. “Are you sure you’re alright?”
She nodded, and urged him to join the meeting. Anne and Erick watched as he eagerly introduced himself to the other attendees.
“He really gets along with everyone, doesn’t he?” She asked, affectionately.
Erick laughed. “Oh yeah. He’s like a puppy.” She chuckled, and they stood there for a few seconds. She wasn’t sure where they stood exactly at the moment. Clearly they weren't ignoring each other anymore, but she wouldn’t say they were friends. They were in a weird gray area.
He drummed his fingers against the counter. “So...you aren’t leading tonight’s meeting? I thought you picked the book.”
Typically, it would be Anne leading, but due to Priya’s eagerness in Anne’s story, she asked that Anne take over the register for tonight instead. She wanted to give Anne the time to focus on her writing during the week. Of course, Anne swore she was more than willing to lead the book club, but Priya was persistent.
“Uhhh, I did, but I’m kind of working on something else right now. Didn’t have the time to lead a book club every week.”
He nodded, but didn’t ask anything else. Not wanting to overstep. Anne hesitated, before saying, “I’ve been writing again. Actually. Priya’s been helping me. I go to a workshop she leads once a week. She really likes what I have so far. Wants me to prioritize that, which is why she offered to lead the book club tonight.”
He looked at her, surprised, but smiled widely. The first smile she had gotten from him in, well, years. Her heart fluttered. “Anne, that is...really, really great. That word doesn’t quite capture the magnitude of it, but…”
“It’s okay. Great is accurate. It has been great! Really.” It felt weird, telling him this, but he was the first person, well outside of teachers of course, to read her work. She wanted him to know about it.
“You were always an amazing writer. Better than me,” he said, and she dismissed the compliment with a wave of her hand.
“You’re the one who gets paid to write for a living. From some pretty big publications from what I hear.”
He shrugged modestly, and Anne continued, “I actually, um, have you to thank for this...in a way.” He furrowed his brow.
“The story that I’ve been working on is the one that…” She paused. They hadn’t talked about any of their old memories together. Hadn’t had any sort of discussion about their relationship since that night. Not really.
“...That?” Erick prodded.
She smiled, feeling oddly nervous. Unsure of what his reaction would be, so she looked at the counter. Focused on picking at a price sticker stuck to the wood. “The one that I showed you in college. That’s the story I’ve been working on again. Um, it’s not quite the same at this point. I’ve made a lot of edits. But, the themes are the same. Family, and such. I wouldn’t have thought of keeping it if I hadn’t shown it to you. Didn’t think it was worth much at the time...”
He blinked at her, processing the information. “It’s definitely worth something. Worth a lot, actually.” He smirked, and leaned onto the counter. “And I would know, there are some pretty big publications that have paid for my work.”
She laughed, but quickly covered her mouth, looking over at the book club. None of them seemed to notice. Priya was listening intently to someone, pen in hand, book in the other.
Anne looked back at Erick. She liked being able to talk to him again. It was easier, knowing that he didn’t hate her guts.
“Can I ask you something - as a writer?”
He looked at her curiously. “Sure.”
Anne looked at Priya again, and leaned closer, making sure to keep her voice low. “Does it feel weird having strangers read your work? I mean, I know journalism isn't the same thing, at all, but...does it ever feel too...personal?”
Erick thought for a minute. “Hmmmm, it did at first. I’m not going to lie, having strangers comment on my work, or share my work was definitely odd. You put so much time and energy into writing this piece, and someone might think it’s garbage.” She nodded, understanding exactly what he meant.
“But,” he continued, “I just remember that I write for myself. Being a journalist is sharing a story that you want others to know about. But, I try to focus on the idea that...I want this to be written because no one else has written it. And I think there’s value in this work. If I like it, and I feel pride in the work that I’ve done, then that’s enough. After that, if anyone resonates with it or learns something from it, then...that’s pretty fucking cool.”
She mulled over his advice, and he asked, “Why do you ask?”
She blushed, and sat down in her chair. “Um… Priya wants me to meet with her publisher.”
Erick’s eyes went wide, his jaw dropped slightly, and she almost laughed again. “Anne! That’s a big deal! A publisher?”
She waved her hands in front of her face, embarrassed by his excitement. “I know, I know. I’m trying to keep my expectations low. I don’t know what any of it will mean. I don’t even know if I’m going to meet with her, yet.”
He shook his head, confused. “Why wouldn’t you meet with her?”
She bit her lip, unsure of how to say it, but Erick seemed to get it. “Your family?”
“Not all of them…” she sighed. She tread carefully, not wanting to jinx this rare moment between them. “It’s really just my dad. A lot of the changes I’ve made really focus on the death of the matriarch and how grief affects the rest of the family.”
“Is he not aware of how that’s affected his own daughters?” His tone jolted her back to college - the protectiveness.
“It’s not that. He knows on some level how it’s affected us. It’s that...I don’t think he understands how much her dying has affected him . And...I don’t know how I would feel forcing him to confront that grief in such a public way. He and I...we’re not that different. We hide, just in different capacities. He hides amongst his friends, and I hide behind...perceived responsibilities. And I know from experience that surprising someone who hides is not the best tactic.”
She paused, focused on her words. Crossed her arms. “I want him to read it first, at least what I have so far. I’ve already printed it and put it in his room. I told him it wasn’t a story about them, and it’s not. It’s a story about me. And...if he doesn’t like it, then we can talk about how his role in the story can be different. Both in writing and in reality.”
When she was done, she looked up to see him looking at her intently as he leaned on the counter. A slight smile on his face.
“What?” She asked, self-conscious.
He shook his head and laughed. “Nothing! Just...I’m impressed. That takes a lot of guts. Being upfront like that.”
“That’s a nice way of putting it,” she scoffed. “Honestly, it’s what I should’ve done a long time ago.” Her blush deepened, hearing the unintended implication of her words. She felt her eyes widen, and she braced herself, ready to apologize, but Erick spoke before she could.
“Well. Either way.” His smile dropped, just a little, but still looking at her kindly. “You should be proud.”
“Thank you,” she responded, pursing her lips to hide how pleased she was by his words.
They looked at each other, relaxed. She had forgotten how easy it was to talk to him. How he always reacted in just the right way - whether it was the expected reaction or not.
A loud laugh came from the book club circle, and both of them turned their heads at the noise.
Erick stood up, and backed away from the counter, running his hand through his hair. “Um, so, I was going to take a look around the store…”
“Right. Of course. Do you need help finding anything specific? We did actually renovate a few years ago, so-”
He cut her off, and started walking backwards. “Nah, I’ll just peruse. The cafe is still open right?” He pointed to the place next door. The bookstore and the cafe shared an open wall. She nodded, and he said thanks, walking in that direction.
She let out a shaky breath, not realizing how fast her heart had been beating during their conversation.
It was silly. She was being silly, she said to herself. They could be friends. Friends would be nice.
In fact, Anne found herself thinking - she would really like that.
Chapter 10: That's Growth
There's more Tagalog in this chapter than usual. I tried to integrate the translations as smoothly as possible, but didn't want it to sound too stilted.
So, for your convenience: https://translate.google.com/
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“Are you sure that you guys are good?” Anne asked, as she put things in her bag.
Henri and Molly rolled their eyes, looking at each other. Anne put a hand on her forehead. “Sorry! You know that I worry, and I feel -”
“ - Bad for leaving us with so much work to do.” Henri said. He looked over his shoulder at the empty bookstore. “It’s the midday lull. Priya is going to be back in like, 30 minutes. I think we can handle 30 minutes.”
Anne nodded. Normally she would have stayed, since Henri and Molly were only part-time employees and Priya was out for the afternoon, but she and Priya had stayed back after class last night. It had been quite the struggle getting out of bed this morning.
“Please go. Please,” Molly said jokingly, picking up Anne’s bag and handing it to her. Anne smiled, and reminded them to text her just in case. Instead of walking out the front door, she made her way to the adjoining cafe to pick up a coffee. The barista smiled at her, and stood up, already familiar with Anne’s usual order.
“Anne! Is that you?”
Anne turned around and saw Sophie and Erick sitting by the window. She waved and walked toward them. Sophie waved back excitedly, and Erick sat up a little straighter.
“Hi! What are you two doing here?”
“I have a meeting close by, and I desperately needed some coffee. I had back-to-back sessions, like, all morning. Erick promised to come with me since Adam is stuck at work. Isn’t he the sweetest little brother?”
Sophie smiled at her brother teasingly, and he looked back, annoyed. At that the barista called Anne’s name. When she came back, coffee in hand, Sophie was checking her watch.
“Are you heading out?” Sophie asked, as she sipped from her cup. She leaned her head all the way back, seemingly to finish her drink. Anne opened her mouth to respond, but stopped as she watched the scene unfold in slow motion - Sophie’s head tilted back, the cup being pressed too tightly, the lid consequently popping off from the bottom.
Sophie squeaked and managed to avoid the coffee getting all over her face. Unfortunately it spilled all over her pink sweater instead.
All three of them went to grab napkins, and while Erick wiped up the floor, Anne went to the counter to see if the barista had anything to help with the stain.
“Well, shit. This couldn’t have been worse timing,” Sophie muttered, sadly blotting at her sweater.
“There’s nothing here to help with the stain, other than the bathroom sink. Sorry.” At that, Sophie deflated, and Anne continued, “It’s not too bad!” She meant it. It was a large stain, but she’d seen worse.
Sophie shook her head. “Normally I wouldn’t care, but today is important.” Anne looked at her quizzically, and Sophie sighed, crumpled napkins resting in her hands. “The meeting I have today is at the bank. Adam and I are looking into buying our own house, so I’m going in to talk about loans.”
“Awwww, that’s exciting!” Anne said, and Sophie smiled widely.
“Thanks! We really want this meeting to bring us some good news. Except now, I look like a toddler who can’t even drink from a cup.”
“You could keep your jacket zipped,” Erick offered, but Sophie shook her head.
“No! I want to look put together - like an adult. Keeping my jacket zipped up tight will make me all hot and nervous. I’m already nervous. Ugh.” She got up to throw away the napkins. “But, I guess that is my best option. There isn’t enough time to run home first.”
Anne thought for a second. She didn’t normally invite people to her apartment. It was a boundary thing. Her home was her safe space, and she didn’t like people in her safe space. But...it was Sophie.
“Well, you could borrow something from me?” Anne suggested, tapping her fingers on her to-go cup. “My apartment is like 5 minutes that way.” She pointed down the street, and Erick and Sophie looked towards that direction. “You could take a look?”
Sophie squealed and gave Anne a hug. “Oh, okay!” Anne said, her face buried in Sophie’s coat. “Is that a yes?”
Sophie pulled away, and nodded emphatically. “You are the best! I would really, really appreciate that!” She linked her arm with Anne’s and started walking towards the door.
“Um.” The two of them turned around, and saw Erick standing in the same spot as before. “I can...wait here if you want. I don’t want to intrude…”
Sophie looked at him like he was crazy, but Anne understood. He didn’t want to cross any lines. She appreciated that.
“Really, it’s fine. You’re welcome to come, too.”
He nodded, and started following them. Anne had meant it. Really. But, as they got to the building and walked up the stairs, she started to feel a little nervous. She didn’t know why. It didn’t matter what Erick thought of her apartment, or that he was going to be there at all. It just felt...weird.
As she unlocked the door, she prefaced their entrance with, “Please excuse any mess that might be in this apartment. I wasn’t expecting anyone...so.”
“Please!” Sophie waved her hand. “We have no room to judge. Ever.”
Anne nodded, and opened the door leading them inside. She put down her things, and took off her shoes. When she turned, the two of them were still standing by the door, taking in her small space. It wasn’t much. A tiny kitchen that was open to the living room - only a counter separating the two spaces. The light green walls were adorned by a few pieces of art - paintings and sketches done by local artists. Most of the space taken up by furniture that Anne had thrifted. And of course her writing desk by the big window facing the street, a tall bookcase beside it. Smaller bookshelves spread out around the living room. Books everywhere.
Sophie put her purse down and said, “This space is so cute! And so clean, I don’t know what you were talking about.” Anne saw Sophie and Erick taking their shoes off, following Anne’s lead, and she told them that they could sit wherever.
Erick sat on the couch, visibly uncomfortable, but Sophie walked around, taking in the art on the walls.
“My closet is this way,” Anne said, gesturing towards her room, and Sophie nodded, following her through the door. She showed her where to find sweaters and blouses, and decided to give her some space to freshen up. As she closed the bedroom door, she saw Erick looking at the bookshelf by the window.
“You could borrow any of those. If you want,” Anne offered. She cleared her throat nervously, and walked over to her bag. Needing to do something with her hands, she started unpacking her things, and went to go rinse her water bottle in the kitchen sink.
“You’ve got a pretty great selection. Not that I’m surprised,” he said, bending down a little to look at the lower shelves. He put one knee on the floor, and the other propped up his elbow as he continued to look.
“Thanks! Any of them stand out?”
Anne waited, but he didn’t answer. She finished washing her bottle, and put it in the drying rack. She turned around and saw him still kneeling down by the lowest shelf, examining something in his hand.
Anne tried again. “Erick?”
At that, Sophie burst into the living room, twirling to show off the fit of the tan sweater she had chosen.
“Do I look like I deserve to be approved for a loan?” She asked, arms out.
Anne laughed, and assured her that she looked great. The sound of things moving shifted their attention to Erick, who stood up quickly. Anne glanced at the shelves and saw one of them messily rearranged.
“Erick!” Sophie admonished.
“Sorry! I wasn’t - I just - it fell.” He said, weakly, looking at the shelf, and back at them. Sophie looked at him closely, before shrugging, apparently deciding it wasn’t worth prodding.
“Anne I can’t thank you enough! Really!! This makes me feel so much better.” She looked at her watch. “Now, if you don’t mind, I think we’re going to head over to the bank now. Sorry to just come in and ransack you.”
“Not at all!” Anne said. Sophie continued chatting about this meeting, clearly nervous, as she and Erick got their things together. Anne tried to look at Erick, to make sure he was okay, but he avoided her gaze.
“Well, it was nice seeing you guys.”
Sophie gave her another hug. “You too! This will be cleaned and ready for you tomorrow.”
Anne nodded, as Erick opened the door. “We better go Sophie. Don’t want to be late.”
“Okay, okay! You’re right!” She said, waving at Anne as they walked out. Anne waved back, and watched them go down the stairs. Erick didn’t look back.
She immediately closed the door, locked it, and walked to where Erick stood earlier. She leaned down to the shelf that he rearranged, but saw no books out of place. Her little knick knacks, however, were haphazardly piled up - a shot glass from Spain, a little stuffed bear given to her by book club members, etc. Why on Earth would these startle Erick?
Anne started putting them back as they were, but her hand froze when she reached the bottom of the pile. Her hand hovered there, for a second, before she tentatively started tracing the dusty letters. It was the Lake Tahoe magnet, not quite as bright, but just as ugly. The one Erick gave her after Christmas all those years ago. The night he asked her to go with him to London.
She had completely forgotten about it. Had put it there when she moved in ages ago, not having the heart to throw it out or to dump it into a drawer. Her compromise had been putting it on a low shelf with classic books she wouldn’t reach for - out of sight, out of mind.
Mortified, Anne held the magnet in her hand, and sat at her desk. What he must think of her...holding on to this for so many years? It was no wonder Erick ran out of here as soon as he could.
And things were just starting to feel normal! Anne groaned, hands covering her face. She got up, and paced around her living room, and talked herself down. She was an adult. She could get over a little embarrassment. She would find him as soon as she could, and explain that she wasn’t a stalker or hung up on him (she ignored the voice in her head that asked - ‘so then why do you still have it?’). She could make this right. She had to make this right.
At that, she stomped over to her desk, grabbed the magnet, and marched over to the kitchen trash can. Anne stood there, holding the magnet loosely. After a minute of deliberation, she marched back to her writing desk and threw the magnet into a drawer.
“Here it is! Washed and everything!” Sophie handed Anne her sweater, neatly folded in a tote bag. Anne took it and looked around Maria’s dining room to see who else was over. Maria was in the kitchen, putting the last few dishes into the dishwasher. Adam and Charlie were in the living room watching some game. Sophie had texted her earlier that day, telling her that she would be at Maria’s for dinner. She could give the sweater to her then, if she wanted. Anne figured that it might be her best shot at explaining herself to Erick. Her shot at recovering a shred of her dignity.
“Thanks again, Anne. The meeting went really well!” Sophie leaned in, and lowered her voice. “But let’s keep it on the down-low. I don’t want to jinx anything, you know?”
“Of course. Filipinos have our own suspicions, so no need to explain,” Anne answered, looking around one last time, just to make sure.
“Looking for someone?”
“Uhhh,” Anne was caught. “No, I just thought I heard someone else’s voice. Must be hearing things.”
“The only other person here tonight is your dad. He’s in the playroom with the boys.” Anne’s eyebrows shot up. Now that was surprising. Walter was never home for dinner. Sophie chuckled at her expression.
“I know! We were surprised, too. He’s babysitting tonight, apparently. But, um,” Sophie cleared her throat, and leaned against one of the dining room chairs. “He’s the only other person here. No Eliza, Luisa, or Erick.”
Anne hmmed, remaining nonchalant, and Sophie kept going, “Yeah. Luisa had a date with that guy Ben. Seems like they’re getting serious. And Erick is actually back in the city.”
“Mhm. Needed to talk to his agent about something. Probably some new story.”
“Right,” Anne said. She shouldn’t have been surprised, but she did feel deflated, just a little. She must have scared him off. Erick had always been a runner.
“Anne? Is that you?” Walter’s voice carried from down the hall. “ Halika dito. ”
Sophie looked at Anne, and she said, “He wants me to go over there.” Anne placed the tote bag with the sweater in a chair, and scurried down the hall, away from Sophie’s inquisitive looks. When she walked into the playroom, she saw Walter sitting on the toy chest, watching his grandsons color together.
“Hey, Papa.” Anne walked over, kissing him on each cheek before taking a seat next to him. “Nice to see you. You’re not usually around during dinner time. No plans tonight?”
“Some plans, but...thought I’d stay home instead.”
Very strange. Anne and Walter watched the two boys in a comfortable silence. She and Walter often spent their time together in comfortable silence - neither of them talkers. Anne never minded.
“I read your book.”
Anne turned to him, surprised. “You read my...already? I didn’t think you would read it so quickly.”
He gave her a look, before turning back to the boys. “I’m retired, but my mind is still sharp.”
She pursed her lips. Of course she hadn’t meant it like that. She just assumed he wouldn’t be eager to start it. Anne waited for him to keep talking, but he stayed quiet.
“Well?” She waited anxiously, and watched her father’s brow furrow. His lips pursed in thought. The look he always had when considering his words. With his gaze still on Max and Ethan, he chuckled.
“Ang nanay mo ka talaga - ha? Matapang na matapang.”
Anne’s throat closed up, wondered if she had translated incorrectly in her head - ‘You really are your mom - huh? So brave.’
Anne and Walter rarely spoke Tagalog to one another. He had always prioritized English since they lived in America. It was why Anne practiced her Tagalog with Frances the most, or Tita Lettie. He only initiated a conversation in Tagalog when he wanted to say something just for her. Just between the two of them.
After a beat, Anne managed to say, her voice warbled, “Talaga po?” He nodded, assuring her. Yes, really. Anne took a deep breath before saying, “Kailangan kong marinig iyon.”
‘I needed to hear that.’
He squeezed her hand. “Call the publisher.” He smiled, fondly. “Ang nanay mo, she would have gone to that meeting - full force. Pero, tahimik ka dahil sa akin.”
Anne didn’t know what he meant by that. She was quiet because of him. That she inherited it from him? Or that his negligence caused her to be quiet? Forced her to be the subdued one. Both were true.
The two of them watched as Ethan scribbled on Max’s paper, Max laughing as he did.
Walter sighed, deeply. “Ay, anak. Namimiss ko siya. ”
Anne looked at him. Sitting this close, she could see the grays in his hair. The wrinkles by his eyes and his mouth. The sharp angles of his face, starting to sag with age. All of it was evidence of how much time had passed since her mother's death. And how that death had affected her father, despite his efforts to hide it.
She knew it would take a lot to get back to what they were before. Wasn’t sure if that was even possible. But here - sitting with him, listening to the boys giggle at one another - it felt like a start.
Anne rested her head on his shoulder, and responded, “I miss her, too.”
The new few weeks were quite hectic for Anne. As soon as she got Walter’s blessing, Priya set up the meeting with her publisher, Candice. Then, Anne and Priya started working together outside of class and the store even more so than before - making sure the draft was what Anne wanted it to be before the meeting. Anne offered to take a train to the city, to meet her at her office, but Candice wanted to meet her in Uppercross. Wanted to understand her roots and her community.
Priya assured her over and over again that Anne would like Candice, but it didn’t stop her anxiety. She stressed for weeks, counting down the days until the meeting, devoting her time to work and self-care. Much to Anne’s relief, Priya had been right. She and Candice hit it off immediately. At first they talked shop - about the Archives, and Priya, and the publishing world. Candice spoke freely about her experiences as a Black woman in the publishing industry, and Anne was disheartened, but not surprised, to hear some of her horror stories. It was what pushed Candice to pursue the work she believed in, she explained. She wanted to amplify voices that were often pushed to the side, finally in a position within her company where she could do that with more freedom.
And so, just like that, Anne and Candice agreed to work together. Priya would continue helping Anne with edits for now, and they would see what happened next. Contracts and things like that still needed to be confirmed of course, needed to be official. But Candice made sure that they had another meeting scheduled. Promised to send her some information about what to expect. She gave Anne her card - “In case you have any questions. Any doubts. Just call me.”
Anne relayed the details of the meeting to Tita Lettie while they ate their weekly dinner together a few days later.
“I’m surprised that you’re going through with this. And I’m glad your dad is okay with it.” She and Lettie were drinking tea together, finished with their meal. Anne had been putting off this dinner for a while, but found that she really had missed her tita. Despite her frustration at how Lettie had handled Erick, Anne soon remembered that Tita Lettie had always been her biggest supporter at home.
“I’m kind of surprised that I’m going through with it, too,” Anne responded. “But...I’m excited. I think that this is what I need to do.” She got up to put her mug in the sink, and she heard Lettie clear her throat.
“I finally met Sophie and Adam.” Anne hmmed in response, and Lettie continued, “Very nice couple. The husband is very chatty.”
Anne laughed, “Yeah, he’s like that.” She started washing her mug, and the other dishes in the sink. Their routine. Lettie cooked, and Anne cleaned up. She continued washing in silence for a minute, until Lettie spoke up again.
“Sophie...she told me about her brother.” Anne felt her shoulders tense. Froze, for a second, before continuing to scrub at a pan.
“What did she say?”
“That he’s a freelance journalist. He likes to travel, apparently.”
Anne felt her pulse quicken at each descriptor. Lettie kept going.
“Graduated from Kellynch the same year as you.”
Anne rinsed off her hands, and turned off the water. She turned, and saw her knowing smile.
“I think she said his name is...Erick?” Lettie finished, taking a sip from her mug.
Anne sighed. “You know?”
“Is that why you’ve been so distant lately? Because this boy is back in town?”
Anne felt a flare of annoyance bubble up, and she moved to sit back down, biting back the retort on the tip of her tongue. That he’s not a boy . That it was more to it than that. Then, she thought about her talk with Walter from weeks ago. Thought about how much progress they had made since then. He was spending more time at home, and was noticeably more present whenever his daughters or grandkids were around. All of that progress made because of her honesty.
So, Anne asked the question that had been floating in her mind for weeks. “Why did you stop me from going with him? All those years ago.”
Lettie’s brow furrowed, and she cocked her head to the side. “What do you mean? I didn’t stop you. You asked for advice, and I gave it. You could have gone.” Before she finished her last sentence, Anne scoffed, and sat back in her chair.
“You know that’s not true.” Lettie pursed her lips, and Anne asked again, “Why?”
The two of them looked at each other for a beat before Lettie sighed. “I wanted what was best for you. I didn’t want you to get hurt. Running around the world with someone who could leave you. Anak, you deserve the best kind of life.”
Anne knew that she meant what she said. Knew that she did genuinely believe that she was trying to protect her.
“So...what? Staying here? Taking care of everyone else instead of doing what I want? Being a caretaker of other people isn’t...my best life.”
“There’s nothing wrong with being a caretaker,” Lettie rebutted.
“I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with that. It’s just...not what I want.” Anne reached out and took her hand. “I think it’s fair that I get to focus on myself. Whatever that means. If it means staying here, and writing, then great. If it means eventually leaving Uppercross...” She shrugged. After a beat, she said, “Moving halfway across the world - isn’t that what you did? My parents, too? Except...you guys did it alone.” At that, Lettie’s jaw dropped, and Anne watched as she tried to come up with a defense. But instead, Lettie laughed, and squeezed her hand.
“Well...yes. You’re right. Of course, you’re right.” Lettie leaned back in her chair, picking up her mug again as she did. She cradled it close to her chest. “Before your mom died...she worried about you. Worried that you would hide, turn more inward for comfort. But then after the funeral, you were the strongest one. I...assumed that she had been wrong. We all learned to depend on you. And at the time...your family needed someone to be strong for them.” Her gaze became unfocused, as if seeing it all play out in front of her. “I should have realized that it wasn’t okay. Pinay ka talaga. You really are a Filipina. It's always us that step up...but you were a child.” Lettie looked at her, again. A remorseful smile on her face. “I treated you like an adult when you were too young. Then, treated you like a child when you were grown...I’m sorry.”
Anne took a deep breath, letting her words wash over her. Words that she hadn’t realized she needed until that moment.
“Thank you,” Anne said. She sat back in her chair, and wrapped her arms around herself. Letting herself feel comforted by the apology. Despite Tita Lettie’s mistakes, at least her heart was always in the right place.
“So, ano? Tapos ka na ba dito?” Lettie asked.
'Are you done here?’ Anne knew she meant Uppercross. Anne got back up, and offered her hand out for Lettie’s mug.
“Let’s just focus on writing this book first. Everything else is up in the air.” Lettie handed over her mug, and Anne went back to washing dishes.
“Well,” Lettie got up, and grabbed the drying rag. She leaned her back against the counter by Anne. “Whatever you decide. I’ll support you, ha? ” Lettie looked at Anne closely. “Promise ako.”
Anne nodded, and smiled. She handed Lettie the cleaned mug, and Lettie dried it off. The two of them working together, like always. A team.
To clarify, when Lettie says that Anne really is a Filipina - that means specifically a Filipino woman. It's very common for one of the women in the family to step up in situations like this.
I always wanted some sort of resolution between Anne and Lady Russell in the original story. And I felt that it was fitting to have a redemption arc for some of the family members in a modern retelling. I hope you enjoyed it!
One more chapter to go!!
Chapter 11: The End
I tried so hard to make this shorter, but it wouldn't do. It's a long one folks!
Also, not sure why Google Translate can't translate the word 'susmariosep' but it's the equivalent to saying 'Jesus' in an exasperated tone.
It's a combination of Jesus, Mary, Joseph.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
As winter moved into spring, a lot of change happened within Anne’s inner circle. More and more of her time was dedicated to writing, and she was seeing less and less of her family. She found, for the first time in a long time, that she missed their presence. Maria called less often, but frequent enough that Anne felt in the loop. Walter, on the other hand, was more in touch; calling to check in on her, and vice versa. She could feel the change in their dynamic - a change that she knew would be for the better.
However, the biggest and most exciting change came from the Crofts. They found a house, not too far from Maria’s and Charlie’s home. It was lovely. Smaller than the Ilao home, but perfect for the two of them. Plenty of space for the life they wanted.
“Should I bring anything?” Anne asked one Friday afternoon, during a lull in the afternoon. She looked outside the Archive’s window, and saw small buds starting to bloom on the trees.
“No! Adam and I are taking care of everything! This party is in honor of you and your family’s endless hospitality.”
Sophie insisted on throwing a little get together for all of them - the Ilaos and the Mendozas. She wanted to have them over before she and Adam officially moved out of the rental home. The new renters were an older couple, looking to retire in Uppercross - Kellynch alumni coming back for some peace and quiet.
“It’s not like we won’t be seeing you guys anymore. In fact, it’ll probably be more than before since you’ll be down the street from Maria,” Anne told her, but Sophie scoffed.
“Well still, we couldn’t have asked for a better start in Uppercross. And for that you deserve a dinner. It’s not like I’m cooking any of it anyway. All of the food is ordered. Besides, Erick will be back at that point, and he’ll help us with set up.”
Anne sat up a little. “Oh? I didn’t think he would be there.”
“He’s around for at least the party. I’m not sure what his plans are after that. You know how he can be - so cryptic.”
Erick had been going back and forth from Uppercross to the city quite a bit. However, whether it was fate or their hectic schedules, the two of them hadn’t seen each other in a while. Their paths never quite crossing. So, Anne wasn’t sure what his meetings were about exactly, and she didn’t want to pry. She assumed it was a new piece he wanted to work on. Something to take him abroad.
Anne hmmed, and saw a customer make their way towards her. She told Sophie she would see her soon, and hung up, putting on her customer service smile.
She tried not to think about Erick leaving Uppercross. Tried not to think about how it made her sad that they hadn’t gotten to work through more. A small part of her thought...maybe...Well either way, he was moving on.
Anne repeated that to herself the day of the party as she searched for a place. Apparently she was the last one to arrive, forced to park at the end of their street. As she walked to the house, she told herself that Erick was moving on, so there was no need for her to feel awkward or weird. No need for her to bring up the magnet, which, at this point, felt like eons ago. Anne was certain he had already forgotten about it. She comforted herself by remembering that he would be leaving with no bitterness between them. This time, they would part amicably.
When she walked in, Anne looked around for Sophie. In the living room sat Walter and Frances. Surprisingly, Mr. Mendoza - or Pol - was there, as well as Tita Lettie.
“Anne! Come here!” Frances waved her hand frantically.
Anne greeted them all, and took a seat on the ottoman facing the couch. “Tita Lettie - I didn’t expect to see you here.”
“They invited me,” Lettie said, shrugging. “I was at Maria’s house, and Sophie insisted I come.”
Frances leaned closer. “I hear you’re publishing a book! Very impressive!”
Anne blushed, and glanced at her dad, who smiled at her. Even though he had been hesitant about publishing her work, he found that bragging about his daughter getting a publication deal was still worth something.
“Yeah, I mean, it’s all in the very early stages, so I’m not sure when it’ll be published. It’s exciting, though.”
“You could be famous!” Frances suggested, and Anne nodded politely. It wasn’t the first time someone had suggested that to her. It was evident that most people didn’t really understand how many published authors there were in the world.
“You meet Ben, yet - huh?” Pol asked, as he chewed on some cheese and crackers.
“Luisa’s new boyfriend,” Lettie explained, using her lips to point behind her. Anne turned around. She saw most of the party standing around in the open dining space, and past that, in the large kitchen. All of the rooms open to one another.
She craned her neck, and saw Luisa standing with a man who must be Ben. The pharmacist. He was incredibly tall, over 6 ft, but stood as if trying to shrink himself - his long limbs tucked close to his body. Luisa took a napkin and wiped something off of his face, a blush visible over his brown complexion. They looked at one another sweetly, and Luisa adjusted the glasses perched on the edge of his nose.
“He’s a nice boy,” Frances said. “Even though he’s been engaged before. Did you know?”
“Ay, Frances! You don’t need to tell everyone that. Talaga tsismosa ka!” Pol scolded, and she waved him off.
“Anne is family! It’s not gossip if she’s family! She should know more about him!” Frances moved to scoot next to Anne on the ottoman, her back facing Luisa and Ben.
“He was engaged to his high school sweetheart. Proposed while they were in college. Batang bata! So young! She died in a car accident soon after he proposed. So sad, naman.” Frances shook her head, and Pol rolled his eyes at his wife’s dramatics. “Ay, I couldn’t believe it.”
“ Susmariosep, aking asawa,” Pol muttered under his breath. Frances swatted his arm, and Walter and Lettie laughed.
“Oh wow,” Anne responded. She looked over at the happy couple, feeling unsettled by the fact that despite not having met this man, she knew something entirely too personal about him.
“But he really, really likes Luisa. He treats her so well. He cooks for her. A man who cooks for the woman! That’s something!” At that, Frances got distracted by Pol dropping mustard on his shirt. “Pol! ”
Anne looked at Walter, and he nodded his head toward the other room. She took that as her exit.
She found Sophie in the dining room, setting up the plates. The rest of the party, split between there and the kitchen.
“Anne! So glad you’re here!” Sophie gave her a hug, and Anne gave her thanks for the invitation. As she stepped back from the hug, Anne looked around and saw Erick standing by Eliza. Eliza was chattering about work, and Erick was listening with a very polite, but detached, look on his face. He looked over as Anne did, and the two of them made eye contact. She smiled, and waved, and he did the same. She felt her heart flutter at his smile. He looked different, but she couldn’t figure out how. It wasn’t apparent, but it was how he carried himself. More...assured than weeks ago. Assured and relaxed.
She turned and caught Luisa just as she buried Anne in a hug. Anne looked back at Erick, and saw that he was still glancing at her. Though Anne wanted to walk over to say hi, Luisa pulled her into the living room where Ben was waiting.
As they all chatted, Anne realized that Ben was not the man she thought Luisa would end up with. He was soft-spoken, and intellectual, though not in a way that was condescending. He and Anne hit it off quickly, finding that they had quite a lot in common, too.
“Luisa says you work at the Archives?”
“You’ve heard of it?” Anne asked.
Ben nodded, “It’s one of my favorite spots in Uppercross so far. You have a great poetry selection.”
“Are you a poet?”
“No, not at all! Just an avid fan.” He hesitated, then said, “I knew a poet. She introduced me to Walt Whitman, and I haven’t looked back.”
Anne replied, “Have I read any of her work? Or is poetry a hobby of hers?”
She watched him hesitate, and Luisa squeezed his arm and lowered her voice. “I’m guessing Mama already told you about his ex-fianceé? She was the poet.”
“Oh, uhhh,” Anne said, feigning confusion, “I think that Frances might have...mentioned something. Sorry.” Luisa rolled her eyes.
“She’s been telling everyone as soon as she sees them. I’m sorry, honey,” Luisa said, turning to Ben. He shrugged, looking somewhat relieved.
“I don’t mind. It actually makes it a little easier.”
“What do you mean?” Luisa asked.
Anne understood. “No need to hide the part of your life that’s too hard to explain. It’s a total breach in privacy, but at least Frances relieves you of that burden.”
Ben smiled at her warmly, “Yes, exactly. That’s exactly it. It’s such a significant part of my life, that it feels like I’m hiding it from people if it’s not mentioned. But I never know how to mention it.”
“Beginnings are always the hardest,” Anne replied, nodding.
Luisa looped her arm around his, and leaned into him. “Anne! I’ve missed you. I knew you two would hit it off. Didn’t I say that, babe?”
Ben nodded, and Anne smiled at the two of them. An unlikely, but well-paired match.
At that moment, Erick walked into the living room, looking around. He looked over at them, and seemed to consider whether he should join.
“Hey Erick! Nice to see you again, man,” Ben said, putting out his hand. Erick walked over and shook it.
“You two have met already?” Anne asked, looking between them, and Luisa nodded.
“You’re the last one Anne! Even your dad met him like two weeks ago. You’ve been so busy, we never see you around anymore. Always meeting with your editor and talking with your fancy publisher,” Luisa said, with evident affection, and Anne laughed.
“Publisher?” Erick asked, looking at her. “So...does that mean…?”
“Oh! Yes I, uh, just assumed someone would have spread the news to you.” Anne felt nervous telling him, for some reason. “I met with the publisher, and she’s interested. Priya has been helping me edit for now, but I might meet with another editor through the publishing company…” Anne waved a hand, to minimize the news, but Erick smiled, widely.
“Anne, that is amazing! Really! Do not say it’s not a big deal because it definitely is. You’ll be a published writer! Your own book!” She laughed, his enthusiasm infectious.
“Thank you. I appreciate it,” she replied. The two of them looked at one other, big smiles on both of their faces. Anne bit the inside of her cheek to subdue her smile. He’s leaving Anne. Stop it.
“Erick, is it?” The two of them turned, and saw Lettie, standing there with her cup in her hand. Erick’s eyes hardened for a second, before resuming his polite expression.
He nodded, and held out her hand, which she shook. Anne looked between the two of them, her eyes lingering on Lettie. She gave Anne a knowing look back.
“It’s so nice to finally see you. I hear you’re a journalist.”
Erick eyed her suspiciously. “Yes. I am.”
“A very respectable job! The journalism school at Kellynch is well-known for their successful graduates,” she said, smiling.
He paused, then said, “It’s nice to hear that you think so. Not everyone finds my...transient life to be very impressive.”
Anne shifted her feet, glancing at Luisa and Ben, neither of them aware of any tension.
“Who doesn’t think your job is impressive? It’s like, so cool.” Luisa stated, scrunching her nose.
“Oh, you know,” Erick put his hands in his pockets. “Sometimes I talk to people about the constant travel, and they make assumptions about me. That I’m...distractible. Someone who likes to follow any whim.”
Lettie smirked. “Well,” she said, “A lot of people can be wrong when judging too quickly. I know I’ve been harsh in my judgments before. But the work you do is respectable, and difficult. You should be proud of that. What is the world without an educated society? That’s journalism. Right?”
Lettie smiled at him, kindly. Erick tried very hard to hide his surprise, but failed. He glanced at Anne before saying, “Right. That’s exactly, right.”
“After your sister mentioned your name, I looked into it and read your piece that followed different clusters of the Me Too movement within Europe. It was incredibly moving.”
At that, both Anne and Erick’s jaws dropped. Lettie smirked, again, enjoying their surprise. Sophie walked in at that moment announcing that dinner was ready.
Before going to the kitchen, Lettie said, “I would love to talk to you about it more during dinner. I have lots of thoughts.”
At that, Luisa urged all of them to make their way into the kitchen where they took turns filling up their plates with food from the takeout containers. Each section of the table split into different conversations - Luisa catching up with Anne, Frances and Sophie talking about nursing, Adam and Charlie talking about sports. Even Erick and Lettie were having a civil conversation. It made Anne happy, seeing her try to make amends. She appreciated her effort.
Towards the end of dinner, the conversation shifted to the Crofts - all of the guests curious about their move. Apparently Adam had been looking for antiques for their new home, and was having issues with a seller.
“This guy has been putting me through the ringer!” Adam said, waving his fork around as he spoke. “We’ve been bartering back and forth. And he keeps sending me delayed messages, saying he has other bidders.”
“It’s a haggling tactic,” Erick said. Adam looked at him confused, so Erick continued. “It’s a thing, trying to string you along. By the time he finally offers you a price, you’ll be so fed up with him that you’ll agree to anything. When really, what he offers you isn’t actually his lowest price.” Everyone looked at him impressed. “I picked up some tips while doing a piece in Israel. Local sellers in open market areas were always trying to haggle with us. We were kind of an easy target.”
Frances joined in. “It’s true! They do it in the Philippines, too.”
“If you want,” Erick started, “I can go in the next time you guys are supposed to meet. That’ll really throw him off. Make him think you’re not as interested as you seem.”
Adam’s eyes widened. “Oh, man. You’re right! That’s brilliant!”
“Is it brilliant?” Sophie muttered, sipping some water.
“It is!” Adam pulled out his phone. Sophie protested, urging him to talk about something else, but Adam persisted. “I have the info here. We’re supposed to meet later tonight, actually. When his store closes. Does that work for you?”
“Adam, don’t make Erick do that.” Sophie sat up, and waved her hand, but Erick shrugged his shoulders.
“Yeah, that’s fine with me.”
“Yes!” Adam’s hand turned into a fist in triumph. “That’ll show him.” Charlie and Maria looked at him with the same look of concern.
Sophie cleared her throat, and looked around the table, trying to find a new topic. “Anyway...Anne! How’s the book coming along?”
All eyes went to Anne. “Oh, well-”
“Yeah, Anne!” Eliza started, “How’s your tell-all book coming along?” Eliza smirked.
Anne resisted the urge to roll her eyes. She chewed on her food slowly before responding, “It’s going well. Been adding a lot more to it than expected, but I think it’ll be better in the end.”
“Do you need to take more notes on us?” Eliza put her chin on her hand, her elbow on the table.
“Oh please, Eliza. As if Anne is going to say anything that would ruin your image,” Maria said while wiping her sons’ faces with a napkin. The two boys squirming. “I think you’ve taken care of that yourself.” Luisa and Charlie laughed.
Eliza’s jaw dropped. “Excuse me!”
“Writers always write from what they’ve experienced. You guys are a part of my life experience. That’s it,” Anne explained patiently.
“So she says…” Eliza picked up her wine glass, and Anne forced herself to bite back her next comment. However, it seemed Walter had had enough.
“Eliza, your sister has worked hard. Be proud of her success. Buti naman, she helped you study for all of your tests. Sige na. That’s enough.”
He said it all without raising his voice, but he was stern enough that Eliza clamped her mouth shut. The rest of the party glanced at one another, trying to hide their surprise.
“Um...Thanks, Papa.” Anne looked at him, his expression still stern. He nodded his head, and got up, plate in hand. He put a hand on Anne’s shoulder as he passed by her chair.
“Sophie? We’ll clean up before dessert.” Walter continued into the kitchen, though Sophie tried to refuse his help, and soon Frances and Lettie got up to help, as well. Conversation started again, with Charlie asking Ben about pharmaceutical pricing.
Anne sat, still wrapping her head around her dad’s gesture, when she felt someone looking at her. She turned her head and saw Erick’s eyes on her, his expression clearly surprised. Anne smiled, and shrugged, not sure how to explain what just happened. The corner of his mouth also lifted into a smile.
Anne cleared her throat, and started stacking the dirty dishes around her. Eliza got up and moved to where Frances sat to pester Luisa about something, and before she knew it, Erick was across from her. Helping her tidy up.
“So...your dad?” He started, and she shrugged her shoulders with a smile.
“Yeah…um, he’s really been making an effort since he read the draft of my book.”
They spoke softly, making sure that no one else could hear them.
“And Lettie?” He asked. Anne paused her cleaning, and he looked at her knowingly. She nodded.
“It’s nice to see that people can change,” Erick said.
They both stood up, and looked at each other from across the table, before picking up the dishes to bring to the kitchen. They stopped at the doorway, and saw a crowd of them arguing over the soap and Tupperware containers. A mix of Tagalog and English, back and forth, at a manic pace.
“Maybe we should wait,” he suggested, and the two of them put their stacks of dishes down on a nearby table.
She considered going back to the others, but found herself staying put. Just the two of them standing between the two rooms.
“I’m surprised you came back from the city,” she said, desperately thinking of small talk. He looked at her, perplexed.
“Are you? You didn’t...think I’d come back?”
She wasn’t sure how to answer that. Honestly - no she didn’t. But, it didn’t feel like the right thing to say.
“Uh, I just meant - you know, I figured you’d be sick of Uppercross at this point. Small town and all.” Anne paused, and Erick continued to look confused. “You’ve been to more interesting places, right?”
She watched him nod slowly. “I guess so, yeah.” His brows furrowed, in thought, then cleared his throat. “It’s funny you mention it, actually. I’ve decided that I’ll be staying around here for a while. I just finished talking with my agent and some publications I contribute to regularly. I figure...there’s enough political unrest here for me to uncover.”
Anne opened her mouth, ever so slightly, and she watched as he analyzed her shock.
“Surprised?” He asked.
She shook her head, and schooled her expression. “I just thought…” Anne looked around to make sure no one else could hear them before continuing, “You’ve always wanted to see as much of the world as possible…”
He nodded, and stepped closer. “I do - I mean, I still want to do that. And it’s definitely something I loved about my job. I just...thought it would be nice to stay. For a while. Work on stuff here.”
Anne didn’t say anything, trying to process this new information. He wasn’t leaving? Why…?
He looked at her, eyes scanning her face, and she froze - unsure of the response he wanted from her. Unsure of how she even felt at the moment.
Both of them jumped.
“I got some things for you to look at!” Adam yelled. Erick turned around, and Anne quickly grabbed both stacks of plates and brought it into the kitchen, nudging her way to the sink. She shooed the rest of them out, but Sophie insisted on staying there to help.
They busied themselves. The two of them cleaned and started prepping some coffee and tea, while the rest of them congregated in the living and dining rooms, chit chatting.
“Should we play a game?” Anne heard Luisa suggest. She couldn’t hear everyone’s responses, all of their voices overlapping one another. Instead, she overheard Erick and Adam’s conversation in the dining room.
“Okay, here are the dimensions of our new place.”
“Adam! Erick doesn’t need to look at the floor plan!” Sophie yelled from her spot by Anne.
Anne turned around, and saw Erick sitting at the table, with Adam standing over him. In front of them was a rolled out floor plan and an open laptop.
“And here,” Adam pointed to the laptop screen, ignoring Sophie. “Are the pieces we’re interested in buying.”
“I thought I was just talking to him about furniture prices.” Erick looked at the floorplan and screen, reluctantly.
“You have to be ready! This guy is an expert! Make sure you bring the tape measure.”
Sophie tsked next to Anne, and she looked at her. “He has been obsessed with this for a week,” Sophie explained quietly, while she arranged some desserts on a tray. “I don’t think Erick realized what he signed up for.”
“I haven’t been that bad!” The two of them turned and saw Adam walking in with Charlie behind him. Sophie just gave him a look, and picked up the tray of cookies, carrying it out to the living room.
“Ohhhhh! We should do karaoke!!” Luisa suggested loudly from the living room. The rest of them all cheered in agreement.
“Karaoke? How can we-” Sophie asked as she walked into the room.
“Ben and I can go grab the karaoke machine from our house!” Luisa hopped up, and Ben followed suit.
“Karaoke?” Adam asked, and Charlie shook his head, putting a hand on his shoulder.
“It’s too late. You can’t stop Filipinos and karaoke. This is what you signed up for when you invited us all here.”
Anne laughed, and watched as Luisa and Ben put on their shoes.
“Ay!” Frances yelled from the couch. “Make sure you grab our newer machine! And don’t take too long over there! We’ll know what you two are doing!”
She cackled, as the rest of the family made sounds of disgust. The only other person laughing was her husband. Ben’s face turned bright red, and Luisa grabbed his hand, and pulled him out the door.
“Poor Ben,” Charlie said, sneaking a small cupcake from Anne’s tray. “He has no idea what he signed up for. This family is crazy.”
“No way. He likes you guys,” Adam said.
“Yeah he’s sweet.” Anne looked at Charlie. “Don’t you think?”
Charlie shrugged, chewing on his cupcake slowly.
“He’s nice. Definitely better than anyone else she’s been with lately. It’s just…” he cringed a little. “The whole dead fianceé thing? It’s a lot of baggage.”
“‘Dead fianceé thing?’ Really, Charlie? It’s not so much a thing, is it? More like an incredible trauma,” Adam retorted, and Charlie rolled his eyes.
“You can’t knock him for that. And Luisa seems fine with it,” Anne reasoned, and Charlie shrugged.
“Yeah, I’m sure she is fine with it. But like…” Charlie considered his words. “The love of your life dying unexpectedly? I don’t want Luisa competing with a dead person for the rest of her life.”
“Well,” Adam leaned against the counter, arms crossed in thought. “People can love more than one person during their life. It’s not just one person for each of us.”
“You don’t think so?” Charlie asked, surprised.
“Aww, Charlie,” Anne said, “I didn’t realize you were such a romantic.” He rolled his eyes, and shoved her shoulder.
“I’m just saying! That’s tough shit to get over. Luisa will have to deal with it, too.”
“People remarry all the time! People have multiple meaningful relationships. Love is a choice as much as it is a feeling,” Adam rebutted.
Charlie scoffed, and turned to her. “Anne?”
She looked at him confused. “Yes?”
“Are you on my side or Adam’s?” Charlie looked at her, brow arched. Adam laughed at Charlie’s competitiveness, and Anne opened her mouth to respond, looking over at the dining room. Erick was far enough away that he probably couldn’t hear their conversation. He was writing copious notes on a piece of paper, analyzing the floor plan closely.
She lowered her voice, and said, “I think it depends on the person.”
“Cop out answer,” Charlie snorted, and gave her a look.
“I think…” She looked at Erick again, just to make sure he wasn’t listening. The party in the living room was pretty loud, and he was facing away from the three of them. She lowered her voice even more. “I think you’re both right. There are people who have multiple meaningful, loving relationships, like Adam said. While others may only experience the one romantic love. A lot of it depends on, on —,” Anne thought back to the night she decided to stay here. To stay with her family. Her voice faltered, “ — choice…and...and circumstance, you know?” She shrugged.
At that they heard something clatter onto the floor, and they looked over to see Erick reaching down, under the table to grab a pen. Adam looked at the clock in the kitchen.
“Hey, the meeting is starting soon. Are you almost done?” Adam asked.
“Yeah,” Erick assured him. “Just one more thing I have to look at, then I’ll head out.” Adam nodded, and Erick hunched over another piece of paper, writing furiously.
“So which one are you?” Charlie probed, in a lower voice. “Do you think there’s one person out there for you?”
Adam told Charlie to knock it off, while Anne considered his question. She hadn’t really thought about it before. After Erick left Uppercross, she swore off dating. Decided to focus on her job and her family (truthfully she was entirely too heartbroken to consider dating at the time - family and job were her excuses). But as the years passed by, no one caught her interest. No one like Erick.
“One person,” Anne restated, and Charlie nodded. She knew her answer, deep down. Even though she felt stupid admitting it. A raucous cheer came from the living room again, Max and Ethan the center of attention. Despite the volume of the party, Anne still spoke quietly. “Yeah...I think so.”
“Yes! Two against one,” Charlie said, to which Adam rolled his eyes. He walked over to Erick, who was quickly folding a piece of paper in front of him.
“You need help with any of this?” Charlie gestured to the tray of cupcakes and drinks she had been assembling. She handed it to him, and he brought it to the rest of the party.
“Hey Anne? Do you mind pouring the water from the kettle? Should be done soon!” Sophie asked from across the house.
“No problem!” She responded, and glanced at Erick, who seemed oddly harried. He got up from the table, and patted Adam on the shoulder, saying that he was heading out. Anne walked over to say goodbye, but he didn’t turn around.
Did she upset him without realizing? She finished pouring the water from the kettle, letting the cups of tea steep. She walked over to the dining room table again, to see if maybe he had seen something on the laptop screen, but before she could take a peek, Erick was walking back into the house.
“Sorry! Forgot the tape measure!” He yelled, to which Adam responded from the living room, “I told you not to forget it!”
Anne hovered by the table, hoping to at least say goodbye, uncertain of when she would see him again. She watched as he shifted through the papers, saying loudly, “Alright, I have the tape measure, I have the dimensions of the rooms, I think that’s it…”
As he spoke, he lifted the corner of the floor plan, and revealed a folded piece of paper underneath it. Erick cleared his throat, ever so slightly, and pushed it towards her. Anne looked at his face, and saw him gazing at her intently. Anne looked over his shoulder, to see if anyone else had noticed before stepping forward. She took the piece of paper, and hid it in the palm of her hand.
“Alright,” he said, without taking his eyes off of her, “I’ll see you guys in a bit.” She watched him walk out, her heart racing, as the others waved goodbye again.
The piece of paper felt warm in her hand, the folds digging into her fingers. Anne looked at everyone else in the living room, all of them absorbed in their conversations. She quietly left the room and made her way to the bathroom, locking the door behind her. Her hands trembled as she unfurled her palm and unfolded the piece of paper.
There, in Erick’s messy handwriting, the note said:
“Anne - I know that falter in your voice is my fault. You say love often depends on choice and circumstance, and you’re right. I have made so many wrong choices over the last 7 years - and I have no excuse. Only my pride and wounded ego. I never should have left you that night. I shouldn’t have stayed away. Every trip, every city - I wished you were there with me. All these months - I’ve stayed here for you. I keep coming back for you. I was right all those years ago - there isn’t anyone else for me. You’re it, and you always have been. The agony of another rejection has stopped me from saying this sooner, but seeing that magnet caused me to hope like I’ve never hoped before. If there’s any way that you might forgive me, that you might feel the same way, please...tell me.”
Anne reread his words over and over again in disbelief.
She raced out of the bathroom, folding the paper again, and shoving it into the pocket of her jeans. In the living room, Luisa and Ben were back, setting up the karaoke machine. All of them getting rowdy. Anne walked over to Sophie, and knelt down next to her.
“Hey, I am so sorry, but I think I have to go.”
Sophie looked at her, concerned. “Is everything okay?” She looked at Anne’s face closely. “You’re looking kind of pale.”
Anne nodded, and said, “Yeah, yeah. I think I, um, need to go take a nap or something. I’m feeling a little lightheaded.”
“AY! Anne! You’re sick?!” Frances yelled from the opposite side of the room. All of them looked at her, save for Ben who was trying to untangle several cords.
Anne stood up, and said, “Not sick! Just...I’m going to head home, and rest.”
“She’s feeling lightheaded!” Sophie explained. She turned back to Anne and put down her mug. “Do you need a ride? I can drive you.”
“No! No, I can drive myself home. I’ll roll down the windows. The fresh air will help.” Before anyone else could offer a ride, Anne quickly grabbed her purse and walked out the door, stopping at the edge of the front steps. She hadn’t thought this far ahead - about how to find him. She took a few deep breaths, and made her way to her car, down the block. Her mind spinning, as she rustled through her purse for her car keys. She stopped on the sidewalk, until she finally dug them out, hands still trembling from the adrenaline.
Anne looked up to unlock her car and saw Erick. Pacing next to her Toyota, chewing on a nail, nervously. She felt her heart swell in her chest, as she watched him, affection overwhelming her. He looked up and stopped in his tracks. And the two of them stood there, several feet apart, unsure of how to start.
Anne opened her mouth, and said the first thing she could think of. “You have really good hearing.” He looked at her, confused at first, but her answer to his letter must have been evident on her face. His shoulders sagged in relief, a smile slowly spreading on his face. He breathed out a laugh.
“Believe it or not, you’re not the first person to tell me that.”
She shook her head in disbelief. “You waited.”
He ran a hand through his hair, and said, “Yeah, well...I didn’t have your number so. I thought I’d, um, wait. Here.” His face grew more serious. “I couldn’t leave without knowing.”
Anne took a step forward, and said, “You were wrong.” He looked at her confused. She took a deep breath before continuing, “In the kitchen...I was thinking about my choice that night. Not yours. You needed to leave. It wouldn’t have been fair for you to stay. You needed to follow your- “
Erick cut her off, “I didn’t have to leave so soon. We could have worked something out. I didn’t...I didn’t fight for us.” He shook his head, and shrugged. “And I could have come back sooner. But I didn’t want to admit that...maybe you had been right. I was asking a lot of you. I was asking you to give up...a lot.”
They looked at each other, quiet for a moment. So many what ifs, coulds, and shoulds between them.
“Well...even if it doesn’t really feel like it, maybe we both made the right call. Based on...who we were at the time,” Anne reasoned.
Erick nodded. “Maybe. I mean...I’ve learned and seen more than I could have imagined.” He paused, and took a few steps, closing the gap between them. He took her hands in his. “I know that you’re working on your book and your family, and I don’t want to intrude on any of that. But, I’m done running. I want to be here. With you. If that’s okay.”
She wanted him to stay. Of course she did. But...she didn’t want him to resent her, in the future. “You might get sick of it,” Anne said.
“Well…” he squeezed her hands, “if you mean I might get sick of Uppercross, then that’s easy. We can take a trip or move to a different city. Wherever both of us want to go, whenever we’re ready.” Erick paused, and she felt her cheeks flush at his gaze. “But, if what you’re saying is that I might get sick of staying here with you , then I can promise that’s not going to happen.” He smiled cheekily. “I’m in this. All in. If you are.”
Anne let out a shaky breath, all of her worry melting away. The sun had started to set, setting later than they were used to, the start of spring coinciding with the start of a new chapter in their lives. Together. Again.
She stepped closer, and wrapped her arms around his neck, their foreheads pressed together. They stayed like that, savoring this moment together. And then, he kissed her, still smiling as he did. And she kissed him back, with all of the affection she had been holding back before. They kissed and kissed, the two of them stumbling from the force, until Erick started laughing, both of them holding the other’s face. Disbelief and utter joy pouring out of them.
“Why are you laughing?” Anne dropped her hands, and left them on his chest, his hands still cradling her face, eyes bright. She couldn’t help but mirror his giddy smile.
Erick shrugged, and shook his head before saying, “I just...really missed you.”
Anne felt tears well up in her eyes, and she closed them, taking a breath before responding, “I really missed you.”
She closed her hands, balling up the fabric of his shirt as she did. Blissfully happy.
“Oh, shit!” Erick said, suddenly. Anne jumped back.
Erick pulled out his phone and checked the screen, before grabbing her hand, pulling her to her car.
“Feel like haggling over antique furniture?”
Anne and Erick considered keeping their relationship a secret, at least, while they learned how to be with one another again. But, they quickly decided that hiding was part of their demise all those years ago. So, the two of them vowed to be as open and honest as possible.
The entire family - Ilaos, Crofts and Mendozas - were thrilled at the development. Sophie, especially. Eliza, the least (not because she didn’t like him - she didn’t like the idea of being the last single sister).
Tita Lettie was quick to declare her support, extending an invitation to Erick for her and Anne’s weekly dinners. No obligation, so as not to pressure him, but always welcome.
The longer the two were together the more jokes and hints they received about marriage and children, which they both ignored. They knew that everyone was eager for them to settle down and make everything official, but Anne and Erick were perfectly content with taking things slowly. Not because they were scared, of course. No. It was because the two of them didn’t need a ring or ceremony to declare their future together. They knew, with the utmost certainty, that they would be spending the rest of their lives together - as partners and equals. And they planned on savoring every single moment.
WOWOWOWOW. It's over. I so enjoyed writing this! Thank you for coming back and reading my first finished story. The support has been so wonderful.
I have a companion piece to this drafted - a few of the scenes/unseen moments from Erick's POV - so keep an eye out!