My brother tilted his head toward me. The breeze off the ocean ruffled his hair, which was bleached almost white from years of surfing and working outside.
I don’t know, I thought. Maybe I met a god last month. Or maybe I’m losing my mind.
“Thanks for rescuing me this morning,” I said, avoiding his question.
It was Christmas Day, sunny and a perfect seventy-five degrees in San Diego. We were walking along Coronado Beach, barefoot, my jeans rolled up to my knees. I’d flown in from Chicago last night, and Mom had given me a solid twelve hours of sympathy about breaking up with Doug. But as soon as the presents were opened this morning, she was back to her litany of suggestions about the various ways I could be less of a disappointment to the family.
“Caroline, you could at least wear a little lipstick,” Mom said.
I nodded under the glare of the white aluminum Christmas tree. Mom had given me a Mary Kay makeup kit the size and shape of a cinder block, and I shifted it precariously close to my knees so I could reach my mimosa.
“You’ve just got to get back on that horse,” she continued. “I’m sure there are plenty of very nice boys out there in Chicago. Go have a few dates!”
I nodded again, draining my mimosa in one gulp. I felt like the makeup kit was cutting off circulation in my legs.
“And you know, Caroline,” she said, dropping her voice to a stage whisper, “it wouldn’t hurt to find someone who makes a good living. Because honestly, I don’t know how you expect to support yourself studying Greek gods.”
“Norse, Mom,” I muttered. “I study Norse mythology.”
Mom threw her hands in the air, rolling her eyes.
My brother Geoff came to my rescue then, offering to get the two of us out of Mom’s hair for an hour or so and promising to be back in time to help cook Christmas dinner. And we’d come here, to my favorite place in all of San Diego, the long, golden crescent of Coronado Beach.
He nodded at me, glancing out across the ocean. I followed his gaze, shading my eyes as I looked over the waves. I could just see a freighter on the horizon, dwarfed by the vastness of the sunlit Pacific.
“Some pretty weird shit happened to me this fall,” I said.
“Weirder than normal?”
I snorted a laugh. Weirder than normal, indeed. Weirder than me, the only person in my family with black hair and pale skin? The one who spent her sweet sixteen summer teaching herself to read German while everyone else snuck off to Mexico and had magical first kisses on the beach? The one who decided to move to Chicago and study ancient Viking gods while every other person in my family ran Capello’s Landscaping & Tree Surgery?
“Yeah,” I said. “Weirder than normal.”
My brother nodded. “Weird shit happens to our family,” he said. “You wanna talk about it?”
I looked over the Pacific. Seagulls whirled and dove into the waves, their lonely cries echoing off the beach. Beyond the breakers, the ocean was a pale, translucent blue. Like his eyes, I thought. Just like his eyes. My heart tightened painfully in my chest.
“Not just yet,” I said.
I was in no rush to tell my brother about Loki.
* * * * * * * *
“Looks like the party’s started,” my brother said as he pulled his white Jetta into my parents’ driveway.
I could see Aunt Adrianna’s VW Bug parked on the street, and Uncle Tony and Aunt Michelle were already in the driveway, unloading several huge, covered bowls from the back of their blue Camry.
“Caroline!” Uncle Tony waved as soon as I stepped out of the car.
I walked over, kissing Aunt Michelle on both cheeks and grabbing the last enormous salad bowl from their trunk. I winced as Uncle Tony clapped me on the shoulder.
“You look good,” he said, as we walked inside. “How’s Chicago?”
“It’s great,” I mumbled.
I could hear Aunt Adrianna’s thundering cheer from the front door as the entire family came out of the kitchen to hug and kiss each other. My dad has three sisters, and they all work for him. Their husbands all work for him. My mom, my brother, even my brother’s fiancee Di; they all work for Capello’s Landscaping & Tree Surgery. I imagine the family gets to spend enough time together, but every single time someone comes over to the house, it’s like they’ve all just been reunited after decades of separation.
By the time Tony and Michelle finished kissing and hugging everyone, and complimenting Adrianna on her new haircut, and telling my dad what a shame it was the Chargers wouldn’t make the playoffs, and telling Di and Geoff yet again how happy they are about the engagement, the front door swung open for Uncle Donny, Aunt Julia, and their four screaming kids. And the entire process started up again.
Once the greetings finally settled down, my mom called me into the kitchen and put me in charge of drinks while Di finished the besciamella sauce.
She’s not even Italian, I thought, and she can make besciamella. I can’t even manage to cook spaghetti al dente, and I’m a Capello. That’s why my mom told me to hand out the drinks; she wants me as far from the actual cooking as possible.
Di smiled at me as I walked very carefully around the two lemon chiffon cakes she made last night. I smiled back as I inched out of the kitchen.
It’s not that I don’t like Di. I don’t even think it’s possible for anyone to dislike Di – she’s perfect. Perfectly charming, perfectly helpful, perfectly beautiful. If my brother hadn’t proposed to her this summer, I think my mom would have gone out, bought the ring, and done it herself.
That much perfection can be a bit hard to handle. I was happy to wander into the backyard with my one job: taking drink orders.
“Carol!” Uncle Tony clapped me on the back again. “You know what you should be studying?”
I knew what was coming. Uncle Tony is the proudest half-Italian in all of southern California.
“Can I, uh, get you a drink?” I asked.
“The Romans!” Tony thundered. “The greatest civilization the world’s ever known! Now that’d be a hell of a topic to study, right? And it’s your blood!”
“I’d love a glass of white,” said Aunt Michelle, maneuvering herself in front of her husband.
“Have you had any of that deep-dish abomination they call pizza?” Uncle Tony asked, with a wink.
“Uh, no,” I said, “I haven’t gotten out much. Been pretty busy.”
Uncle Donny came over to join us.
“You started cheering for the Bears, then?” he asked me.
“Um, I’m still not much of a basketball fan,” I told him. “Can I get you a drink?”
Donny and Tony seemed to find this hilarious.
“Okay,” I said, “white wine for Michelle.”
Aunt Michelle put her arms around my shoulders as we navigated the crowd back to the kitchen.
“We were so sorry to hear about Doug,” she told me. “I just want you to know it’s his loss. Really. I’m one hundred percent positive there’s a nice, sweet boy out there in Chicago, just waiting for you.”
“Thanks,” I muttered, handing Michelle her wine before pouring myself a glass. A very full glass.
I’d had three glasses of wine when we sat down to Christmas dinner, and by then I was thoroughly enjoying my entire family. I even found it hilarious and charming when the three-year-old twins both took matching bites out of Di’s cakes, and I was surprisingly convinced by Uncle Tony’s rant about how the Greeks get too much credit when it was really the Romans who founded Western civilization. I was even starting to feel nostalgic for the summers I spent working in the office of Capello’s Landscaping by the time the sun set and the aunts, uncles, nieces, and nephews started heading for the door.
It was late Christmas night before the house was quiet again. To apologize to my mom for my shortcomings as a chef, I finished the dishes, sipping coffee to sober up. Now I was sitting in the backyard, enjoying the soft, quiet night.
When I first stepped off the plane from Chicago, I was surprised to realize I could smell the ocean. But I must have become acclimatized, because now I could only smell the night-blooming jasmine, the small, hidden blossoms on the lemon tree, the soft, freshly-mown grass. Shadows shifted and danced across the backyard, radiating from the light pouring out the kitchen window.
My dad’s backyard is his masterpiece. The Capellos have owned a landscaping business since my grandfather’s time, and this yard is his biggest advertisement. He has a lot of parties here, hosting potential clients. And he begins every party with the same story: When I started…
I heard the sliding door opening behind me.
“You know, when I started…” my dad said from behind me.
“This was just a tree and a quarter acre of bare dirt?” I asked, smiling.
“Well, it may have had a rock or two,” he said, sitting next to me and handing me a steaming mug. It smelled like chamomile tea.
“Thanks,” I said.
We sat in silence for a moment, listening to the crickets. I watched the dark leaves of the California ash rustle against the stars. My brother Geoff likes to joke that our California ash belongs to another world, because its leaves swirl and dance, even when the air is still.
“Your mother means well,” my dad said, delicately.
I rolled my eyes, hoping it was too dark for him to notice. “Are you sure I wasn’t adopted?” I asked, hugging my steaming mug.
“Well, now that you mention it…” He smiled at me in the warm, yellow light coming through the kitchen window. “Of course, I seem to remember that your mother was in labor for -”
“Forty-eight hours!” I said. “And she’ll never let me forget it!”
“And she is proud of you,” he said. “We both are. Hell, I only made it through one year of college, and your mom didn’t go at all. When you graduated from U.C. Davis, well, that might have been the proudest moment of her life.”
Because I had a boyfriend, I thought. Because there was still hope I might lead something vaguely resembling a normal life.
“I don’t know,” I said. “It’s just – I mean, Mom was prom queen.”
“And you skipped prom to study,” he said, chuckling. “That doesn’t mean you’re adopted.”
I shrugged. My mom sobbed when I missed the prom. She bought me a dress and booked me a makeover, even after I’d told her I wasn’t going. When I got a perfect score on all my AP exams, she sniffed and told me I’d have done just as well even if I had gone to prom.
“And I’m sorry about Doug,” he said. “But to be honest, I always thought you could do better.”
I laughed over my tea. “Dad, I thought you loved Doug!”
My dad smiled at me in the yellow glow of the kitchen light. “Honey,” he said, “I love you.” Then he stood, stretched, and kissed the top of my head. I heard the sliding glass door open and close behind me.
I sat in the garden for a long time after my dad went inside, listening to the small, hidden animals rustle branches in the yard, trying to smell the ocean.
And hoping I wasn’t losing my mind.
* * * * * * * *
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