Return to Me

1
***

If he knew I was going to take my life today, Troy would have been furious.
I try not to think about it as I sit on the patio that overlooks the golf course, shrouded by mist in the early morning light.
Mosquito netting encloses my refuge and I rub the gold ring he gave me 20 years ago with my thumb, up and down the length of my ring finger. We were never married—society wasn’t ready for that then—but we were married in our hearts, where it mattered.
I groan. All these years and there hasn’t been a day that I haven’t thought about him.
Cancer doesn’t pick favorites. It eats the body alive from the inside out and devours the souls of their loved ones who must watch helplessly. It has no mercy, no thoughts to whom it leaves behind.
I’m only in my early 60s, but I feel much older. I’m angry, still after all these years, and I haven’t been able to shake that feeling.
He lied to me. Troy said he’d come back and he never came back. He said he’d send me a sign from the other side, but decades have past. They say I should move on, but they didn’t know Troy.
He was my everything. Troy could make the sun shine on a rainy day. He could make me laugh when I wanted to cry.
I lean back in my patio chair and reach for the bottle of pills. A handful of them should do the trick. It will be painful as my throat closes up and my capillaries burst, but anything’s better than living another day without my Troy.
A cold chill runs through my body, followed by a thick, humid Florida breeze. My chrome wind chime sways back and forth in front of me, tinkling. It’s a mystical song, one that usually brings me joy.
Then a whisper from behind me says, “Wait.”
I sit up, something or someone stands in my peripheral vision. My neck is erect and the hairs on my arms raise. “Troy?”

2
***
Today

It was a dream. The same one I’ve had every day this week, but this time I’m awakened by the sound of glass breaking.
At first, I lay my head back to bed, wanting to believe it is my imagination, but someone’s shoes crunching onto the shattered remains upstairs makes me reach for the .45 caliber under my bed.
Call me paranoid, but even living in a guard gated community I’ve caught the estate’s security guards sleeping on the job enough times to be ready for anything.
I shoot out of bed, creeping up to my bedroom door where I look out both ways before stepping into the hallway. Long, dark shadows spread across the dimly moonlit halls, leading to the stairs.
I pause as the weight of my bare feet makes the wooden stairs creak and I hope it’s not loud enough to scare away my intruder.
I should call the cops. A man my age is no match for a burglar, but my years in the military give me more confidence than I should have. Besides, the gun in my hand feels good.
I take a deep breath before opening the door that leads to the room where I heard the footsteps. Maybe I’ll be leaving this world early after all, with one shot to the chest.
I’m struck by what I see as my eyes scan the sparsely placed furniture and settle onto the dimly lit guest bed.
A young man lies on it as if he’s an invited guest. I inch closer to him, aiming my gun in his direction and my confusion makes my hands shake a little.
With the way the moonrays spread through the sheer curtains on him, he glows like an angel—like an honest to God one, which is a stark contrast to the intrusive way he’s barreled his way into my home. Light glitters off the shattered remains of the window and I kick his shins to wake him.
He turns, cracking his eyes open to reveal a blue not normally found in nature and greets me with a smile as if he’s a long lost friend and not some break and enter artist. “Albert”” he says. “Sorry to wake you.”
I’m unnerved by his casual nature and I cock the gun in his face and say, “Who the hell are you?”
He chuckles as if not at all concerned about the weapon that could blow his head in two. “You sure have gotten old.”
He’s quite handsome—stunning, actually—but I clear that thought from my head. I’m half-naked and for once I wish I wasn’t so impulsive. I should have brought my phone with me. “I’m calling the cops.”
A glint of fright sweeps over his face. “Please, I can explain. I’m sorry.”
I lower my tone, spreading my legs and placing both hands on my gun as I keep my aim. “Damn right, you better explain.”
“There’s no need for a gun in my face,” he says as if trying to calm a beast, maybe that’s what I look like right now. “You always were a hot head.”
I’m annoyed by his apparent familiarity with me and my nostrils flare. “What are you talking about?”
A gentle smile spreads across his face and it fills me with a calm I shouldn’t be feeling. His eyes catch the light as he says, “It’s me, Troy.”

3
***
Years Ago

“Idiot,” young Troy said under his breath, although loud enough for the junior history professor and university students to hear.
“I beg your pardon, Mr. Simmons,” Professor Albert said, looking at him from above reading glasses which dangled from his thin, hawkish nose.
The students’ anticipation of his next words filled the crowded, stuffy lecture hall with electricity. Albert felt it all over.
Troy smirked. “You’re saying that because you’re Christian—Buddhists, Jews, Hindus and Muslims are all worshipping incorrectly?”
Professor Albert tried to control his temper, but he was miffed that one of his students would challenge him in front of everyone. That he would dare.
Sure, most of his students were almost his age, having graduated early, but Albert had worked too hard to prove his place with the faculty. He wasn’t about to have everything he said undermined by some student.
“I’m saying,” Professor Albert said, catching his voice from erupting, “we simply know better.”
The class chuckled. “Like I said: idiot,” said Troy, just as the bell rang.
Albert’s nostrils flared. As the students scurried in a chaotic bolt toward the exit, his eyes scanned them for the rebel. “Mr. Simmons.”
“Yes, Professor?” said the young man, stepping toward him.
It was the first time the young professor had been this close to his student and they locked eyes. “I need to speak to you.”
The truth was, Albert hadn’t been able to focus since he laid eyes on Troy. The young man was quite frankly breathtaking, with crystal blue eyes that Albert could stare into for hours. He managed to keep most of the students’ attention as well, to Albert’s chagrin.
However, not only was it against faculty policy to fraternize with a student, he’d certainly be fired, as society wasn’t ready for an openly gay professional—especially not one in a teaching position.
Most men like the young professor had to keep their closeted life shrouded in the dingy back alleys of shady gay bars, which was not Albert’s scene.
Instead, he had kept his urges at bay by burying himself in work.
It’d worked thus far until he’d met Troy.
“So, what’s up, professor?” asked Troy, crossing his arms as if he were up for the challenge.
Albert crossed his arms too, also up for the challenge, both locking eyes with each other.
As the last student trailed out, there was nothing between the two young men but silence and kinetic tension.
Troy stepped closer and Albert’s heart skipped a beat. The clean scent of him filled the professor’s nostrils. He’d never been unnerved by anyone before. He’d prided himself in being confident, but something about this student stripped him of his defenses. Stripped him bare.
“Did you want to discuss this further?” asked Albert, clearing his throat and stepping closer to Troy.
A small smirk spread on Troy’s face. He liked the challenge. “Perhaps over dinner?”
Albert blushed, but he lowered his tone, letting the student know he was still boss. “Perhaps.”

4
***
Today

I’m snapped back to reality, grabbing this young man who claims to be Troy by the collar. How dare he impersonate my late husband! I can’t even begin to swallow the fury that fills me at his hurtful proclamation.
I should shove him out the window he broke into, but I can’t. Something about him makes me stop and think before I act—which isn’t like me.
I speak through gritted teeth. It isn’t easy controlling my temper. “How do you know that name?”
He scrunches eyebrows in confusion. “What name? Troy? That’s my name. Just like your name is Albert, or Ally when I really want to piss you off.”
My hand quivers in fear, and I lose my grip on him. He has that same clean scent that Troy used to have and I’m afraid I’ll accidentally shoot him. I uncock the gun and lay it on the nightstand away from his reach. Away from mine.
I pace back and forth, the wooden floor creaking in protest of my weight. “I don’t know what kind of game you’re playing, but I’ll tell you one thing, the cops don’t take lightly to break ins around here. You better—”
“You better believe it,” he says, finishing my sentence and laughing. “You still say that? You haven’t changed.”
This is scary. Only people who know me well know that. I need to clear my head. I must be dreaming again. I wish I’d wake up. I blink my eyes several times and he’s still there. Taunting me. Making my heart ache at the sight of him.
“Just stop talking and stay here. I’m calling the police,” I say. It’s the only thing I can think of to do that doesn’t involve looking at this man any longer.
Instead of backing away, he approaches me calmly. I can’t stop thinking about how beautifully familiar he is to me. “I don’t understand. I told you I’d send you a sign. I told you I’d come back for you. Why are you upset?”
I freeze in my spot, my whole body vibrating, and my eyes water. “Troy?”

5
***
Years Ago

“Senator?” young Troy said, his eyes lighting up at the good news. He kissed Albert deeply in the one place where they could be themselves—Albert’s upscale apartment.
But Albert was distracted as he stared at the green kitchen tile floor. And Troy must have sensed it as he opened a bottle of wine. “This is cause for celebration. White or red?”
“Troy,” said Albert, his eyes met Troy’s. The younger man fished through the wooden oak drawer for another bottle opener as if he were avoiding a conversation they needed to have.
Pulling the opener out, he peeled off the silver wine wrapper. “Forget wine. We need champagne for this. I can’t say I’m surprised they’re going to support your run,” said Troy, now searching the cabinets for champagne.
“Troy!” he said, maybe a little too strong. There was silence between them and a knot formed in Albert’s throat. An ambulance blared by the busy street and he took a deep breath. What he had to say wouldn’t be easy.
This should have been a special moment for both of them. Troy had encouraged him to pursue his dream of being in politics and even worked an extra job so that he could quit his professorship and go for it.
Troy put the champagne bottle down. “What?” The smile on his face faded.
Albert sighed. His heart raced, he bit his lower lip and braced himself for impact. “There’s something I need to tell you. They know about us.”
Troy almost dropped the bottle in his hand and Albert grabbed it.
“And they’re fine with it,” said the older man, catching his breath. He set the bottle on the kitchen counter, his thumb rubbing over the moist condensation.
Troy’s smile returned for a moment. “Good. So, what’s the issue?”
He cleared his throat again. “The’’re fine with it so long as… it never comes out.”
Troy froze. It took him a few minutes before he spoke. He was hurt, Albert could tell. They’d been together for the last three years, after all, and their connection was strong. “Oh, then we’ll keep it discreet as we’ve been doing the last few years,” said Troy, grabbing the rag draped on the refrigerator door. The kitchen was spotless, but Troy scrubbed over the counter nervously.
It was self-sacrificing of the younger man. It agitated Troy to have to keep their relationship a secret, Albert understood that and he felt the same way, but he had more to say. “And that’s not all. They think the chances of me winning would increase significantly if… I had a wife.”
“A what?” Troy threw his rag down and started for the living room when Albert grabbed him by the arm.
Troy yanked his arm away. “If you wanted to break up with me, Ally, you could have—”
“No, never. I’d be lost without you, Troy. It’s only for show. What you and I have is what’s real. It’s sacred.” It was a lame excuse and Albert felt like a sell-out.
Troy’s eyes narrowed at him. “So sacred you don’t want the world to know.”
Albert bowed his head. He shouldn’t have even considered their offer. The love he had for Troy was worth more than any career move. “It’s only until I get elected. And maybe a few more years after that. Then, I’ll be such an amazing senator, no one will care what I do in my bedroom.”
The silence between them was deafening until Troy’s voice broke through. “Our—Our bedroom.”
Albert’s eyes lit up as he saw the small smile on Troy’s face. The things this man put up with were unparallelled. “Please, don’t leave me. I need you.”
Pulling Troy closer, their lips met and the younger man draped his arms around his neck, sinking into him. “Never.”

6
***
Today

“So how did you…?” I don’t know how to put it as I sit across this handsome young man on the couch. The large screen TV is on, mostly as a safety blanket in case we don’t know what to say to each other.
A familiar smile spreads across his face. He gives me a wink which relaxes me a bit. “How did I come back?”
I nod. I feel like a young man again. In fact, I feel like the first time we went out to dinner. I take a deep breath, projecting more confidence than I have, but he can see right through it.
“The important thing is I’m here and we can pick up where we left off,” says Troy. Maybe he’s avoiding the subject because he’s lying, maybe he senses I’m not ready for the details.
He puts his hand on my face. The softness of his youth brings back memories. It’s been so long since anyone has done that to me, I almost forgot how good it feels. “I missed you,” he says, his voice raspy.
Something in his cadence reminds me of my Troy. When I close my eyes and he talks, it’s as if he’s here with me again and I nod. The newscaster’s voice becomes my life-jacket. I don’t know what she’s talking about, but I need something to ground me.
I want to open up to him—I do, but I’m not ready to. I need to know for sure. I’ve guarded my heart only for Troy’s return for all these years and I’m still not sure this is him. I don’t want to be hurt again.
“I know this is difficult. You wonder if this is all real and I promise you it is,” he says, then he kisses my lips. The taste of him is intoxicating. It’s different than I remember, or maybe it’s been so long since I’ve been kissed. But it still feels good.
“You hungry?” I ask, getting up and trying to change the subject. I almost trip over the couch’s arm chair as I remove myself from him. I’m almost embarrassed at how messy I’ve let the house become. Troy used to keep the house spotless.
I’m rambling in my mind. The truth is I’m immensely attracted to him—Troy or whoever he is—and if I sit next to him any longer I don’t know if I could control myself.
“Grilled cheese—”
“With bacon, right?”
He smiles and my heart melts. I haven’t made one of those since he passed away. “Exactly. You remember.”
I want to pinch myself to see if this is real, but I’ve already done that several times before.
I start to say something when my cell phone rings. I grab it from the next room and sigh. It’s my son. I forgot. He’s supposed to come over this morning. He says he hates how I stay home alone, that it’s unhealthy.
I can’t cancel it or he’ll know something is wrong. I need to think fast.

7
***
Years ago

It broke his heart to see it unfold before him. As much as Troy had agreed to give Albert’s support to what the newspapers described as the wedding of the year, it shattered him to watch him kiss that woman and give his vows to her.
Christmas lights illuminated the church’s pew, arching over the aisle with white roses permeating the air of the crowded building.
A wave of murmurs filled the echoing hall as the faux bride floated toward Albert who wore the silk black suit Troy had fitted for him. He’d forced a smile on his face as he fastened the bow tie before Albert stepped outside earlier that day.
Troy hadn’t even been allowed to be a best man. Instead, Albert’s political campaign managers had cast the perfect wedding party made up of the who’s who of the country’s most elite.
Troy had to be strong. If Albert was going to change the laws to protect others like them, sacrifices had to be made. And Troy believed him like he’d never believed anyone else before. Albert was a good man with a good heart who wanted to make a real difference in the world. If anyone could, it was Albert.
And yet, as the younger man watched the couple exchange vows in front of everyone, Troy couldn’t stomach any more of it, he had to leave, the room was closing in on him and he could barely breathe.
Rushing out through the lobby and down the cobble steps, he almost keeled over, gripping to the doorway as he took a breath. He’d faint if he didn’t get a hold of himself, and the mountainous vista surrounding them didn’t make things any better.
This was supposed to be their wedding, their day to remember, and although he’d first tried to support Albert in this, Troy couldn’t help but feel betrayal.
He paced the floor, waiting most of the night for Albert to come home into the boutique hotel room after the wedding reception. The older man was so drunk that he could barely walk. Troy did his best to hold his temper as he undressed him from that black tux.
It should have been their wedding night they were celebrating, their reception. Instead, as Troy tried to steal away a few hours with Albert before he had to got up for his faux honeymoon with his wife, the man fell asleep. “Albert?” he whispered, as the older man cracked his eyes open in the middle of the night.
“Yeah, babe,” he said, his worlds slurred.
“Do you still love me?” he asked, though the question in his drunken state probably didn’t register.
“You better believe it,” said Albert.
Troy took a deep breath, watching the sheer curtain floating in the breeze. Sacrifices had to be made, he kept telling himself. But why, then, did this all feel like the beginning of the end?

8
***
Today

“You want me to go?” Troy asks, leaning against the doorframe. His face is both hurt and confused and I struggle with a way to explain it to him.
“Just until Sam… He’s on his way,” I say. I feel like a coward, hiding this secret from the world as if I’m not strong enough for the world to know. I thought that I’d come a long way since when we had to hide our relationship and now I’m not so sure.
“He’s our son,” says Troy, crossing his arms. His eyes narrow like they did when we were younger “Why would he—?”
I’m fed up and I feel like I shouldn’t have to explain myself. It’s been decades since I’ve had to and I dig through my closet looking for a clean shirt to put on. “He doesn’t know… How am I going to explain you to him?”
Troy bows his head, but first picks out a blue shirt for me like he used to years ago. “I guess I could take a walk. I just don’t want to spend a second away from you again.”
Those words touch my heart and I kiss him on the forehead and say the most truthful thing I’ve said to him yet, “Me neither.”
He holds on to me and squeezes me tight and, unable to help myself, I pull him tighter. I don’t want him to go either. I breathe in his scent. It’s different than I remember and yet it feels so familiar.
“Dad?” says a voice behind me. It’s my son, Sam, all six foot two of him. He must have snuck in from the back patio. He sports an Armani suit, probably having come from another high powered meeting
I pull away and Troy just stares at him. “He’s so big.”
I guess he must be shocked. The last time Troy saw him he was barely four years old. “Dad? Who is this…?” says Sam, looking at both of us for an explanation.
I feel like a child being chastised and I don’t like that. “This is…”
“You’ve gotten so old,” says Troy. He never did have a filter and I can see that hasn’t changed.
I step in front of him and usher my son out before Troy says anything else. “He’s my… special friend.”
“Special friend?” Sam’s eyebrows arch and I don’t know if it’s because I’ve never used that term with anyone before or if he doesn’t believe me.
He steps inside the bedroom, uninvited, towering over Troy. I know he looks like a child compared to me. “How long have you…? You never told me about him.”
This interrogation has to stop. I button the last button on my shirt and Troy fixes it. “Why don’t we do our breakfast another day?” I say, hoping Sam will leave.
My son crosses his arms to let me know he’s not leaving until he’s ready. “I saw the broken glass and the window. How did..?”
I sigh, trying to lead him out of the bedroom and down the hall. The walls are lined with old photos of me and Troy in our younger, happier years. “It’s nothing. Just some punk kids.”
My son follows me out and Troy is behind him. “We should fix it or…”
I turn around, I just wish he’d go. “Son, please. Can’t you see I’m busy?”
He studies my face for a bit and then says, “Sure.”
I know my son well enough to know that this isn’t the end of his suspicions and this certainly isn’t the end to what he’ll do about them.

9
***
Years Ago

“When did… How did this happen?” Troy asked, barely able to make out the words. His chin quivered and the stare back at Albert was excruciating.
Albert didn’t know why he thought making him a grilled cheese with bacon sandwich would make this blow any easier, but he flipped over the sandwich and pressed the spatula. How could the older man put into words an explanation that would justify what he’d done? “Must have been the wedding night. I was so drunk, Troy. You have to understand—”
“Understand? I don’t have to understand anything,” said Troy, seething with anger. Albert had never seen him this angry before, but he had every right to be. “You promised me this was just a show and now you’re saying she’s pregnant!”
Albert stepped away from the stove and put his hands on either side of his face. “I didn’t… I don’t even remember what happened… I have never—I would never cheat on you. You have to understand that, but… the advisors say this is a good thing. America loves a happy family and maybe this way—”
Troy’s nostrils flared and his eyes began to water. Albert had hurt him deeply and it destroyed him to see what he’d done to his partner. “Tell me one reason why I shouldn’t leave you, Albert.”
“The child will be ours. Cynthia doesn’t even want a child. We’ll take care of it. Think of it as her gift to you.”
“Ally, you know how much I hate that woman” Troy said through gritted teeth. He paced back and forth in the kitchen. “She’s an opportunist—”
Troy wasn’t thinking straight. They could work through this. Albert really believed that, or at least he hoped. They’d been together for over five years, after all. “Be civil. Be level-headed. Be—”
The fire alarm beeped at the smoke that had filled the room. Albert had let the sandwich burn and Troy tossed it in the trash, opening up the windows to let the air in.
“Don’t tell me how to be, Albert. You broke your vow to me. I love you, but I can only put up with so much.”
He was right, of course. Albert coughed up the remaining stench of the smoke. “Troy, please,” he said, reaching out to him.
Snatching his arm back, Troy said, “Just leave.”

10
***
Today

I overhear Troy talking to someone and my antennas raise up. I’m stepping out of the kitchen with some pastries on a small plate. He always enjoyed raspberry filled ones.
Troy told me that he wanted to sit outside on the patio where we could have some coffee and really talk undisturbed.
He doesn’t have a cell phone, as far as I know, so I don’t know where the voices are from.
I catch the tail-end of the conversation. “Why can’t you just leave us in peace?” Troy says.
“You’re not the first one to try to pull this and you won’t be the last,” the other voice says. I think I recognize the other voice, but I cannot be certain.
By the time I step out onto the patio, the other person has disappeared and Troy is shaking even though he tries to cover it up with a smile. “You forgot the coffee,” he says.
I’ve startled him and he jumps as I shut the door and step closer to him. “Who were you talking to?” I ask, closing the patio door behind me.
He never was a good liar, maybe because he was the most genuine person I’ve ever known. “What do you mean?” he asks, though he can barely look at me.
“Look,” I say, taking a seat next to him. The chair squeaks as I scoot closer. This is important. I try to put it in words that are clear and yet will not offend him. “If there’s something that you need to say, something that’s going on, now’s the time to come clean. I won’t call the cops—”
He sits up a little as if to stop me. “The cops?” he asks, shocked.
I take a deep breath, trying to control my emotions. “Please.”
Troy takes a deep breath. He’s hurt by whatever was said. I can tell by the way he stares out of the patio onto the manmade lake in front of us. “It was him—Sam. He thinks… I’m trying to take advantage of you. He threatened me… threatened my life.”
I put my hands on my hips, trying to breathe through the frustration. The doctor has warned me about my blood pressure before and I won’t lose my temper. I want to say I’m shocked, but I’m not. The thing about my son is that he doesn’t make threats, only promises.
But I won’t let him do that to Troy. I won’t let him ruin this for either of us.

11
***
Years Ago

“Wait!” Albert called to Troy over a sea of people at the train station.
Troy looked back for a second then disappeared into the crowd. It was one of the busiest times of the day at the station and Albert wasn’t sure if he could find him.
He could have just let him go, take that as a clue that perhaps their relationship wasn’t meant to be.
It would have been a lot easier for him, after all. His career could soar without distraction, but the more he thought about it, the more the older man realized that he couldn’t imagine a day without his Troy.
The intercom echoed as the next train leaving was announced, its blaring sound echoed across the large hall. Grand archways overlooked the center.
Spotting Troy stepping out and closer to a train, Albert pulled his hat lower and moved closer to him, tugging on his jacket. “Please.”
Troy glared at him. Albert was clearly still concerned about being spotted by the press or the public. “Don’t you have constituents to attend to?” said Troy.
That hurt Albert, though he deserved it. There’s nothing that Troy had done that deserved all Albert had put him through the last few years, the sacrifices he’d made all in the name of love. “Nothing’s more important to me than you.”
Troy shook his head. Albert couldn’t sweet talk him out of his decision this time and he shifted his luggage from one hand to the next. “I beg to differ. You’re a father now, and a husband.”
A waft of train steam swept between them as Albert said something he should have said years ago, “I’ll leave it all behind, all of it. She doesn’t even like me. She hates it as much as I do. I’ll leave the senate behind if need be.”
Troy’s eyes widened. This dream Albert had had become their dream. He’d put his own goals aside to become a doctor so that he could support Albert. If Albert quit, then the sacrifices wouldn’t have been worth it. “Don’t do that. You’re work is too important.”
“It’d be worth it,” said Albert, his eyes becoming misty. His thumb rubbed against the side of Troy’s hand. “I couldn’t bear not having you in my life.”
Troy couldn’t hold back the tears. “You hurt me. Yes, I want to be a father, more than anything. Yes, I want a life with you, but you can make real change in this world if you’re in a position of power.”
Now it was time for Albert’s tears. He’d always fashioned himself a manly man, but Troy had opened up a sensitive side of him all these years that he didn’t even know existed. “What does that all mean, without you by my side?” asked Albert.
Eyeballs were on them now. People stopped and whispered, clearly recognizing Albert, but this time Albert didn’t flinch from the attention.
“Albert,” said Troy. He must have been worried for him until the older man sealed his lips with a kiss in front of everyone.

12
***
Today

We’ve been laughing for over an hour. Troy always had the ability to turn any tense situation into something light hearted.
My doubts about whether this is the real Troy are diminishing as I wipe the happy tears from my eyes. He remembers little details, stories that only the two of us knew, things that I’ve never told anyone, and yet as I see him wipe the happy tears from his eyes, something is bothering me.
I see it in the way he looks off to the side and stares off into space as we sit on the couch across from the television. Something’s bothering him and I need to know what it is.
I squeeze his hand. “What’s wrong?” I ask. I feel helpless again, unable to help him like in his last days. “If this is about Sam, I’ll beat his butt before I let him—”
“No, it’s not that, it’s just…” He takes a deep breath. Whatever he has to say is difficult. He squeezes my hand. “There’s something I’ve been wanting to tell you.”
“What is it?” I ask, my face is etched with concern, but then I see something in the reflection that catches my eye. It’s the television and a face—a familiar face—but, as I turn to take a better look, the face is gone.
I swear I saw Troy’s face—the new Troy—on the television, but he squeezes my hand again to get my attention. “I missed you,” he says, laying his head on my shoulder and I pull him close.
It feels so good to have his weight on my shoulders. It’s something I yearned for so long.
But something’s definitely wrong, I can feel it. I just need to live in this fantasy a bit longer, and the truth is I don’t ever want it to end.

13
***
Years ago

To say that the couple had been publicly humiliated by coming out of the closet was an understatement.
Being forced to retire from the senate was just the beginning for Albert, and so was Troy losing his medical clinic’s clients.
But when the homophobic slur was spray painted across their apartment door, that was the last straw.
That hot summer day, Troy was ready to take a pitch fork and stab someone with it as he searched through the closet.
Albert stepped in the spare bedroom to find his partner on the floor frantically piling boxes on top of the others on the floor. “Just calm down. What are you doing anyway?” asked Albert.
“Looking for something I can kill them with the next time they—” he said, lost in his search.
Albert wanted to laugh, but it wasn’t a laughing matter. He grabbed his partner by the arm and pulled him up. He loved how defensive Troy got when it came to him. “Listen, the lawyers say—”
Sighing, Troy stamped his feet. “The lawyers say this, the lawyers say that. When are we going to do something, Albert?”
He rubbed the younger man’s shoulders to calm him down. “We are doing something, Troy. We’re still here. We’re living our lives. We’re showing them—the world—that we will not be intimidated.”
He closed his eyes and took long, slow breaths through his nose. “We’re running out of savings, Ally, I got an eviction notice again today and—”
It was true and it’s not that it didn’t frighten Albert, it was just that as long as they were together they could get through anything. “Baby,” Albert said.
Troy shook his head, putting the boxes back into the closet. “Maybe we should… Maybe you should just say it was a all a misunderstanding. If I leave town now—”
He raised his voice. That wasn’t an option. “No, never. I’d die without you, Troy. You’re my everything.”
Troy smiled through the budding tears he fought back and held on to Albert tightly. They didn’t have much, but at least they had each other.

14
***
Today

“We need to leave,” Troy says, waking me from my nap. The panic on his face alarms me. It’s been days since he’s arrived and although something has been bothering me, we’ve done nothing but laugh and talk about memories.
“What’s wrong, baby?” I ask, sounding groggy. I sit up, the pillows imprint creased in my skin.
He drops a duffle bag on the floor near the bed. “I’ve packed some things to last us.”
I sit up and rub my eyes. This is too much information for someone who’s just woken up. “What’s going on?”
He looks at the door and says, “Please, they don’t want us to be together and I can’t lose you.”
Tears stream from his face and I stand up. He’s serious and I don’t ask any more questions. I trusted my Troy back then and I trust him now, even if there are still doubts in my head.
We will leave for him. I don’t know for how long and I don’t even know why but I trust that all will be explained later. It takes me less then five minutes to gather the rest of what we might need on this mysterious trip.
He looks like an ashamed puppy who’s done something wrong, but what? I turn the television off that was left on and wonder if I should grab some more food, but he pulls me closer to the door.
As we’re about to step out, a loud knock at the door almost gives me a heart attack. It’s not a neighbor, it can’t be. The knock was a force with a purpose.
“We should go out the back,” he says, but then a voice from the other side of the door says, “Mr. Whitman—Albert, open up. It’s the police.”
I swallow. What is all this? The police? This is a fairly safe neighborhood and other than Troy breaking in a few days ago, nothing ever happens here.
“Please,” says Troy. He pulls me in the direction of the back patio, but it’s too late. My son Sam steps inside the house, stuffing his keys in his pockets and a gun pointed right at Troy.
Why the cops allow him to have a gun, I don’t know, but I’m guessing with his connections to the city they’ll let him get away with anything. I freeze, then step in front of Troy to protect him. “Sam, what are you—?”
He swallows, cocking the gun anyway. “Dad, step away. He’s dangerous. Haven’t you seen the news?”
Troy’s kept me so busy that although the news has been on, I really haven’t paid any attention to it. Most of the time we’ve been watching old movies by Troy’s request, but now that I think about it, maybe that was intentional.
“The news?” I look to Troy for an answer, but I only see panic. I mentally beg this not to be true.
“Don’t believe them. Whatever they say.” He starts for the stairs, but Sam re-cocks his gun.
“Don’t move a muscle,” says my son, and I know that he won’t hesitate to shoot.
Troy puts his hands up slowly.

15
***
Years Ago

“You don’t like the caviar?” Albert asked, pouring him some more champagne. They had a lot to celebrate. Not only had he gotten a job as the director of civil rights for a nonprofit, but more importantly they’d been together for more than seven years.
Troy conjured up a smile as he picked at the fish eggs with the tip of his fork and stared across the candlelight table. “You know I don’t like that fancy stuff. It’s just—”
Albert was a little bit hurt. He’d gone through a lot to pull together this romantic dinner, but Troy’s happiness was more important. “Well, forget it, I’ll go to the store and we’ll buy chips and salsa. It’s our anniversary, I’d think you’d be—”
“Albert, I’m dying.”
The words hit him square in the chest like a bullet. Silence fell between them, making his heart pound in his throat.
He chuckled, waiting for Troy to laugh to or come up with some explanation, but he didn’t. “Dying? That’s not funny.”
The younger man closed his eyes, set his elbows on the table and rubbed his face. “No, it’s not. But it’s true.”
Albert set his fork down hard on the table. So many emotions ran hot through him in that moment. “What do you mean?”
Troy took a sip of the champagne before answering. “I’ve been having pains in my… You know I haven’t been as intimate with you lately as I’ve wanted to be.”
“You know that’s not important to me,” said Albert, grabbing Troy’s hand across from the table.
His eyes cut at him. “But it is. So, I went to the doctor to have it checked out and… I have colon cancer.”
Again there was silence. Albert tried to put to words together and stuttered before spitting out the question he needed an answer to. “How long have you known?”
Candlelight made his partner’s face glow as he waited for him to respond. “I wanted to be sure, so I got a second opinion and then a third—”
Wiping his mouth with a napkin, he threw it on the table and said, “I don’t believe it. We’ll get a fourth.”
“Albert, it’s best that we start making preparations.”
The older man rose to his feet and paced back and forth in the dining room. “Preparations my foot. We’re going to fight this, Troy. You hear me?”
Troy nodded, tears streaming as Albert pulled him closer. He turned on the record player and played the Elvis song, Love Me Tender. They danced on the living room floor that night as Albert sing the words to Troy. For this moment, they allowed themselves to get lost and forgot about the pain to come.
16
***
Today

I feel like a fool. As I answer questions at the musty-smelling police station, I bow my head. The rowdy criminals they book in the facility become a blur in my head.
It’s only until my son kisses me on the side of my head and says, “I’m sorry, Dad.”
Troy—or whoever this person was—is a conman. That’s what the news says, anyway. There’s video of him on the news robbing a bank and a long list of mostly women that he’s conned out of their money.
The police had been chasing him after a robbery. Shots were fired but he disappeared days ago.
I guess I wanted to believe that Troy would come back to me so bad that I was willing to believe anything. And yet, still there are so many unanswered questions.
As I walk with my son to the holding cell desk, I ask myself how he knows all those details, things that only Troy and I could have known? I want to be angry at the young man, but I can’t. Fool or not, he gave me more joy in those few days of fantasy than I’ve had the last twenty years since I lost him and, yet, something’s still nagging at me.
I just need to see him, if I can see him, maybe I can get some questions answered. The officers agree for me to say a few words to him even if they advise against it legally. I don’t care about the law right now, I just care about my heart.
“Why?” I ask, the words have to be pushed out because they’re stuck in my throat.
He looks up from the holding cell. “You have to believe me.” His expression is sincere and I feel helpless. I don’t know if it’s my heart playing tricks on me or if I should listen to my gut.
I raise my voice and the correction’s officer raises an eyebrow. “Enough of the act,” I say, my nostrils flaring.
He stands up and steps toward me, the bars separating us. Even though I don’t know if I want to hold him or strangle him, I stay put. “There’s so much I want to tell you. So much that would explain everything, but I can’t. It’s not allowed.”
I grip the bars of the holding cell. I’m so tired of the double-talk. “What’s not allowed?”
The young man starts to speak, then bows his head and I’ve heard enough. I’m not going to get any answers out of him and I turn away to exit, when I hear him sing Love Me Tender, his sweet voice echoing in the concrete walls.
My eyes water. It’s him. It has to be him. I don’t know how, I don’t know why, but it’s my Troy.

17
***
Years ago

Albert lost track of how long he’d been sitting at Troy’s side in the hospital that day. Months had past and the cancer had eaten him alive from the inside faster than they’d anticipated.
The younger man had gone in and out of consciousness for days and the doctors said the best thing they could do was make him comfortable.
“Albert,” said the scratchy voice he barely recognized.
Albert stood up, squeezing Troy’s bony hand. His sunken cheeks and cracked lips didn’t dim his light. “Yes, baby,” he said. The antiseptic odors of the private room they’d arranged for his partner mixed with the scents of death that never left his nostrils.
It took Troy a few minutes to say what he needed to say. His lips were dry and cracked and Albert smeared a little vaseline on his lips. “Listen. I want you to know. You’ve made me the happiest man alive.”
Albert wanted throw something against the wall. He wasn’t ready to give up. Not yet. “Don’t talk like that. You’re not going to die. We’re going to fight this.”
Troy narrowed his eyes at the older man. “Shut up.” He turned his head toward Albert and said, “Ally, I want you to open the drawer there. I’ve left something for you.”
Albert obeyed and found a ring box. He gasped as he opened it and revealed a gold band. It sparkled in the pulsating fluorescent lights. Slipping it on and he held back the tears.
Albert nodded and Troy continued, “Promise me, you’ll find someone else.”
Albert’s chin quivered and he said with as much force as he could muster, “I will never love anybody else.”
Troy nodded. He’d barely enough strength to speak, but he pushed his last words out. “I will find you. When I cross over. Wherever I am, I’ll send a sign from the other side. I will return to you.”
“You better,” said Albert, a tear falling.
“You better believe it…” said Troy, his eyes fluttering as if it took every bit of strength he had left to keep them open.
“Promise,” said Albert kissing his cheek and forehead, desperate to hold on to what was left of his prince.
“I… promise,” said Troy, his voice barely a hiss. “I will return… to… you…”

18
***
Today

My son is angry with me, but what’s new? I’ve bailed Troy out with my own money because I believe in my heart it’s him. But that’s not all.
We’re going to run away together. As I shift gears in my car, he squeezes my thigh and our eyes lock long enough for me to know it’s truly him. I roll down the windows a bit, the wind making his golden hair flow in the breeze.
He takes a deep breath, then lifts up the bottom half of his shirt where I see a haphazard attempt at stitches. “He was shot,” says Troy as my eyes widen. “This body.”
“This body?” I’m confused and I swish my mouth back and forth, trying to grapple with what he’s said to me.
“It’s me, Albert. It’s really me inside but this body… He was shot and dying. It was his chance at redemption. I made a deal to use it long enough to see you again, to smell you again, to touch you again, but…”
“But what?” I ask, lowering my tone. It’s a lot to take in, but it’s a miracle and sometimes miracles aren’t easy to understand.
He squeezes my hand and I know what he has to say is difficult. “But I don’t know how long I can stay.”
I speed past the cornfields blurring into golden colors in my mind. “Don’t tell me you’re going to go away again.”
He take a breath, then swallows. “I hope not, but I can’t guarantee.”
“Then, we’ll just have to spend every waking moment together,” I want to pull over but I know I can’t. I don’t even know where I’m going except that I’m going with him.
“Together. I like that idea,” he says, leaning his head on my shoulder. “Thank you for returning to me.”
“You better believe it,” I say.
Tears of happiness stream down my face, as I shift gears and speed over the hill where the sun sets low. I finally have my Troy back and, this time, I’ll never let him go.

THE END

More Stories by Jeff Rivera

Love Stories written by Jeff Rivera

Chance for Love – He is his brother’s keeper and believes his chance for love is gone, until he meets her.

Never Say Goodbye – All he wants is her forgiveness but getting it proves more difficult than he anticipates.

My One and Only – Saying goodbye to his wife was the hardest thing he ever did, until he learns she has a message for him beyond the grave.

Mario (pen name – Jamie Lake) – Letting go over her after all these years has been difficult, then he learns she’s been trying to reach him.

Forever My Lady – She promises to stay with him no matter what, then he learns she’s marrying someone else.

Sing to Me – He must give up his life long dream to be with her, but at what cost?

Chains – He’s not supposed to be in love with his brother’s fiance, but he can’t help himself.

Mario – Part 2

CHAPTER 5

“Well, it took you long enough,” his mother managed to say between wheezes. “I’ve been sitting in this bed with absolutely nothing to do and no one to talk to.”

“They say plants grow faster if you sing to them,” he smirked nodding at the dying cactus in the corner. “Why don’t you try that?”

“Just like your father,” she grumbled.

Mario chuckled, though he knew that comment was meant to sting. His mother grunted in return. Leaning over her bed, Mario put the back of his hand to her forehead. It was still burning up. He dipped a cloth into the bucket of ice water next to the bed, wrung it out, and lay it across her forehead. Fighting the fever was fruitless; all he could do was keep it low enough so she wouldn’t be miserable. He felt helpless; he had never been good at making his mother happy. He had failed at it most of his life.

First, he had left for America when he was eighteen, hoping to make enough money working in the strawberry fields and grape vineyards to send home and support her. Instead of being grateful, she had accused him of abandoning her in her time of need. It was always, Mario knew now, his mother’s “time of need.” Then, when he failed to come home as a doctor or ‘something useful’, as she put it, his mother only shook her head and said, “Should have known you’d come back empty-handed. Well, I hope you don’t expect to stay here.” But, of course, he had expected to stay there, and he had. What other choice did he have? Besides, she needed someone to take care of the house and, whether she wanted to admit it or not, she’d missed him.

“How about some TV?” he asked her now, trying to push the unpleasant memories from his mind. He hoped a little TV would distract them both, taking her mind off her pain and his off Maria’s letter. “Are you hungry?”

“No. You couldn’t cook if I asked you to make toast. And there’s nothing on TV anyway. It’s the middle of the night.” she snapped, squirming restlessly in the bed, trying in vain to make herself more comfortable.

Mario had a knack for staying calm and being patient, something he remembered Maria loving about him too. “It’s almost noon, Mami.” he corrected her gently. He got up and pushed the curtains to the side a bit so more light fell into the room. His mother squinted against the sudden light and grunted.

“Are you trying to blind me on top of everything else?” she screamed.

“A little sunshine never killed anybody. Unless you’re a vampire. Oh, I forgot, let me close it,” he smirked starting to close the curtain.

“Can’t a mother have a little respect in her dying hours?” she asked. “Well, find anything interesting out there in that shed? Took you long enough,” she asked.

“Oh … I … no,” he lied.

Maria wasn’t someone he could discuss with his mother. He could never really talk about relationships with her. She had always been far too caught up in the misery of her own failed relationship to offer any words of encouragement or untainted advice. Besides, he knew how much she’d always hated Maria; someone she’d never met and had no reason to hate except that she was the one person who could take her only son away.

“No?” she questioned as if she knew better.

No, he wouldn’t do this to himself. He had enough to deal with. He pushed his troubled feelings down again, stuffed them into the box he’d reserved in his heart for the past, and sealed it shut. “Just some old papers, found your mother’s doll and a letter and a-”

She cut him off. “Letter?” she said, as if she had cherry-picked that word despite his attempt to bury it in a long list of objects.

He shrugged. Maybe if he acted like he didn’t care, he could convince her.

“From whom?” she asked, her old grammar school ways perking right up. She’d always taught him to speak properly. “Just because you’re from the barrio, doesn’t mean you have to sound like you are,” she’d tell him in her strictest school teacher voice.

“Just…you probably don’t even remember her anyway. It was a letter from Maria,” he said. He hurried to turn the TV on. He needed a topic change and fast. “Betty la Fea is on. How about that?”

“Remember her? I’m old, not senile. Of course, I remember her. How is she?”

Years ago, his mother had forbidden him to speak Maria’s name in her house. But now she asked like she was really interested, which surprised Mario. Her eyes bore into the back of his head until he was forced to turn around and face her.

“I don’t know. The letter was pretty old.” he said, not really wanting to talk about it.

“Well, haven’t you written her back?” she asked.

“Mami, that was ten years ago. Like you said back then, if it was meant to be, it would have worked out.”

“I never said such a thing. That’s nonsense,” she said defensively.

He opened his mouth to say something, then closed it again. The words were probably better left unspoken. He didn’t want to argue with her, not with her in the condition she was in. But the fact that she denied saying something that had had such a profound effect on his life and cut him so deeply at the time, made his blood boil.

“It was a long time ago,” he said softly, looking at his shoes. He fiddled a thread that was unraveling from the hem of his shirt. “It doesn’t matter anyway.”

“Well, from what I remember, you and she were pretty hot and heavy,” she quipped.

Reducing their true deep love; something that happens only once in a lifetime to “hot and heavy” disrespected it but he wasn’t about to take this conversation any further than it needed to be.

“We were young. It was a teenage love affair,” he said, managing to grin as he flipped through the channels.

“Age is just a number. Love is love. Your father and I met when we were just 15,” she said, as if comparing his relationship to hers was a badge of honor. What she didn’t say was that Mario’s father had left her when he was 17 and only ever came back for Christmas and Mario’s birthday—to eat, to make the headboards quake and then leave her alone again.

“I don’t really want to talk about it, Mami,” he said, sitting down at the end of the bed.

“And why not?” she demanded.

Her ignorance was making his temperature rise again. It was her favorite pastime to push his buttons, but he wasn’t going to give in to her and lose this battle of will. “How about I make you some tortillas with beans that should help your stomach a little,” he said, getting up and starting to walk out.

“You’ll only burn it,” she said, and continued pushing the subject. “I don’t understand if you love someone that much, why you didn’t keep loving her and marry her, or whatever it is you young people do nowadays.”

“Because you needed me!” Mario exploded, the boom in his voice ricocheted off the walls surprising both him and his mother. As much as they had argued in the past, he had never raised his voice at his mother before. Instantly, he knew it was a mistake. But it was too late. The lid had popped off. Her denials of what she put him through all those years, of how she tried to drive them apart, of her ruining his one and only chance to finally run away together with Maria and now, pretending that nothing happened, only brought back the years of pent of frustration and volcano of anger. He felt all of the turmoil boiling inside of him and put his hand on his chest, sure he would be able to feel the heat on the outside.

His mother’s eyes, wide with shock at first, now narrowed in anger. “Now, you listen to me,” she said in a growl. “I’m still your mother.”

“How could I forget?” he said. He tried to swallow down his anger, forget the rest of the words he wanted to shout at her, but now that they’d pushed their way out it was hard to make them go away again. He had been repressing his feelings for Maria, trying not to feel, for years now. But he’d only been fooling himself.

“Mario, I’m not dead yet. If you want to take that tone with your mother, you can at least wait until the coffin is nailed,” she said. “Sit down.” Her voice resumed its usual bite.

Even though Mario was a grown man, he knew not to disobey his mother. He’d already crossed the line. He may have been over six foot tall and she as small as a bird, but she had a commanding presence and a temper that everyone in their village knew not to cross. He sat back down, his nostrils flaring, staring at the floor.

Deep breaths, he told himself. In. Out. He counted his breaths until the anger started to subside.

“Look at me,” she told him and he reluctantly did so. His anger was still dangerously close to the surface. “Now, we all make choices in our lives and I haven’t always made the best ones. Things were different back then. Times have changed and I … well, I just don’t want you to miss out on something that could be good for you.”

Mario was speechless. That was as close to an apology as he’d ever heard from his mother. For as long as he could remember, he hadn’t heard her say she wanted anything good for anyone but herself. She could dish out criticism far and wide, but this angle was a new one. He looked at her skeptically and wondered what her ulterior motive was. She was a master of manipulation. He waited, wondering if this kind speech was yet another insult in disguise. He couldn’t ever let his guard down with her.

“Now, listen up,” she said. Her wheezing was starting to get the best of her and a cough erupted. He leaned forward, concerned. No matter how angry he was, she was still sick, and seeing her like this tore him apart.

“Mami, I’m sorry. Are you alright?” he said reaching for her.

“I’m dying, what do you think?” she cut in. “Don’t interrupt. Now, you love that … that Maria of yours, you gotta write her back. Tell her how you feel.”

“Mami, I keep telling you. That was ten years ago. She … she’s moved on.” Saying the words burned him like a fire consuming him.

His mother looked at him, raising her eyebrow, “She …?” his mother said emphasizing the word, with a smirk on her face. It made something in Mario jump, and his body felt cold all over. Did she know?

“If you love her like you say you do, and if she loves you like you always said she did, time won’t mean a thing. Now, I want you to go over to my nightstand and pull out a pen and pad. You’re going to write that letter, young man, and you’re going to read it to me before you send it. Lord knows I’m not going to have you mess up yet another thing before I die.”

For a minute, Mario just stared at her, shocked at her words. Then, he went to the nightstand and began rummaging around for the pen and pad. Evidently, he took too long to do what he was told, because she barked, “Well, do I have to write it myself?”

“No, mother,” he said, sitting back down. The pen was heavy in his hands and the pad felt foreign in his lap. Strange how something so part of his everyday life could feel alien to him in the moment. It’d been years since he’d written anything. Something that was such a big part of him, a part of him died with the last letter to Maria.

“Now, sit back down and you write your heart out. You always were good at that writing thing, don’t know why you stopped doing it.”

Perhaps because you told me it was a hobby and a waste of time, he thought to himself, but he didn’t dare say that out loud. He had his temper in control again and he didn’t want to risk it.

“Not sure how to start,” he said, toying with the pen in his hand.

“What do you mean ‘Don’t know how to start’? How about ‘Dear Maria’ for starters—or whatever the name is…”

That comment seemed to be weighed with meaning, as if she indeed did know something—a secret she’d toy and tease him with, like you’d tease a kitten with a piece of string, until he confessed. He ignored it.

She can’t know, he told himself. How would she possibly have found out? He’d been so good at hiding it all these years, he’d almost believed the lie himself. He swallowed hard, cleared his throat and leaned over the pad on his lap to start the letter. He began to write, laboring over each word.

“Read it to me,” she demanded. Why was she suddenly so concerned?

“But I’ve only written…” he started to say in his deep voice.

“Read it to me, dammit,” she said, coughing and reaching for her glass of water.

“Dear Maria, how are you? You’ll never guess what I found in the garage…” he started to say. It sounded silly even to his own ears, but then again, it was obviously hard writing a letter to your long-lost love with your mother practically hanging over your shoulder.

The only reason their love affair had worked out in the first place was because they’d been so far away from anyone Mario knew. There had been no way for anyone there to stop him from following his heart, other than Maria’s family. Not like now, when he was here in his childhood home, face-to-face with a woman who had made it her lifetime mission to condemn him no matter where he went.

“Is that how you’re going to begin it?” she asked, “Lord, so glad we didn’t waste any money sending you to university. Son, if you’re going to write someone you love, someone you haven’t spoken to in over ten years, then you have to write from the heart, you have to pour your soul out on the paper like you mean it. And if you’ve fucked up like you fucked up…”

“Mother!” He was shocked at her language.

“Let’s face it, you fucked up royally,” she said matter-of-factly, “So you’ve got to say it. You’ve got to say you did exactly that. Do it over again and toss that kaka you call a letter away.”

He smiled and shook his head. His mother had certainly never had a problem speaking what was on her mind, but this time he had to admit she was right. So, instead of writing what was in his head, he began writing what was in his heart:

Dear Maria,

Ten years. Ten years is a long time not to be with the one you love. Not to be with the one you swore your life to, not to hear their voice, or feel their skin against yours, not to taste their lips or see your future in their eyes. That’s what I think of when I think of you.

Maybe I’m coming on too strong, maybe it’s too much to say to someone who probably doesn’t even remember you, from someone who hurt you so deeply the only cure was to forget them, bury the past and move on.

They say destiny rules all and I must have been a very bad man in a past life for destiny to play such a nasty trick on me, to keep your last words to me hidden all these years. Had fate not intervened, had I not seen your letter buried under those boxes in the shed, I never would have had the pleasure to reach out to you. I would never have been reminded not only of how we were painfully separated but of how much I loved you, how much I still love you.

Maria, I know it’s been a long time and if you’re still angry with me or hurt, you have every right to be, but please, hear me out. If you are still reading this, know that not a day has gone by the last ten years that I haven’t thought of you.

It was only now that I saw your letter. Had I seen it before, so much would be different now. Know there hasn’t been a time when someone has uttered the word partner, savior, lover or soul mate that your image doesn’t cross my mind. Know that if I could turn back the hands of time and take back what I said, just for one more moment with you, I’d do it.

There is so much to tell you, so much that has transpired the last ten years that I want share with you under the moonlight in the barn or at creek in our place, just like we used to do when I’d read you my poetry. You were always so encouraging. Know that you are and have been in my prayers at night, know that you’re in my bloodstream, a part of me, and know most of all that I love you and always will.

If you’ll have me, my dear Maria, if you’ll have me, I’d love another chance just to see your beautiful face one more time.

Love,

Mario

The words he had written broke his heart as he read them aloud to his mother. He hadn’t wanted to dig so deep, to reach for everything he resolved; he had worked so hard for so long to keep himself callous, to keep himself from feeling. But in the last few hours, his walls had disintegrated into dust. He was defenseless, he was vulnerable before those memories and the fear and the possibility of what could come.

He braced himself for his mother’s usual caustic criticisms. They would sting even more this time because he was so raw inside, raw from years of keeping the anger and hurt from eating him alive, raw from the memories he’d crammed in his brain and raw because for the first time in a long time, he’s picked up a pen and written something, a dream of his that had died when he wrote that last letter to Maria.

Slowly, he raised his head to look at his mother. She was clearing her throat—not because of her illness, not because she’d caught something in her throat, but because she was touched by the letter. She dabbed her eyes with a corner of the bed sheet and said, “Terrible allergies in this room.”

“Are you alright, Mami?” he asked, trying to hide a smile. Usually, he was the one crying because of her, macho as he was, even if it were in secret where no one especially her could see. He’d never seen his mother touched emotionally by anything, not even a movie, and in this moment, he felt incredibly moved.

“Open the window and get some air in here,” she demanded.

“I thought you said it was too much sunlight, Madame Vampire,” he teased.

“I said open the Goddamn windows,” she repeated.

He got up and yanked on the curtains and unfastened the windows, letting the fresh breeze come in.

“Terrible, terrible allergies,” she said, dabbing her eyes. “So, when are you going to send it?”

“Do you think it’s all right?” he asked. He felt unsure now, lost at sea, a little boat bobbing on the waves. He could deal with love, he could deal with loss. He could deal with anything that was certain. But now that the tides had changed and the response was uncertain, he felt like he wasn’t anchored to anything.

“Better than nothing. It’ll have to do,” she said. That was high praise coming from his mother. “There’s a roll of stamps in the kitchen cabinet next to the refrigerator,” she continued. “Be sure to send it out right away before the mailman comes today or you’ll have to wait another day.”

“All right. I’ll take care of it a bit later,” he said. He wasn’t going to admit it, but the idea of actually sending the letter scared him. “Are you thirsty-?”

“Now, dammit. Do it now,” she demanded.

Why did she care so much? It wasn’t like her. His mother could be moody and had become even more so as she got older, but she seemed to be anxious about this whole thing. He didn’t know if he should be concerned or flattered that she was finally taking an interest. For so many years, he’d longed to have a relationship with his mother where he could speak to her about anything, especially his love life, but she’d made it pretty damn clear from the beginning that if he didn’t end up with someone she approved of, she’d make sure that person never felt welcomed. She’d stuck to her word, and when she heard about Maria, she never let him off the hook for it.

After that, he had stopped talking to her about his life. When he saw how his friends leaned on their mothers, depended on them, confided in them, he always felt jealous. Even his friends, who were embarrassed to talk about their love lives with their mothers, could still count on them when things went wrong. Mario had always craved that kind of support system.

Heading into the kitchen, he yanked open the cabinet where the stamps and envelopes were, still suspicious of his mother’s motives, still wondering what game she was trying to play. Why was she pushing him to fix something from the past that was probably unfixable? Why had she never shown this type of love and support for his relationship with Maria when it had actually had a chance? What did she imagine would happen if Maria got the letter?

As little hope as Mario had, he realized that his strong-willed mother was dying, and he had better do what she said. He folded and refolded the letter until it fit neatly in the envelope. He found himself creasing the envelope before licking it, wanting everything to be perfect. He knew very well that even if Maria did somehow get the letter, there was little or no chance of her answering, not after this long. But he realized that obeying his mother’s orders wasn’t his only motivation in sending it. He had to know. He’d give Maria an ultimatum—the same ultimatum she had given him in that lost letter: one month. If I don’t hear back from her in that time, then I know her answer, he decided, scribbling his address and Maria’s on the envelope and sticking the stamp on it before he could change his mind.

The letter felt heavy in his hands. It carried the weight of ten years with it after all. Mario ran his fingers along the smooth edges of the envelope, felt the smooth paper underneath his fingers. This one small thing, this single sheet of paper, had the potential to save his life. After this, he would either be the happiest man alive, travelling to a new life, or a ruined soul, tumbling into the depths of despair. One little square sheet of paper had the power to decide his fate.

His heart pounded with every step on the long, hot walk to the mailbox. He shoved the letter inside and slammed it shut. When he returned to the kitchen, he found himself lingering at window, watching for the mailman. He always came promptly at 2:15 and always had for as long as he remembered.

His mother screamed and yelled from the bedroom, asking him what he was doing, but Mario stayed in the kitchen until the ancient mail truck with its little putt-putt engine coughed and rattled its way up the street. The mailman was ancient, too—it was the same wizened, bent-over old man who had delivered the last letter he’d received from Maria so many years ago. As the mailman trudged up to the mailbox, whistling, and began stuffing the contents in his sack, Mario had a sudden urge to run out, to stop him, to snatch the letter away from him and tear it into a hundred pieces. But he stopped himself, and when the mailman was back in the truck and the truck was chugging away into the distance, Mario actually felt a sense of relief. It was out of his hands now. Fate would answer with a yes or a no.

CHAPTER 6

Each day was more excruciating than the last. The weather got hotter and hotter. Summer in Mexico was never a joke, but this time, it felt like the rays sought Mario out and scorched him on purpose, as if punishing him for reaching out in the past and trying to change something that was supposed to have been settled long ago.

He was drained of energy. And it wasn’t just his duties around the house—caring for his mother, who seemed to be getting nominally better with his cousin’s occasional help—nor the endless nights working a double-shift as a janitor to make up for the second job he’d lost. His exhaustion came from a new daily routine that had been established. Every day, at 2:15pm, like clockwork, the ancient mail truck chugged up the road to deliver the mail. And every day, the minute the truck pulled away, Mario would rush outdoors to check on the box, with hope and expectation mounting inside him, daring to imagine that he would find an envelope addressed in Maria’s loopy scrawl.

But, every day, his hopes were dashed. The only mail that ever came was junk mail—catalogs, bills. Mario just stacked all of it on the kitchen table, knowing that his mother would never look at it.

For weeks, Mario ignored the stack of mail, hating the sight of it because it contained no answer from Maria. But finally, he realized he had to take care of the bills, so he sat down at the kitchen table and began opening the envelopes and writing checks. As he went about the mundane task, he found his mind drifting—found himself returning in his imagination to the beautiful vineyard where he and Maria had met. He had been a lowly farm hand, a migrant worker, and she the child of his boss, the vineyard owner. They had spent endless sunny days together: hiding under the bushes, eating grapes, whispering sweet nothings into each other’s ears when they thought no one was looking. They’d been through so much together, so much that only they could go through together; hidden behind the hills of those rolling, fragrant green fields, they had discovered each other’s secrets—secrets they’d each hidden from their families for years.

He sighed. It had been nearly three weeks now since he mailed the letter. He was beginning to give up hope. For nearly three weeks, he had been living for that moment in the afternoon when the mail came. But the one-month deadline was creeping closer, and he had heard nothing. Why would Maria even want to write back anyway?

The last day of the month finally arrived. When the mail truck pulled up, he was so distracted that he ran outside without his shoes. As he hobbled along to the mailbox, the hot ground nearly peeling the skin from his feet, his heart was pounding like an African drum. Mario reached the mailbox just as the truck was pulling away. Today was the day that would determine his fate. Today was the deadline he’d set for her to respond. If the letter was there, he’d know they were meant to be.

First, he took a deep breath. Then, he yanked the mailbox door open quickly, the way you tear a bandage off. And as he looked into the darkened oval-shaped box, he saw nothing.

Not a damn thing.

CHAPTER 7

For days, he tried to live with the truth. The matter was settled. He had set the ultimatum and now he had to live with it. But he couldn’t. As the days rolled on, no matter how busy he kept himself, no matter what he did to keep his mind off Maria, he couldn’t, he wouldn’t let it go.

One night, during his janitorial shift, Mario’s anger began overtaking his disappointment. As he sprayed down the desks in the school classrooms, he scrubbed them fiercely, thinking, the least she could have done was write me a note that said ‘shove off.’ She couldn’t even find the time to answer? That night was another restless one. He tossed and turned for hours, wrestling with his feelings, and finally, long before his mother was awake, he got up and went to the kitchen, knowing there was only one thing he could do.

Call her.

His large fingers fumbled as they dialed the old rotary-style phone. Even after all these years, he still knew the number by heart. He only hoped the number was still good and that, even this early in the morning, someone would answer.

He almost hung up after the twentieth ring. He was foolish to even think someone would answer early as they did wake on the vineyard—and yet then, someone did.

“Hello?” a raspy old voice said.

Mario immediately recognized the voice. He had so many memories of having to go through Maria’s mother to speak to her.

“Hello?” the voice repeated, this time more irritated.

“Um, hello,” he heard himself say, and suddenly he was a teenager again, shy about talking to an adult, scared Maria’s mother wouldn’t let her come to the phone.

“Who is this?” her mother said.

“Senora Santiago? This is … this is Mario,” he said.

The silence that followed his words felt like an eternity. Finally, she spoke again. “What do you want?”

He worked up a smile and said, “Maybe you don’t remember me, it’s been so long, but…”

“I know who you are,” she snapped. “Now, what do you want?”

It had been over ten years since he’d heard her voice and, even though she hadn’t always been the friendliest person in the world to him back then, he’d thought that after all these years, he would get a warmer reception than that.

“Oh, well, I was curious if Maria…”

“No,” she cut him off very firmly.

“No? I only want to talk to her for a moment,” he said as politely as he could, though his blood was starting to boil.

“You’re going to call up here, after all these years, and now you want to talk to my daughter? Now?!” she said, raising her voice.

He wanted to tell her that it was none of her business, that what had gone on between him and Maria was between the two of them and no one else. He wanted to tell her that he wasn’t going to let anything come between him and the one he loved anymore, not even her, but instead, he held it together.

“Now, you listen to me,” he said, the bass in his voice rumbling with authority. “I only need a few minutes with her. She’s old enough to make her own decisions.”

A wicked chuckle erupted from the other side of the phone. “Old enough. You really are stupid, aren’t you?”

“I beg your pardon, Senora?” Mario was reaching the edge of his patience.

“You mean, no one told you?”

“Told me what?”

“She — my daughter died, Mario.”

Even with the edge in her voice, he could tell she was trying to hide the pain. Suddenly, his world was spinning. He was drowning in guilt. He was too late. Too late.

“Dead?” he heard himself say.

“Yes, dead. And she died of a broken heart—all because of you.” Her voice was tight with anger. “My daughter loved you, Mario. You knew this, and you used her.”

“I never — Senora, I’m — I’m so sorry for your-” he started to say.

“Save it,” she spat. “Nothing you can say will bring my daughter back.”

“I had no idea she — she felt that way about me. I thought she understood …. we talked about it.”

“Why don’t you ask me what you really want to ask me?” she said.

He swallowed hard. Did she know? Had Maria confessed the truth to her mother before she died?

“Is he — Is Keith around?” he asked.

“You have some nerve. The Devil’s got a special place in hell for people like you.”

CHAPTER 8

For days, he felt hollow and dizzy, as if he were shell-shocked. Maria was dead. The one link between him and the one he loved was gone. Suddenly, all those years she had pretended for him, all those years she’d protected his secret, all those years she’d selflessly served as his beard began to make sense to him.

Maria had been in love with him. Why hadn’t he seen it? He’d written the letters using her name because she had said he could. She had understood what his lover’s parents would do if they found out about the two of them. She had never seemed to mind, all those times he called her up just to give her a telephone message to pass along to someone else, and now he realized she did it only so she could hear his voice. All those years. She must have been dying inside the whole time, wanting Mario so bad yet knowing that not even in her wildest dreams could she have him.

Mario had spent so many years calling Keith, the person he really loved, “Maria”—so many years referring to his love as “she,” that it almost felt natural, even though Keith was as macho as Mario himself. The secret of their love had been safe with Maria and yet, all along, she’d kept the secret as a way to be close to the one she loved: Mario.

His heart ached for her. He only wished he could have had the chance to say “goodbye” to her, to thank her for all she’d done for him and Keith. There was nothing he could ever do, ever say, to repay her but that night he took a walk out in the middle of the desert amongst a sacred land and river his father used to take him to when he was younger. There, he lit a white candle and said his final goodbyes.

Mario stood with the immense, silent desert stretching out for miles on all sides of him, with the endless sky above him awash in a red-orange sunset, with the brown mountains just visible in the very far distance.

She’s out there, somewhere, he thought. My dear friend Maria.

He knew she wouldn’t want him sulking after her. She had sacrificed her life, her love, to make him happy and he only hoped there was a chance he could speak to Keith again. Keith had to be fine—he had to be, or, Mario knew, Maria’s mother would have mentioned something, if only to hurt Mario, out of spite.

The sun sank below the mountains and the red of the sunset became the deep purple-black of evening. The setting sun always reminded Mario how short life was. Keith was alive, and now Mario could no longer hide behind Maria. It was Maria’s greatest gift to him. As he turned to begin the long trudge back to his mother’s house, he vowed that their love would come out in the open, if only Keith would see him again.

CHAPTER 9

“Are you going to bring me that soup, or are you going to let it get cold again, like the last time?” her mother scoffed as Mario made his way down the hall with the tray.

He was doing his best to stay patient, but some days were harder than ever, especially lately. His nerves were fraying at the ends. He was unravelling, coming apart at the seams. And all his mother ever did was scream and shout and expect him to serve her like he was a nurse. What was she going to say when he told her that he needed to leave her for good?

“Almost there, mother,” he said, bringing the tray to her bedside.

“Better not be too much salt in it this time,” she said.

“Tortillas?” he asked, changing the subject.

“Of course, I want tortillas. How can you eat tortilla soup without tortillas?”

Mario brought the tortillas from the kitchen, and when he came back into the room, she said, “Well…?”

“Well what, mother?” he asked her.

“Have you heard from her yet?”

He sighed. He really didn’t want to get into it right now. How could he tell her that the woman he’d pretended was his girlfriend was dead? How could he tell her that he didn’t even know if the man he actually loved would see him again?

“No,” he answered. “And I probably never will.”

“Well, don’t sound so gloomy,” she said.

Mario couldn’t stay in this room one second longer or he would scream. “I’m going to get some air,” he mumbled and turned to leave the room.

“Son,” his mother’s tone was suddenly softer. He turned around and looked at her in surprise. It was a very rare occasion that she called him “son.”

“What is it, mother?” he asked, concerned.

“Sit down for a second,” she said, patting the bed.

Mario hesitated. Hearing her wheezing and labored breathing, he wondered if she was really on her deathbed, if she was going to speak her last words to him, or reveal a secret she had held all her life. His mother had never allowed him onto her bed. Not even when he was a child and he’d had a nightmare. He was never allowed to crawl under the covers with her and take comfort from the warmth radiating from her, like most children had been able to. It was his father’s side of the bed, she’d once explained, and she was keeping it open for him. Mario had long stopped questioning the fact that she kept a space for her wasted love life, but not for her son. Now, he sat down gingerly on the very edge of the bed, feeling like an intruder.

“There’s something I want to talk to you about.” His mother’s speech was slow, but it wasn’t from her difficulty breathing. She was opening herself up, showing her vulnerable side, and she was having a hard time with it.

“What happened?” he asked.

She started and stopped half a dozen times before she finally spit it out.

“Is there something you need to tell me?” she finally asked.

“About what?” he asked her, tightening up.

What did she know? Did she know Maria was dead? Did she know that he had never really loved her in the first place? Did she know about Keith? Had she guessed that, any day now, he was going to need to leave her for good?

“I don’t know, how about Maria?” She raised an eyebrow.

“What’s that supposed to mean? I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he lied. His heart was racing. He had always known there would come a time when he’d have to have this conversation. He had hoped it would be when his mother was long gone so he didn’t have to face it. How could you tell someone something that might shatter their perception of you? How could you confirm their lifelong belief that you were a complete failure and disappointment of a son?

“Son, really?” she said. “I know, we haven’t always … seen eye-to-eye about things but I hoped that you felt like you could be honest with me.”

“Honest with you?”

What a joke.

“Are you really going to make me say it?” Her voice was wavering, and Mario saw tears in her eyes. “You know, this really disturbs me that you don’t trust me enough to talk to me, to tell me what’s going on in your life.”

Clearly, his mother was still playing games, still trying to torture him. Mario stood up and, impatient, began pacing the room. “Mother, honestly, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said.

“I understood if there was never going to be a wedding or grandchildren for me. I accepted that a long time ago … with your condition,” she said.

“My condition?”

“Yes, Mario, your condition. Well? Will you just say it?”

“Say, what mother? Say what? That you never wanted me to be with Maria? That even if I had brought her into this house, you never would have accepted her, you never would have approved of our relationship?”

Every time he said the name “Maria,” he had to struggle against the lump in his throat. He was tired of lying, tired of hiding behind Maria’s name. Using that poor dead girl’s name was the lowest of lows to him, and he was getting to the point where he just didn’t care whether his mother’s heart would be broken or not. He loved Keith and she was going to have to accept it, whether she liked it or not.

“Never would have approved of your relationship? Now, that is not true. Not true at all,” she said, folding her arms tighter.

“You lie!” he said. “You did everything in your power to prevent us from being together.” His voice cracked on the last word and he stopped, refusing to speak again until he had himself under control.

“I did nothing of the sort,” she said, clutching her robe under her chin dramatically.

“You did,” he said. He sighed. This was not how he wanted to have this conversation. He always thought when the truth finally came out, he would have Keith by his side—or, better yet, a marriage certificate in his hand, even if they weren’t legally married. Then, he could rub in her face that there was nothing she could do about it. Instead, he was skating around the conversation like he was still sixteen-years-old.

“Tell me this,” she said finally, breaking the silence, “When did you start calling him ‘Maria’?”

So, she did know. Mario’s head was pounding. His throat was dry. It felt like his world was falling apart. His fingers fumbled with the hem of his shirt and he shifted from one leg to the other. How long had she known? How long had she been hiding that secret from him?

“It was a mutual decision,” he said in a low voice, thinking back to the day they’d decided. As fast as the world had been changing at the time, with discos becoming popular and gay culture seeping into the world’s consciousness, both he and Keith had known that the love between them was forbidden, and had to be covered up.

When he’d first met Keith, Mario had tried to trick himself into believing he’d fallen for a female, perhaps so he could sleep at night without being tortured by memories of the stories his mother told him of heaven and hell, stories which he swore were nonsense but were still etched so indelibly into his subconscious that the fear had become part of his DNA. He remembered the nights away from her. Him. It was only when they were together that Mario could forget the consequences, the difficult journey that lay ahead, and focus only their love. The other times—the nights he was alone, the days when he worked and couldn’t see him—those were the times that fear shook Mario to the core and he wondered if it was possible to run away from himself.

It had taken him years to be comfortable with the fact that Keith was a man, and that he was in love with another man. But by then, the lie had taken hold, and Mario kept it going, telling himself that the truth would break his mother’s heart. It was easier to say you were lying so you wouldn’t hurt someone else than to admit that you were barely comfortable with the truth yourself.

Now, he avoided his mother’s eyes, looking down as he said softly, “We thought it would be best.”

Mario always hoped if he could find the right time for this conversation, that somehow it wouldn’t be painful and awkward. But was there ever an easy way to tell someone you would never be the person they expected you to be? That you’d defied their hopes and dreams for your future? Was there ever a time that it would be easy to admit to your parents that you could accept yourself as a failure, but you would never survive knowing they thought of you that way, too?

“Best? For whom?” she asked.

“For everyone,” he said.

“Seems like a coward’s way out to me,” she grumbled.

Who is she to talk? Mario thought. Wasn’t his mother the one still pretending that his father was coming back? Wasn’t she holding on to a lie, just like he was?

“Really, mother?” he said. “Fine, I’ll tell you what you want to know. Everything, nothing held back but only under one promise from you: that we never discuss this again, ever.”

“Whatever you wish,” she said. “Of course, had you been honest with me the first time, we never would have had to have this little discussion in the first place.”

He sighed, sank back into the chair, and stared at the bed to gather his thoughts for a second. Then he began, “His real name is Keith.”

After he said it, Mario watched his mother’s reaction. He wanted a response from her. He had earned that right after decades of avoiding the topic, after decades of caring for her. Where would she be without him? She might see him as a good-for-nothing waste of a life after this, but she would have died long ago if it hadn’t been for him.

His mother swallowed hard. “Keith,” she said, breathing out as if in relief. “That seems like a nice name.”

“Really, mother? Are you going to pretend that you’re fine with it?” Mario was on edge. He’d prepared himself for a fight. For insults and tears and shame.

“Why wouldn’t I be fine with it?” she said in feigned innocence.

“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe because you and Papi said that if any of your sons ever went gay, you’d disown them. That ever since I was a kid you told me to buck up and be a man and that if you wanted a sissy, you would have had a daughter?”

“Me?” she said. “I would never-”

“You would and you did,” he said firmly. He wasn’t going to let her deny it. He wasn’t going to let her off the hook. If she was going to make him own up to his past, then she would have to own up to hers.

Finally, she lifted her chin. “Things were different then. I was only trying think of what was best for you. It’s a cruel world out there and I didn’t want you to go through any more heartache and pain needlessly.”

“Is that your way of saying you’re sorry?” he asked her. He was at the end of his rope. He didn’t know how to pretend anymore. His emotions were taking over, and they lapped over him like waves. He stopped trying to control himself, stopped trying to be the model, obedient son. He was Mario. Gay, emotional, maybe even a disappointment to her. But he was himself, dammit, and that’s all that mattered.

“I haven’t always made the best decisions, but you have to understand that I never meant to harm you or make you unhappy,” she said.

He sighed and shook his head. That was probably the closest he was ever going to get to an apology from his mother for her years of disapproval, lack of acceptance, and stranglehold on his life. If he didn’t accept it, he would be bitter for the rest of his life. He reached out and squeezed her hand, then kissed her on the forehead.

“Are we done yet?” he asked, starting to get up, but she squeezed his hand and pulled him back.

“There’s … one more thing,” she said.

His shoulders, which had started to relax in relief, tensed up again.

“What is it, mother?” He braced for impact.

“You have to understand, at the moment, I was more shocked than anything—and I was still hoping that somehow I could persuade you to …”

“To what?”

“To marry that nice little girl in the village, remember her name?”

“Gloria?” he asked. “How could I not? You bugged me about it every day since I returned from the States.”

Was she losing her mind? Was her age really causing her to forget, or was this yet another one of her performances?

“Yes, that was her name, Gloria. She would have made a lovely wife and mother for you,” she said, smiling at the memories.

“Tell me,” he said.

“He was a nice man, Keith,” she said.

Mario frowned at his mother. She had said that almost as if she knew him, and she had a funny look on her face.

“Yes, he was,” he said cautiously.

“And beautiful blue eyes,” she added.

His insides leapt. He didn’t have a photo of Keith; they’d agreed it would be too risky. “How did you know he had blue eyes?”

“Gorgeous strawberry blonde hair, too.”

“What? How did you know?” he asked.

She was toying with him again, working him up. He knew she loved seeing him panic like this.

Her lips quivered. “‘Cause he came here … looking for you four years ago.”

His heart dropped and the blood rushed from his face. “Wh-what?”

“He came here to the house-”

“I heard you, but what do you mean, ‘he came here’? How could he have come here and you not tell me?”

It felt like time had stopped. Everything around him was frozen, and even the earth had stopped moving. Had Keith, the love of his life, come all this way just to see him and he’d missed him? Mario could hear his own heartbeat in his ears. A drop of sweat rolled down his back between his shoulder blades. It was suddenly unbearably hot.

Tears were streaming down his mother’s face. He’d never seen her cry like this, not even when his father left the last time, for good.

“I didn’t want you to go,” she choked out between sobs.

“What?!” he said, his voice raising.

“You were all I had. You have to understand. I have nobody else and I didn’t want you to go away. I was trying to protect you. Your father left me, and-”

“My father left you ‘cause he was a drunk. Why did you have to deny me the one thing that made me happy?”

Mario leapt out of his chair, too restless to sit one second longer. His body was buzzing with electricity. He felt like he had fire at the tips of his fingers and if he touched something, anything, it would burst into flames. It felt like he would burst into flames. His mind raced with a million thoughts. His Keith, right on his door step. How could he have never known about this? Why hadn’t Keith left a note, even if all he had to say was goodbye?

“I didn’t want you to go through the heartbreak I did. Love only lasts for a moment.”

“No, mother, not true love. You are … You are …” How could he possibly put into words all the anger, pain, and betrayal he felt? It felt as if he was being torn to pieces.

“I know. I am all of it and … there’s more…” she said, sobbing so hard her words were almost indistinguishable.

“More?” He wasn’t sure if he could take any more.

“He thinks … I mean, I told him that you were …” Her words broke off as she started coughing emphatically.

Maybe I should let her cough to death, Mario thought spitefully. But finally his empathy, as well as his anxiety about what she had to say, implored him to fetch her some water. If she died now he would never know, and he had to know. He practically forced the water down her throat as she gasped for breath.

“You told him I was what? What, mother? What?” he asked. “Married? You didn’t tell him I married someone else, did you?” He couldn’t imagine what could be worse than that. The very idea of Keith having moved on had hurt him so much, he couldn’t bear thinking that his mother had inflicted that same kind of pain on Keith.

She wouldn’t answer. He couldn’t help himself; he grabbed her and shook her. “Mother, tell me!”

She calmed down enough to answer, looking at him even more apologetically than she had before. Then, she uttered one word: “Dead.”

Shock and horror swallowed him up like a giant wave. His ears were ringing, and he couldn’t believe that he’d heard her correctly.

“Dead?”

“I told him you had died in a horrible accident. He wanted to visit your grave, but I told him, there was nothing left of you, and so…”

Mario felt like he was drowning. His body was dizzy and weightless, and he had to gasp for breath. He shook his head to clear it and blinked furiously, hoping this was all just a dream he would snap out of.

He squeezed his eyes shut. Maybe when he woke up, he would still be waiting for a letter. Maybe when he woke up, he would still be crying into his mop at the elementary school. Maybe when he woke up, he would still be in that sun-warmed vineyard, lying on the fragrant green grass with Keith lying next to him, their fingers intertwined. At this point, anything would be better than being here, now, knowing that his mother had ruined every single opportunity for him to be happy again. And she’d done it on purpose.

His throat was so choked with hatred he had to fight to say the words. “You are wicked, you are evil, you are … I will never speak to you again. Never.”

He turned to storm out of the room. He wanted nothing from his mother. He had spent his entire life trying to make her happy, trying to be good enough, and what had she given him in return? She never let him live. She let him die a little bit each day, knowing all along that he could have had at least an ounce of happiness. Had she hated him that much for being born? Had he really robbed her of her dreams? Was this her way of getting revenge?

“I won’t try to stop you this time,” she called out weakly after him from her bed. “I know I deserve it, I know I deserve to die alone.”

Mario whirled around. “Don’t even try to guilt trip me into one of your manipulative-”

“I am not manipulating you,” she gasped at the audacity of it.

He laughed a bitter, angry laugh. “You have manipulated me from the day I was born, using whatever means you could to suck me into your conniving self-serving agendas. I’ve been nothing but good to you. I went to America to send money to you, I gave up the love of my life for you. Everything was for you, and what do I have to show for it?! I’m 34, I’m stuck here in this — this hell hole living with you, the female embodiment of the Devil.”

He spat the words out like they were venom. She gasped in shock. Mario was sick of her, sick of her lies, sick of her acting, sick of her ropes that strangled and chained him to a world he hated. He wanted to be freed, freed once and for all.

“Don’t give me that dramatic display,” he snapped. “There won’t be any Oscars, any Emmys, any Tony awards for your performance today, mother. What you did is unspeakable and for your sake, I hope that God forgives you.”

For the first time he could remember, his mother was stunned into silence. He stormed out of the bedroom and, in a flustered rage, grabbed whatever things he could and shoved them into a bag. He was leaving. He didn’t know where he was going, but he wasn’t staying here one more night with that woman. Let her find someone else to look after her, he thought. Someone who doesn’t have a life, who doesn’t care about being robbed of every shred of their freedom and personal life. Or let her die, alone.

But, on his way out of the house, Mario stopped suddenly in the doorway. Could he actually do it? Could he truly leave behind the safety net that for years had served as his excuse for not following his heart? Could he leave his own mother alone, no matter how much she deserved it? What kind of person did that make him—and, if there was a God, like his mother had pounded into his head all these years, would He forgive him?

Mario took a deep breath. This was the part he hated. She always pulled him back. After all, she was blood. There was nothing stronger than blood—well, maybe true love, but she had destroyed any possibility of his having that years ago. Now, he had nothing but the sliver of hope that somehow he could scrape together a life of his own and that maybe Keith would be waiting for him, dreaming of the same thing. And yet, he knew what he had to do.

When Mario walked back into the bedroom, his mother looked up at him, her eyes puffy and red. With her tiny frame swaddled in a robe and blankets, she looked more like a little girl than the old woman she had become.

“Goodbye, mother,” he said. “I will call Paula and ask her to check in on you tonight.”

He didn’t even bother to let her respond, leaving her with nothing but the echoing sound of his footsteps as he headed out. A steely resolve settled in his chest. If there could be forgiveness for who he was, a gay man, there could be forgiveness for what he’d done.

“Mario?”

When he heard the voice behind him, Mario turned around and stared in surprise. His mother was in her bedroom doorway—standing up on her own two feet. She was no longer wheezing or coughing; she was no longer the sickly woman she had presented herself to be for the last few weeks, but the proper lady he remembered from his childhood. He was confused.

“It was me, you know?” His mother was speaking clearly now, no longer rasping out her words between wheezes. “I couldn’t think of what to get you for your birthday and I … I made you clean out that shed because I wanted you to find that letter. I asked your cousin to put it under the boxes because I knew if you stayed out there long enough, you would find it. Can I get at least credit for that?”

Mario stared at her, his face an expressionless mask. Even though he felt like a hurricane had ripped through him, unsettling everything he believed, he refused to give her the benefit of seeing how much she’d shaken him. The woman he had devoted his entire life to, the woman he had spent countless sleepless nights worrying over and caring for, was now standing before him healthy and strong. She had never really needed him, he realized now. This whole time, it had all been a performance, a complete lie. There was nothing he could say to convey to her the immense pain, betrayal, and rage he was feeling.

His mother reached over into the kitchen drawer and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. Death on a stick. Her coughing and wheezing was thanks to that, and still she insisted.

“Sit down,” she said, cupping her cigarette in her hand as she flicked the lighter.

Just to defy her, he stayed standing as she lit it up like an old pro.

“I may not win an Oscar, an Emmy or even a Tony, son but you have to admit, I gave the performance of a lifetime,” his mother said, taking a deep drag on the cigarette. “I was going to be an actress before you … before your father left you with me. You know that. I could have been somebody. You owed it to me. The least you could have done after stealing my future away is stay with me.”

Here she was again, blaming him. After everything she had done, and admitted to doing, she was going to lay it on him again. Well, he had let her blame him for everything that was wrong in her life long enough. He was done.

“No, mother. I don’t owe you a damn thing.” He hitched his bag on his shoulder and started to walk out the door.

“You’ll miss me!” she called after him, yelling out the door, “You’ll come back! Mario? Mario, come back! Come back this instant!”

But her calls fell on deaf ears; he kept walking with conviction. He knew where he needed to go. He knew where his heart was, and he was going to finish what he’d started so many years ago. This time, he was older and wiser and ready to take the reins in life. The only person that could stop him this time was him.

Maybe he’d find nothing. Maybe Keith would be with someone else—but he had to know, he had to try. He was going to return to the love of his life, if he would see him.

CHAPTER 10

There had been so many moments when Mario thought he would never get to the vineyard. Months had passed since he’d hitchhiked his way up through Mexico and smuggled his way over the border. He had faced heat, dirt, exhaustion, and fear when the flashlights of the border control almost tracked him down.

But he had made it—and now he stood at the foot of the vineyard. The scent of wine grapes filled his nostrils, bringing with them so many memories of times gone by. As he walked down the dusty road, Mario thought about the summer he spent working in the fields, the summer he fell in love for the first time. Now, the house rose up before him: a plantation-style home with columns that seemed to reach the heavens. The house was beautiful, but badly in need of repairs– the paint was chipping, the wooden boards of the porch sagging. It almost seemed abandoned to Mario; there was no one around that he could see. But still, as he climbed the steps of the front porch, his heart was pounding in his chest. The yelp of an old dog nearly made him jump out of his skin. The ugly mutt was practically blind but as it smelled the air, its growls turned to a friendly bark and it licked his hand.

The screen door creaked open suddenly, and a man with rifle stepped out. “Can I help ya’?” the voice said.

Mario recognized the voice immediately, and he felt as if a warm hand was closing around his heart.

It was the love of his life. It was Keith.

He stepped out from under the shadow of the house into the sunlight and cupped his hand above his brow. He’d aged well, the years had been good to him. Not even the fine lines that had begun to be etched around his mouth could take away that handsome face and those ice-blue eyes. After a moment, a smile of recognition lit Keith’s face.

“Mario?”

Seeing Keith’s smile again tugged at Mario’s heart, and Mario couldn’t help smiling in return. “Keith?”

Keith set the rifle down carefully and when he looked up, Mario could see the tears that had filled his eyes. Mario ran to him, and they threw their arms around each other. Keith’s smell, a familiar scent of sunshine and wine and Old Spice, was like oxygen to Mario. They held each other close, and then Keith kissed him.

As Mario kissed him back longingly, deeply, passionately, he knew he was home. Finally, he was home.

THE END

Mario – Part 1

Her name was Maria.

At least, that’s what he called her, and ever since he’d been separated from her, deported from the United States back to his hometown in Mexico, he hadn’t put her out of his mind. Ten years—had it really been that long? Sometimes, it felt like no time had passed at all, as if it had been just yesterday that he was completely content. Happy. Other times, it felt like a lifetime had passed. A lifetime in which the universe was so big around him, he felt like he would drown in the emptiness. A lifetime in which he felt so cramped and stuck in the life that lay ahead of him that he couldn’t breathe. Heartbreak was claustrophobia. Heartbreak was being lost. Heartbreak was hell.

Mario slopped his mop in the pail of soapy water and splashed it on the hard faux-marble floor of the elementary school. The sharp smell of detergent pinched his nose. He stank of years of soap scum, disappointment and broken dreams. He wiped his brow with the back of his hand, the sweat under the fringe that flopped back over his eyes made him feel grimy. His shaggy, overgrown hair covered his eyes. Things were easier when eye contact couldn’t happen by accident. Not that many people were looking at him anyway: the kids usually ran down the hall around him, the teachers barely said “excuse me” when they accidentally bumped into him. To them, he was invisible, and, although it hurt sometimes, it was better that way. No conversation meant no connection, and no connection meant he could protect himself from feeling something. If he was lucky, he would never feel again.

It had been the 70s, a time when the disco beat became a national anthem, even in Mexico. A time when the world was still reeling from the Civil Rights Movement and drowning itself in recreational drugs, booze and music to numb the shock of change. And yet, there was no substance in the world that could keep him from thinking about her. He could smell her scent, fresh as a morning after a summer storm. He could taste her lips, that sweet taste that had mixed with the salt of his own lips to create a new flavor all their own. He could see her hair, glowing in the golden sunlight of those warm summer months in the vineyard where he’d first met her. She had been his sunrise and his sunset. His beginning and his end. Her smile had promised that everything would be all right and anything was possible, as long as they had each other.

Now, he was alone.

All he had for company were the dried skeletons of memories long past, the echoes of her voice in the void she had left behind. Her last words to him had stabbed him in the heart over and over again since the day she said them. He had never felt pain like that, and he was sure if he felt it again, he’d die. So now, he tried to be numb. He forced himself to forget that he had ever known what it was to feel, to really be alive. He didn’t smile at people like he used to; he didn’t cry at movies anymore. Rare was a day that he let his temper flare even a bit. Numbness was his protective shield; he was sure that, if he opened himself up to feeling again, all the pain he had felt that day would come rushing back. He couldn’t survive that again. He’d barely survived the first time.

This was not where Mario had meant to be at this age. He was almost 34 years old – the prime of his life. By this time, he hoped to be married, to have kids somehow, to have traveled the world with the one he loved— Maria. They used to spend nights dreaming of a future together: their house, the family they would do whatever they could to build. He imagined that he would come home to their simple but beautiful house after a long day’s work– real work, not cleaning up after careless, sloppy people who barely noticed his existence – and walk through the door to smell a delicious dinner on the stove. Maria would welcome him with a warm embrace, telling him how much she had missed him all day, and he would taste wine on her lips when he kissed her. They wouldn’t have needed to be rich. They would have had something better: love.

But that was a fantasy. He felt foolish even letting it slip into mind again. He forced it out as he dipped the mop in the pail and yanked the lever to strain it from the funk. If Maria saw him now, alone in a hallway mopping a filthy floor, she’d probably break down and cry. This was so far from the future they’d dreamed of. Then again, maybe she wouldn’t care. She’d made it pretty clear that she wanted nothing to do with him, that she was tired of waiting. Now, he was the one waiting for someone that would never come, and he had the rest of his life to do it.

The thought was exhausting. He leaned his mop against a locker and sank down onto the staircase. His legs and shoulders ached from working all evening, and it was long after hours, so he was sure no one would catch him resting. He still had a second job to go to before dawn. Earning minimum wage, he had to work two jobs to support himself and his dying mother. Thank God, his cousin was watching her now, so he could go to work and get a well-needed break from taking care of her.

He pulled out a Ho-Ho cupcake from his left pocket. He’d bought it earlier from the vending machine, and it was smashed flat and warm from being in his pocket so long. He dipped his finger into the icing and stuck it in his mouth. The tart sweetness threatened to pull him back to another memory with Maria. Instead, stuffed the whole warm, sweet mess into his mouth at once. A small taste of heaven when everything else in his life seemed like hell.

“Happy birthday,” he said to himself.

He was alone on his birthday yet again, and just to add insult to injury, he dug his hand into his pants pocket and drew out an old, folded piece of paper. It was the letter he’d carried with him for the last ten years: Maria’s last letter to him. He traced the loop handwriting with his finger. His name was written the way she pronounced it, rolling and beautiful, like a work of art. Why did he do this to himself? Why relive that painful day again and again, day after day, year after year?

He couldn’t help himself. This letter was all he had left of her, painful as it was. He took a deep breath and opened it, his hands trembling as much as they had the day he’d first received it. But that day, the trembling had been from excitement, because he’d been so happy to hear from her. He hadn’t known the pain the letter would hold for him.

Dear Mario,

I can’t say I’m surprised, but I won’t lie. I am disappointed. You told me we’d be together by now, that somehow we’d make it happen. You said we’d run away together. That’s what you said, you promised.

I’m sorry to hear about your mom. I really am. But you cannot live her life for her. This isn’t about her. This is about us. You and me.

You promised.

And now you lied to me. I cannot tell you how much this hurts me to do this, but I’ve waited five years, and I just can’t wait anymore.

It’s clear that you don’t love me as much as I love you. I thought you did, but clearly I was mistaken.

Good luck, Mario. Thank you for the joy you brought in my life. I hope you find what you’re looking for.

Goodbye,

Maria

As Mario read, a tear rolled down his cheek. His throat was so tight it was hard to breathe. It hurt him just as much as they day he’d first read it. He knew he had hurt Maria, but what choice had he had? His mother needed him. He couldn’t have left her to suffer alone while he ran away with his love. Mario was his mother’s son, all she had. He knew that five years was a long time to wait, but he had imagined that Maria loved him enough to wait forever.

He had been wrong.

Wiping the tears from his cheek with the sleeve of his worn janitor’s uniform, Mario shook his head as if to clear the memories away.

You’re not supposed to feel anything, remember?

He stuffed the folded paper in his jacket pocket again. Misery would have to wait another day. He stood up. The last rays of sunlight slanting across the lockers had faded, and the hallway was dark. All the color had been sucked out of the world. Mario took up his mop again to finish cleaning so he could head home. He had to check on his mother again before starting the night shift at his next job or he’d never hear the end of it. And right now, that was the last thing he needed.

CHAPTER 2

“Why didn’t you call me?” Mario demanded to know. His cousin Paula was clearly stressed out as it was and he instantly regretted questioning her.

His mother was lying in bed, ashen-faced and only half-conscious, wheezing painfully with each breath she struggled to inhale. From time to time, she turned restlessly, mumbling incomprehensible, troubled words. She was in a far worse state than she’d been when he’d left her that morning. He had thought that leaving her with his cousin would mean she was safe for a while, but clearly he’d been wrong.

“I did, but no one answered at the school,” his cousin said, a concerned look on her face. “She kept yelling and screaming for you before.”

Mario closed his eyes and slumped against the dresser. It never ended. He left a miserable job to come to a miserable home before he left for another miserable job.

“What was she screaming about this time?” Mario asked.

“She said you needed to clean out the shed.”

That sounded like his mother: sick as a dog, but never too frail to try to run his life for him. Mario sighed and walked over to his mother’s bedside.

“What’d the doctor say?” he asked his cousin.

“There’s nothing much more we can do,” his cousin answered. “She refused to see him long enough to make a proper diagnosis.”

Mario’s stomach sank. He had known that this day would come eventually, and as difficult as it was to see his mother in pain, as exhausting as it was caring for her, and as much as he hated her sometimes for being the chain that kept him from moving on, from being with the one he loved, she was still his mother.

“Happy birthday,” his cousin whispered in his ear as she gave him a quick kiss on the cheek.

He leaned over to take a better look at his mother. Her sweaty forehead was burning up, but her little hand was freezing cold. He clasped it in his, wishing he could do something to ease her pain. This small Mexican town didn’t have the best doctors, and the nearest hospital was a good four hours away—too long a trip for an old woman in her condition. The only thing they could do was pray she’d come out of it or wait for her to die. Brushing her soft hair away from her face, Mario kissed his mother’s forehead. Her skin was smooth and soft, a strong contrast to how hard she was on the inside.

It was so strange to see his mother like this: weak and trembling, a mere shell of who she had been before she got sick. She had always been petite, but a petite powerhouse, well-known in their town for her strength and conviction. People knew not to cross her, and though she rarely raised her voice, she managed to keep her family and neighbors in line. When she gave you that evil eye of hers, you stopped whatever you were doing immediately, knowing that she meant business. God forbid, she caught you talking or fooling around in church.

People had always told Mario he must be just as strong as his mother, if he could live under her rule and still manage to be himself. But now, after ten years of looking after her, jumping every time she snapped her fingers, Mario wasn’t sure he even knew who he was anymore. He was no pushover—far from it, he stood his ground—but, as strong and macho as he was, his mother held some kind of power over him.

The old woman coughed and her eyes fluttered closed. Now she was drifting in and out of sleep. His cousin tiptoed across the room to pick up her purse and slip out quietly. It was late and she had to go home and headed out as quickly as she could. Not that he blamed her, five minutes with his mother was enough to drive anyone bananas.

Mario would have to go to the nearest pay phone and call the factory to tell them he couldn’t work that night. His boss had made it clear that if he missed work one more time, he’d be fired. But what choice did Mario have?

That night, he slept in a chair next to his mother’s bed until her coughing woke him up. Only a thin sliver of light was visible in the gap between the dark curtains, but it was morning. His mother had made it through the night. She managed to sit up and say, “Well, are you just going to sit there or are you going to get me a glass of water?”

Mario rubbed his eyes. “And good morning to you too, Mami,” he answered, glad to see that at least her illness hadn’t changed her personality. She was sick, but she wasn’t lost yet.

“Don’t be a smart ass,” she grumbled scrunching her lips.

“You feeling alright?” he asked her.

“I’ve got pneumonia, what do you think?” Her voice was shaky, but there was still that same fire in her eyes. “Water, son. Water.”

“Yes sir,” Mario said, getting up stiffly from his chair.

“Don’t think I’m too sick to throw a vase at you,” she wheezed.

They often had a playful battle of words between them. It was closest thing he ever experienced as love from her.Even from her sickbed, his mother could still order him around with the best of them. There was still hope.

Her voice gained strength, and she said in her old salty tone, “And for God’s sake will you clean out that shed out back? It’s a pigsty!”

In the kitchen, he grabbed her favorite glass, ran it under the faucet and watched the water-line climb. Why was she asking him to clean the shed out now, of all times? Couldn’t that wait? She either had no clue that she was dying, or hoped to pretend that she wasn’t. Either way, she was still running his life. He shut the faucet off and walked back to the bedroom where she glared at him.

“You trying to kill me? What took you so long? I’m dying here.”

“Put a little rat poisoning in there to add some flavor,” he teased.

She glared at him. “Wouldn’t surprise me,” she scoffed.

Clearing her throat, she snatched the glass from him and took a sip. Water splashed onto the blanket because her hand was shaking so bad, but she didn’t notice—if she had, she would have blamed it on him. She swallowed with difficulty. The doctor had said her throat was raw from all the coughing.

Sinking back into her pillows, his mother said, “Gloria came by earlier with her husband. It’s nice when people make you a priority in their life.”

So, she’s starting off the morning with a nice heaping helping of guilt, Mario thought.

By the way his mother had emphasized the word husband, Mario knew exactly what she was getting at. She had always wanted him to give up what she described as a pipe dream about marrying Maria and marry Gloria instead. He had considered it, too, after Maria’s last letter, but he hadn’t been able to bring himself to do it. The idea of someone else’s fingertips tracing trails of fire over his chest, someone else’s lips where Maria’s should have been, just felt wrong.

“I heard she’s going to have a baby,” his mother was saying. “Would have been nice to have lived long enough to seen my own grandchildren,” she added. “Guess that’s not going to happen anytime soon.”

Mario sank back into his chair by her bedside and slowly rolled his neck to stretch the muscles. Sleeping sitting up had made him sore all over. The small, dark bedroom seemed to close in around him as he listened to his mother go on and on about how other women her age had grandchildren to play with and she never would. He managed to suppress his rising anger and keep quiet. Normally, her rants would have put him on edge, but listening to her labored, phlegm-filled lungs push hard to get the words out, hearing the rasping wheeze of her breathing, he didn’t have the heart or the strength to argue with her. He didn’t want the last conversation they had to be a fight.

Instead, he tried to stay cheerful—a mood that was very foreign to him these days. “Grandchildren, well … you never know what the future holds,” he said, doing his best to smile.

His mother rolled her eyes. “Well, I’ll be gone soon, so you’ll be able to do whatever the hell you want.”

Those words—whatever the hell you want—were loaded. There was something on his mother’s mind, something she was holding back from saying. And that, Mario knew, was a big deal. She usually had no problem saying exactly what she was thinking, no matter who it hurt. So what was going on here?

But instead of explaining any further, she continued her rant. “I’m surprised you made it home instead of letting me die alone. You seem to be doing whatever you can nowadays not to be around. Was I that bad of a mother to you? Was I?”

She was laying on more guilt just to push his buttons, and it was getting harder to hold his tongue. Resentment burned in his chest like a flame, and its intensity took him by surprise. When he tried to swallow it down, it tasted bitter in his throat. It took every bit of will he had not to participate in her sparring match. She hadn’t even remembered his birthday. But she was weak. He could see it, even though she tried her best to hide it, so all he said was, “Not at all, mami. You’re a wonderful mother. I just have to work so we can have-”

“I thought I taught you to lie better than that,” she grumbled. “Well, go make yourself useful if you want so much time alone, and clean out that damn shed. Paula told me it’s a rat’s nest in there.”

The damn shed again! Why was she so fixated on it?

“Yes, your majesty,” he smirked.

“I swear I’m going to throw that vase at you,” she warned.

“Sure thing, Mami. I’ll do it a bit later.”

She glared at him. “Are you really going to make me repeat myself in my dying hours?”

Her small frame curled up on the bed reminded him of a cobra ready to strike. Even now, when she had no energy left, her venom was potent.

He’d learned a long time ago that arguing with her was just a waste of time; she’d always win and, macho as he was, he would have his feelings hurt by her words. So, he forced a smile.

“Anything else?” he asked on the way out the bedroom door.

“Don’t be a smart ass,” she said, a cough racking her frail body as she struggled to clear her throat. When she could speak again, she said, “And I want that shed spic n’ span.”

CHAPTER 3

No matter how obnoxious his mother was, no matter how overbearing she’d been most of his life, Mario would be sad to say “goodbye” to her. After all, she had brought him into the world.

She had always been there for him, holding his hand through the best and worst moments of his life in her own way – even if that was partly because she didn’t think he could stand on his own two feet or because she wanted to keep her tentacles of control over him or maybe because she didn’t want him running off to live his own life.

He knew he should be spending what little time he had left with her—her “dying hours,” as she called them—by her side, but he also knew those hours would just be miserable if he didn’t do what she told him. So, he went to clean out the shed. Even though the morning was still young, it was already searing hot. The sun beat down on his head and neck as he trudged across the dry brown grass of the backyard to the shed, which was a small wooden structure with the chipped red paint peeling off the walls. Grabbing the key that hung from a nearby tree branch, he unlocked the old rusted lock and yanked the molded door open.

The smell of musty air and cedar wood hit and overwhelmed him with memories. He understood it now. The shed was full of ghosts. This was where he and his cousin Paco, Paula’s brother had played hide and seek, crouching in the dark corner behind the lawn mower even though his mom made it clear she didn’t want them playing in there around all the sharp tools. This was where his mother stored everything that had once belonged to, or reminded her of, his “good for nothing” father—things that were now dusty, moldy, moth-eaten or rusted. She would have done better to just burn them or throw them out. But, then again, he knew how love could get you knotted up in a twisted mess. Even though his mother said terrible things about his father, Mario knew that she still held a torch for him. Even though it had been twenty years since she’d seen him, she had kept the things in this shed because she hoped secretly, in her heart of hearts, that he would come back one day. It was a pretty farfetched dream, but wasn’t he doing the same thing when it came to Maria?

No, he resolved. I’ll never be like her. If I have children, I’ll be kind to them and let them live their own lives. They don’t deserve to suffer because I’m bitter from a broken heart.

His mother hadn’t always been bitter, though. There were times when she had been much happier, usually after one of his father’s rare visits. He’d visit them a handful of times a year. His mother never welcomed him with open arms at first—she would demand where he had been, scream at him for abandoning her to take care of their son all by herself, and throw plates and vases at him until Mario ran and hid under his bed to avoid the shattering glass, plugging his fingers in his ears so he couldn’t hear them shouting. But then, suddenly, the shouting would change to moans of pleasure, and his mother would cry out his father’s name, and the battle would be followed by one of those passionate sessions of loud, all-night love making that neighbors for miles around could hear.

In the morning, the sun would be streaming into the kitchen, and when Mario walked in for breakfast, he would find his father at the table, reading the newspaper and humming a cheerful Mexican folk song, and his mother at the stove, frying up his father’s favorite breakfast. His father would greet Mario with a big hug and pull him onto his lap, and then reach over to spank his wife’s behind, making her shriek and swat at him playfully with her spatula.

Of course, the fighting always began again soon—his father would announce that he had to leave again, and his mother would send the breakfast in the pan flying across the room to splatter at the wall, and the shouting would escalate even louder than the night before. But Mario chose to remember those brief, happy memories, of when his parents were together.

For many years, Mario’s father came and went. But then one day, his father left and never came back. Not even for Christmas, not even for Mario’s birthday. He didn’t call or send a single letter.

Secretly, Mario blamed his mother. She had pushed his father away, just like she had pushed away almost everyone else in her life. Part of Mario, though he hated to say it, felt like she deserved what she got. If she died bitter and alone, it was all her fault.

She had even come close to driving Mario away, in her worst moments. When she was angry, she told him that he was a mistake—not a symbol of her and his father’s brief but fleeting love, but an unwanted accident. When Mario was born, he had destroyed her chance of making something of herself, of becoming a great actress like she had dreamed. She had settled for being a grammar school teacher instead, but she never forgave him or his father for that.

“I could have been somebody,” she used to tell Mario over and over again. “I was better than anyone else in my university.”

For so long, Mario and his mother each blamed the other for driving his father away. But as Mario grew into a man himself, he realized that the blame wasn’t his mother’s alone. His father had made the choice long ago to marry her. He’d chosen the life he’d had with her. Who was he to run away?

Coward, Mario thought. Yellow-livered coward.

Sometimes Mario would imagine that his father had died in some horrible accident or in a bar fight. That’s what he deserved, he would think bitterly, and then ask forgiveness for thinking it. It wasn’t just bitterness that made him think that way. If his father had died, then there was a reason that he hadn’t come back to visit, hadn’t called them or even written. There was a reason Mario had been left to care for his mother alone, his own love on hold.

But every few years, he’d hear a friend or relative say they had seen his father, usually passed out at a bar or in a back alley. Others claimed, he was much happier, sober—a church-going man with a new family.

A family that was better? Mario always wondered. A family that he could love?

Now he shook his head, trying to squash the flood of emotions rising in his chest, and squinted through the dust floating in the air of the dark shed at the stacks of boxes and piles of junk. Where to begin?

He figured he’d begin with the box right in front of him. But as he lifted that box, one that seemed out of place, as if it had been moved only recently, something caught his eye.

An envelope.

Not a typed envelope that your gas bill came in, but an envelope that would hold a personal letter. He picked it up and, though it was hard to see clearly because he hadn’t reached to pull the rusty chain that switched on the bare light bulb overhead, he recognized the handwriting immediately.

Those loopy letters made his heart skip a beat. Maria, the envelope said. A surge of excitement coursed through him, and it had been so long since he’d let himself feel anything that the emotion made him dizzy.

Was it some letter he’d read and lost? No. He flipped it over and saw that the envelope was still sealed. It had never been opened. He tried to swallow, but his mouth had dried up. In the humid, musty heat of the shed, he felt light-headed. His tongue felt thick and his fingers were numb. He fumbled with the envelope as he held it up so he could see it better in the shafts of light coming in the cracks of the shed walls. The date on the front said October— a good month after the last letter he’d received from her.

If he opened the letter, he would be opening up his heart to a new world of pain. Maybe it was better just to burn it and let the letter he had kept with him all these years be his last memory of her, as he finally moved on with his life.

It’s time to let go, he told himself for the hundredth time. Just destroy it. Never think about it again.

He gripped the envelope, prepared to tear it into a dozen pieces … but something stopped him. The letter may have been ten-years-old, but even if it broke his heart all over again, even if it could do nothing to change his hopeless future, he just had to know what was in it.

CHAPTER 4

Before opening the letter, Mario stepped out of the shed. Even under the bright sun, he was trembling all over. The ground beneath him felt like it was shaking. He had to lean against the side of the shed to stay standing. Memories washed over him. He couldn’t stop thinking about the last letter he’d written her, in response to the scathing letter from her that he kept in his pocket. Even though he had mailed it over ten-years-ago, he still remembered every word he had written to her, and he still regretted every word of it. If only he had the chance to do everything over again. But he didn’t, and as if to torture himself, he went through his own letter in his head for the thousandth time:

Dear Maria,

I love you and I cannot believe you’d question this. You talk about promises and you promised to stick with me no matter how long it took. I’m sorry I cannot see you when I want to, I am, but I have to say I’m disappointed in you for giving me more pressure than I already have.

My mother is sick, there is nothing I can do about that. Do you expect me to abandon her? I’m the only one she has. I thought about asking you to wait a little while longer. I thought you’d love me enough to do that, but it’s clear that is not the case.

And so, if your heart is telling you that you cannot wait anymore, do what you need to do.

I wish you the best. I will miss you.

Until we meet again,

Mario

He took a deep breath thinking about those words—until we meet again. One of his tears had even dropped onto the page, smudging the ink, but the words had still been legible. Oh, how he regretted writing them now. If he had it to do all over again, he would. But he had been so mad that day he wrote it; he could still remember the anger that had coursed through him as he’d bent over the kitchen table, scratching out the letters with his pen, furious with Maria for not understanding his circumstances and responsibilities, for doubting that he loved her and wanted to be with her, frustrated with himself for having allowed himself to be backed into a corner and separated from her in the first place. If only he had been honest with her, instead of shutting the door on their love. He and Maria had always been real with each other; that was one of the many reasons he had been so in love with her. But he’d said “goodbye” to her, explaining to his mother, if you let a bird go and it comes back to you, it’s meant to be.

His mother had snorted. “That’s horseshit,” she’d said. “I told you she wasn’t any good for you.”

Even though her words had felt like vinegar in a wound, he had tried to see his mother’s point of view, especially as the years passed and Maria never wrote back to him. But deep inside there was a glimmer of hope, a flame that hadn’t been extinguished, a whisper that said, Wait. Maria will be back.

He was his mother’s son, wasn’t he? She would always fight to the bitter end—as she was proving it right now in her bed in that dark little room as her frail body gave it her all, refusing to die.

That glimmer of hope, that whisper, had been right. Maria had written back. And even though the letter had been buried under boxes all this time, his heart raced with possibilities.

He hooked his index finger under the flap of the envelope and tore it open.

As his finger slid across the paper, he could feel the imprint of the pen Maria had used. The all-too-familiar curls and loops of her handwriting threatened to sweep him away again. It took all he had to ground himself so he could read her words.

Dear Mario,

You know it isn’t easy for me to say I’m sorry. It’s not easy to admit that what I said was hurtful and that I never should have said it at all. For the last few weeks, I’ve been doing everything I can to stay angry at you, to forget you, but the truth is, I cannot. The truth is, I can’t get you out of my mind.

I know what I said was hurtful. I know you can’t help it, that you’ve been doing the honorable thing taking care of your mother and that you couldn’t abandon her to run away together with me thousands of miles away. I know this now, but I was selfish. You see, I don’t just love you. I’m in love with you. And the truth is, I cannot imagine life without you. If you can find it in your heart to forgive me, to forget everything I ever said to you and just give us one more chance, just say the word and I promise I’ll wait for you until the moon is no more. I will not be writing you back after this anymore. If I don’t hear back from you in the next month, I can only assume then, you’ve moved on.

Love,

Maria

Mario’s heart leapt as he looked at the date: ten years ago. The letter was musty and yellowed with age. Ten years. She had given him one month to win her back, to assure her of his love, to take the first step toward that future they had imagined together, and she hadn’t heard from him in ten years.

“But I never saw the fucking letter!” he cried aloud in frustration. Mario had thought that he could never know pain as deep as the wound of ten years ago, but now as he imagined Maria watching for the mailman, running to take the letters and look for one with his handwriting, and weeping in disappointment when day after day it did not arrive, agony pierced him like a hot, searing spear. Guilt and regret ripped the old wounds open, and they were more agonizingly painful than ever.

Why hadn’t he seen this letter? How could fate be so cruel? He could have written to her, he could have gone to her, taken her in his arms and proclaimed his love to her. They could be standing, now, with their arms around each other, watching from the back porch as their children splashed and shrieked happily in a sprinkler on the lawn, Maria laughing as she watched them, her head on his shoulder.

Did she ever think of him now? He wondered if his name ever came up. If his image flashed across her mind every now and then. He wondered if she smiled with pleasant memories of what could have been—or if, when people asked about him, she stared blankly said, “Mario who?” It had been over a decade. She had probably long forgotten about him. Surely, she had met someone else. Surely, some other man had swept her off her feet. She was too good of a catch. Maria had moved on, Mario was sure, and he was stuck in this hell hole he’d created for himself.

He refolded the letter and tucked it back in the envelope. There was no sense fantasizing now. Those chances, those times, had come and gone. He snapped back to reality. He had better get back to cleaning out the shed before his mother had another fit.  CLICK HERE TO READ THE REST ——> http://jeffrivera.com/mario-part-2/