by Marianne Villanueva
Vincent was standing at the door. He said, “Hurry up, Mom.”
It was 10:30 in the morning. She was always watching the clock, anticipating the time when he would step out to see his friends.
She ran to him, her hands still slick with dishwashing soap.
“Will you be having dinner here?” she asked.
She was sure there was a girl in his life, someone he didn’t want her to know about; he’d become so close-mouthed, the last year. And he was the type of son who had liked confiding in her. Still, she told herself, it was for the best.
She watched him get into his car. She noted there was a new dent on the passenger side door. Vincent didn’t care. The car had over 120,000 miles when they bought it for him, when he graduated from high school. Jocelyn remembered how his eyes shone when they handed him the keys. That was almost three years ago.
It was sunny, a glorious day. April was sometimes cold, but Jocelyn thought she could sense summer coming, just around the corner.
The girl who clipped them, that afternoon in April, was just 18. Driving her red Ford Mustang at a speed that was just short of criminal, she’d gotten her driver’s license only that month.
The Ford Explorer rolled over and over and over—for almost two years she saw the image flash into her mind, often just before she lay her head down to sleep. Then she had to get up and pace the bedroom, or take two Ambien if there was something important she needed to do the next day.
By the time the vehicle came to rest, by the center divider on southbound 101, her son was dead. She was glad it had happened quickly. Perhaps there had not even been time for him to register a few seconds of fear.
He had just returned from a backpacking trip in Yosemite.
He arrived late at night on a Tuesday and he was dead on Wednesday. And there were still text messages coming in on his cell—that day and for almost a week after, from friends who, for one reason or another, hadn’t yet heard the news.
The summer before, her husband had asked her why she still had Vincent’s baby things stored in boxes in the garage. She’d given them away, she forgets now whether it was to the Salvation Army or to Goodwill. Now she blamed her husband. If she hadn’t listened to him, she would have had something from that earlier time to hold.
In the first moments of her grief, it sometimes seemed to Jocelyn that her son had returned expressly to keep that certain appointment. The appointment with the girl in the Ford Mustang.
Her niece, Audrey, who’d been in the passenger seat, was just 19. She was a freshman at Stanford. She was dead, too.
Audrey was majoring in Linguistics. She could speak Japanese, Arabic, and even a little Farsi. She was going to travel the world and maybe she would become a spy. At least, she liked to joke that she would.
It had caused Jocelyn endless hours of amusement to imagine her niece wandering Beirut or Dubai in a bhurka. Now, of course, she could no longer imagine such things. She only wished that when her niece passed, she passed quickly. She couldn’t bear to think of the happy young woman she’d known being trapped in the car, waiting.
She had kept a small newspaper clipping of the accident. Every so often she would remove the clipping, smooth it out on the kitchen counter top, and look at the words. She found it increasingly difficult to make any sense of them. The accident was four Aprils ago. Her son was dust in the earth, or soon would be. Unless the wooden coffin held true.
She’d had it blessed by her old friend, Father Hidalgo, who’d come all the way from Manila for the funeral. Wood burnished to a high gleam. Her husband couldn’t look. How could he? He kept his head lowered the whole time, already defeated. Everything, from the pink satin that would couch her son’s body, to the make-up she had the morticians apply to hide the bruising on his face, was her own responsibility.
And then she had to hold Audrey’s parents while the coffins were being lowered into the ground. It was awful the way Emily’s mother sank to her knees and lost her mind there, in the memorial park.
It was an unseasonably cold day and the wind blew the other woman’s graying hair about her face as she knelt on the ground and keened. Jocelyn could only stare, dry-eyed, at her own boy’s coffin. It moved smoothly, as if lifted by invisible gears. Then it was positioned in the hole and she picked up a clod of earth and threw it with such force that a few particles rebounded onto her clothes. She took off her skirt later and saw the brownish stains. She wondered at them, their strange shapes. She folded the skirt and put it away. She would never send it to be cleaned.
But she was not to be destroyed. Even in her blackest moments, her deepest despair, she knew she was not going to be destroyed. At the funeral, she looked proudly and stoically ahead of her. She could feel the rippling whispers behind her, around her. Women looking with something like envy because in her pride she had become something she’d never been before, almost beautiful. She blazed with an inner fury. Her skin, her eyes, were incandescent.
All right, so the girl was 18. She was driving too fast, she just didn’t know how to handle a car like that. It was her cousin’s.
18, and a bank teller. At a Bank of America a few miles south of Belmont, where Jocelyn lived. She might have even have met her a few times at the bank.
Funny how these things go.
Anyway, it had been four Aprils since then. Her life had gone on in a fashion, and even though her husband was absent a lot of the time (absent emotionally, though physically he was far too present) she had made do, she had learned to fill up the spaces and silences with busy work, like doing crossword puzzles and watching Dr. Phil and Oprah. It hadn’t, after all, been the end of her world.
For years and years, since she only had the one child, she feared a calamity. She feared that the loss of her child would be cataclysmic, soul-destroying. Looking at him in his crib at night, she felt the pain of his loss as if it were inevitable. She knew there would be no others. Even the one child was a miracle. So old, she was, when it finally happened. 40. But after she and her husband had decided to have the child, he came easily to her. Too easily.
He was born in the year of the Dragon. That meant he was special. Or so she thought. She consulted Chinese astrology books and feng shui books and she took to heart their superstitious admonitions. She put little turtles and elephants on his windowsill, facing a certain way. She hung a crystal from the ceiling of his room, to deflect evil spirits. She hadn’t thought to put one in his car; she had not thought of that.
The fear of losing her son was so great, so overwhelming, that it steeled her, caused her to prepare.
So when it happened, she somehow found herself ready. Unlike her husband, who was totally witless, beyond salvation.
Men, she liked to tell her friends afterwards, are weak.
She remembered when Vincent was four. How he’d wanted to go to the circus. But her husband wouldn’t go, he simply wasn’t interested. That was his word exactly. What interest, she thought. What does that have to do with taking your four-year-old to the circus?
So she herself had taken Vincent. The boy was excited by his first taste of cotton candy, by the ladies riding around on elephants and horses. They’re so beautiful, Mom, he kept saying. But she had to admit, she secretly agreed with her husband that it was tacky. This was the Ringling Brothers and already the acts seemed from another age. The ladies were plump and their flesh-colored tights could not conceal the thickness of their thighs. She was tired and got a headache afterwards. But she had taken her son, that was the important thing. In her mind, she placed a mark against her husband: his first betrayal.
Over the years, she stored them up in a little book in her head: there were the times when she’d had to stay late at work and asked him to come home early so that Vincent would not have to eat dinner alone in the house. She could imagine the boy, settled on the couch watching TV, and it made her heart ache to think of him eating macaroni and cheese that he’d heated up himself in the microwave. But oh, so many times she’d come home and there would be no husband, there would only be her son, drifting off to sleep on the sofa, his mouth smeared with the remnants of his dinner. I’m OK, Mom, he would say sleepily. You don’t have to worry about me. I can take care of myself.
She raged inwardly at her husband, at such moments. That thoughtless man, who was always worrying about something or other in the office. No wonder they had had only the one child.
But Vincent loved his father, so she had forced herself to forgive. When the angry words rose to her mouth, she quelled them, but always with a great effort.
Afterwards, it was her husband who wailed and cried. This astonished Jocelyn utterly. That the man had feelings, that he was not totally oblivious to the existence of their child, who had wandered in and out of their house with barely a nod from her husband, was a revelation to her. She found herself studying him as though he were some odd being who had crawled up from some primeval marsh. Who would have thought that the man she saw every day suited in grey pinstripes would have, somewhere on his person, a primitive, unruly heart?
How odd it was, how odd. Afterwards, her husband couldn’t stop talking about their boy, and she’d find him in their son’s room, looking at the pictures they had framed: Vincent on his first basketball team. Vincent chasing a ball down a soccer field. Vincent at his high school graduation.
He had aged overnight, her husband. The gray in his hair was the uniform color of steel, and his skin lost its elasticity and sagged around his jowls. Sometimes she barely recognized him. And, apparently, his work at the office was suffering and his boss was encouraging him to take more vacations, and in the past year they had hired younger men to assist him, men who exchanged brief, knowing glances that Jocelyn always caught when she attended the office parties. This all meant, she knew, that they were getting ready to nudge her husband into retirement. This, too, was another cause for her rage.
Why, she sputteringly wanted to ask her husband’s boss, a bluff, hearty man who had a beautiful blonde wife and four perfect teen-age children, why would you do that to us? Do you realize how much we have suffered?
Her husband left the house each morning with stiff, robotic steps. She watched him from the window, ducking quickly behind the curtains if she thought there was a chance he might look back at the house. He would put his briefcase into the trunk and then remain staring down with the trunk open for long moments. Then, startled by something, a passing car, he would look up, look around, and go back into himself. Yet she couldn’t shake the idea that when he entered the car he too was entering a kind of coffin.
And now they read the obituary pages together, with a kind of stoic morbidity. And if it so happened that they recognized a name, they both chewed their food slowly and thoughtfully and without tasting anything. Neither of them could speak, so lost were they in their own private reflections.
The days went on like that, for months, for years.
Then, one day, there was an occurrence. A singular event. A young woman showed up at the front door. She was dressed in baggy jeans and a pink tank top and she was carrying a bouquet of pink and white roses. She was blonde and had the pink-cheeked health of the new German immigrant. She asked to speak to the lady of the house, and when Jocelyn responded that it was she, she simply handed over the roses and smiled.
“You’re Vincent’s mom,” she said. And Jocelyn, who had not heard herself called that for several years, felt with sudden alarm the pressure of tears building behind her eyes.
“Yes,” Jocelyn said. “And you are–?”
“I’m Caroline,” said the young woman. “I knew Vincent in college. We were both in Physics. He helped me a lot—homework and stuff. I wasn’t very good at math. I took terrible notes. Vincent always shared his. I’m sorry, I couldn’t come to the funeral but I felt bad and since I was visiting someone close by I thought I’d bring you these.”
She thrust the roses forward awkwardly.
None of this made any sense, Jocelyn thought. Why had the girl waited four years? A half dozen of Vincent’s classmates had attended the funeral, and they had seemed uncomfortable, unsure of where to put their hands and feet. Afterwards, none of them had attended the reception. Red-faced, they’d come up to her and expressed their regrets. She couldn’t remember anything they had said.
“Caroline,” she said. “Caroline. I think Vincent might have mentioned you. You were the one who was thinking of leaving school, because of your mom. Was that you? You have a single mom and you live in Visalia?” It amazed Jocelyn to remember these details.
But Caroline was smiling. “Yes, that’s me. And I did leave school for a while. But now I’m back. I’m graduating next semester.”
“I’m glad to hear it, Caroline,” Jocelyn said. She opened the door wide. “Won’t you come in? Do you have time for coffee? I would love to talk more.”
But the young woman stayed where she was and shook her head. “No, I’m sorry,” she said. “My friends are waiting in the car, they’re just around the corner. We’re late for a dinner. I’m sorry.”
“Caroline,” Jocelyn said, “It was so nice of you to come by. It means a lot to me. I wish you’d come back. Anytime. Don’t hesitate. Anytime you’re in the neighborhood.” Her arms reached out as if to hug the girl, but the girl stepped back and Jocelyn’s arms reached out to an emptiness. She let her arms drop and stared helplessly at the girl.
“I’m sorry,” Caroline said. “I’ve made you feel bad.”
“No,” Jocelyn insisted. “No, don’t think that. I’m glad to have met you.”
“Don’t worry, Mrs. Gonzales,” the girl said. “You’ll be with him soon.”
Jocelyn stared at the girl. Had she heard right? And then Caroline, observing the confusion in Jocelyn’s face, said, “I only meant that, for Vincent it wouldn’t seem long. Don’t you think the dead have a different sense of time than us? For us, it might seem like decades since they left but for them it must seem like only a moment, an instant.”
“Oh,” said Jocelyn, and her breath caught. “You don’t know how much I’ve worried about that. Worried that he’s alone—over there, wherever there is. I know it’s silly. But I don’t want him to be alone. Not ever. I can’t stand the thought.”
After the accident, she found she couldn’t believe in a heaven, and so she really had thought of her son lost somewhere in a void, in a wilderness of strange, indistinct shapes.
And she grew angry again. It was all so unfair, that her cherished boy should be cold in the ground. 19 years! There hadn’t even been time to take him to the Philippines, where she and her husband had come from. They kept telling their families, soon, soon. But it had never happened. Then, there was a period of political turmoil when it seemed that no sane American would take the risk of visiting. And then Vincent was grown. He didn’t want to go to a country where the only people he knew were old.
“You’ll be with him,” Caroline repeated. “Don’t worry, Mrs. Gonzales. It won’t be long.”
Then, with a flashing smile, the young woman turned and almost ran down the front walk.
That evening, at dinner, Jocelyn could not make up her mind whether to tell her husband about the strange visit. She drank some red wine, an uncharacteristic gesture, but it left her feeling giddy and light-headed and she didn’t want to sound maudlin so she kept silent. If her husband noticed anything, he didn’t give any indication. Their entire meal passed with only the briefest exchange about the usual mundane things.
But during the next few weeks, Jocelyn mulled over the encounter. With each passing day, the features of Caroline’s face seemed to become more and more indistinct. Jocelyn struggled against the imprecision of her memory with a feeling of increasing panic.
One afternoon, she spent a few hours poring over the photographs she’d found stored in a file on Vincent’s computer. The keyboard was dusty and she had to wipe the keys carefully with an alcohol prep pad. She’d never ever sat at this computer, even when Vincent was alive. It would have seemed like a violation. But now she looked for the “on” key and found it and waited as the computer sprang noisily to life with what seemed, to her sensitive ears, like a great whirring of internal gears, followed by the faint sound of a fan blowing somewhere inside the mechanism.
She didn’t have long to search, thankfully. She embarked on a file search and limited it to the two years Vincent had been away at college. Almost immediately a folder called “Pictures” appeared on the screen. Two brief taps of her index finger, and the folder opened up to reveal a file called “Birthdays.” Here were pictures of Vincent in a series of parties, with his arm affectionately thrown over the shoulders of this or that young woman, none of whom even remotely resembled Caroline. Another file, called “Summers,” contained pictures of his old high school classmates, and even one or two of Jocelyn and her husband, puttering around the house. The final set of pictures was in a file called “Beaches.” There were several pictures of Vincent spreadeagled on the sand, and one of him leaping over a sand dune. In every picture he was with a group of friends. None of them, however, was Caroline.
What she saw, though, saw so clearly it almost took her breath away, was that her son loved his life. He loved his school and he loved his friends and they did everything together: camped on the beach, hiked in the hills, kayaked, drank. There was party after party. In one picture, he and three other boys held beer bottles aloft. In another, her son had his back to the camera, but his face was half turned and she saw he was laughing while apparently peeing into some bushes.
This shot made her catch her breath and almost cry. Vincent had an imperfect nose. There was a prominent bump that she could see outlined very clearly as he turned his head toward the camera. She’d asked him once if he’d wanted it fixed. He’d shaken his head at her. “Mom,” he said, “Girls don’t seem to mind.” She’d let it go.
And he hadn’t been a very good student. In fact, he’d almost gotten kicked out at the end of his freshman year. His GPA hadn’t even made 1.5. She and her husband had been furious. There was a summer of slamming doors and hateful looks. That was the summer before he died.
Sitting there, in her son’s room, she found herself getting angry once again. She thought: There are two of them in the ground who shouldn’t be.
She clicked on the Firefox icon and found herself a search engine. She typed in the name: Remedios Delgado. There were a few newspaper items; she chose the most recent ones.
The girl had been released. She had been sentenced to the maximum of eight years, but had served only three. She was out now. She was free.
But Jocelyn and her husband would never, themselves, be free. And Vincent was waiting.
One of the articles had a picture. Yes, she recognized the girl, even after all these years. She was only 21, after all. There was still a whole life ahead of her. In the picture, Remedios was smiling.
She’d moved back in with her parents. In the interview, she said she needed time to get her life back together. She looked good, with none of the baby fat from her earlier pictures. She wore skin-tight jeans and there was not a bulge anywhere. She had a tattoo in the small of her back that, according to the reporter, just showed when she bent over.
So. Jocelyn sat there at Vincent’s computer. She thought. And then she thought some more. She knew where Remedios’ parents lived because it had all come out at the trial. They were in Redwood City, only a few miles south. For weeks after the accident, and during the trial, she had driven around the city in slow, meandering circles. But she never once encountered the Delgados, even when she took to shopping three times a week at the Safeway closest to their apartment building.
Perhaps they went to a Mexican market. She tried that, too. But there was zip, nada, nothing. After a while, Jocelyn gave up and went back to her normal routes, and now she hardly went to Redwood City anymore.
She wondered if Remedios might have tried getting her old job back, the one at the Bank of America on Woodside Road. One day, she went there. She stood in back of a long line of tired, impatient people. It was 4:30 PM, a Monday. She waited patiently for the line to move. And finally, finally, when she was at the front of the line, she forced herself to look up, to look carefully at the bank of tellers. Her gaze went from girl to girl slowly. That one had a face that was too square; that other one was too short; still another had a large mole by her lower lip. When there was only the last girl in the row, she stopped and considered. This girl had hair highlighted with gold and reddish streaks. She’d covered her eyelids with glittery purple eyeshadow. When her gaze stopped, the girl looked up. For a moment, their eyes locked. Then Remedios put a hand to her mouth and screamed.
The scream seemed to go on and on and on, as Remedios stumbled backwards from the counter. She put out her hands, like a blind man feeling his way around a strange room. Jocelyn looked calmly at her. But she herself was badly shaken by the girl’s high-pitched screams and the blindly groping hands. Obviously the girl had seen something in her, some kind of vision. Everyone, she’d read in some book, had an aura. Perhaps hers was black now, or deep purple.
Jocelyn turned on her heel and left the bank. She drove straight home, and it surprised her greatly when she arrived without mishap. For a while, her therapist had always warned her to be careful driving. But now it was as if she’d been doing this every day of her life, driving to Redwood City and back.
After she climbed the stairs to the bedroom, she sat on her bed, kicked off her shoes and stared at the ceiling. She was very tired. She decided to run some water for a bath. She checked the time: her husband would not be home for a couple of hours.
When the tub was full, Jocelyn lowered herself slowly, gratefully into the warm water. She hadn’t estimated right and some of the bath water sloshed over the sides and on to the bathroom floor. She looked at it blankly. Oh well, she thought. I’ll take care of it later.
She put her head back and let herself feel the water cradling her. She closed her eyes. With each breath, the water around her ribcage trembled and she loved the sensation of movement. Her hands rose involuntarily to her face.
“I must have looked a sight,” she thought now. She’d left the house without putting on any make-up. Her face must have looked pale and ghostly to the young girl.
“You know, Remedios,” she said to the air above her. “You’ll always be a part of me, now.”
And indeed, she could see herself, five years from now, reading about Remedios’ wedding in the newspaper. She could see Remedios surrounded by her happy family, see her mother lifting Remedios’ heavy tresses and arranging the bridal veil. The groom would not be handsome, because Remedios didn’t seem to have that kind of luck. But he’d be a stalwart young man, who would make sure Jocelyn never approached. And that was fine with Jocelyn, too.
When her husband came home that evening, he called her name but she didn’t answer. He found her still in the bathroom, lying back in the tub and staring at the ceiling with a strange and unfamiliar look — a look, almost, of happiness.
“Jocelyn!” he called sharply.
Slowly, she lowered her gaze and looked at him. “Dear,” she said, still smiling. “I’ve had a wonderful day.”
She could never understand, afterwards, why her husband, still in his dark suit, dropped to his knees at just that moment, holding out his hands to her and weeping.
Marianne Villanueva was a finalist for the UK’s Saboteur Award, in 2014. And a full-act opera based on her novella, Marife, received its world premiere in New Hampshire in 2015. She is currently teaching a class called, One Story: Six Ways for UCLA Extension’s Writers Program, Aug. 3 (six weeks, online).