“Thanks for letting me keep some stuff at your house. I couldn’t bear to get rid of it but I didn’t see the point in taking it to Chicago with me.” Lisa set the box on the coffee table in the living room.
“No problem, baby. I have plenty of room here.” Her mother wiped her hands on the hymn of her apron. “I’m glad you changed your mind about coming over. I’d hate to have you leave on bad terms.” The freckles that had once danced across Lisa’s mother’s face had grown into uneven blotches in the harsh Florida sun. Flecks of gray were scattered through her strawberry blonde pixie cut. The tiny lines around her eyes and mouth couldn’t conceal the face of the young woman she once was. Lisa was a darker version of her mother, full cheeks, and a small nose.
Lisa put her boxes in the walk-in closet in the spare bedroom. The house seemed so different without her father there. Even though it seemed like her mother had tried to erase every trace of him his presence lingered in the air like a ghost. Every room brought back memories. The upright piano he taught her to play still sat against the wall on the far side of the living room. Piled with books, it waited patiently to be played. While her mother finished up the kitchen Lisa move the books to the floor. She sat on the hard bench and placed her fingers over the keys. She did not press them at first because it had been so long since she’d played anything. She made the motion of playing and when she realized that her muscles still remembered what to do she gingerly press the keys. An avalanche of clashing sounds tumbled clumsily through the air. Lisa withdrew her fingers from the keys in shocked disgust. “When’s the last time you got the piano tuned?” She called to her mother.
Her mother appeared in the kitchen door with a wooden spoon in her hand. “I don’t even think about that thing. Do you want to take it to Chicago with you?”
“You know I can’t do that.” Lisa got up from the piano to start putting the books back on it. “It’s a shame to let it get so out of tune.”
“If there was someone in the house who played I would tune it.”
Lisa smiled. “Maybe you should take lessons.”
“I don’t have time for that.” Her mother turned and walked back into the kitchen. “I thought we could just eat in here.”
The food was delicious, but her mother’s food was always delicious. The familiar flavors coated her tongue and made her miss the days she spent in this house. “This is great, Mom. Thanks.”
“Eat up. There’s plenty.”
Her mother had cooked enough food to feed a small country. “I don’t know why you made so much.”
“It’s just a habit. If I’m not cooking for one, I have to cook for ten.”
“I know.” On the rare occasions that Lisa’s mother cooked, she cooked too much food. The freezer was usually full of leftovers that Lisa could pop into the microwave whenever she was hungry. “You can take some of it home with you.”
“Jamila will love that.”
“How is Jamila?” her mother asked.
“The same as always. She’s tired of being single.”
“She’s a good girl. She’ll find the right one soon enough.”
“That’s what I keep telling her,” Lisa said. “When you’re looking it can seem like it takes forever.”
“I know. I had the same problem when I was young. I thought I was going to be alone forever. Then your father came in and swept me off my feet. He was so suave. Even knowing how it all turned out I think I’d do it all again.”
Lisa never thought of her parents as ever being young and really in love. Her mother was so distant that she thought that it had always been that way. She never imagined that her mother could have been swept off her feet. “How did you two meet?” Lisa knew the story but had never heard her mother’s side.
“I was the assistant professor in a photography course in school which basically meant I taught the class. That was fine because I love photography and even then wanted to help everyone else have a love for it too. Your father was in the class. He was cute. He would stay after to ask me questions about composition and light. He was very eager. I taught he was eager about photography and later found out that he was just eager to impress me. About three weeks into the semester he asked me out and I told him that I couldn’t date my student. It was strictly against policy even though I was just an assistant. So he dropped the class.” Her face softened and she let out a little laugh. “Then he showed up after class one day with a bouquet of flowers and asked me to go to the movies with him. Some of the other students were still around when he asked me and I was so embarrassed that I said no. He didn’t give up though. He came back the next day and asked me again. The fair was in town and he said that he thought that if I didn’t like the movies I might like going on a few carnival rides instead. This time we were alone and honestly I’d regretted saying no to him the day before. I’d kept kicking myself all night so I was delighted when he showed up again the next day. He was so exotic. I loved his accent. I wish I could say that we lived happily ever after, but you know how it all turned out.”
“When you tell that story it’s almost like you still love him,” Lisa said.
Her mother shook her head. “Part of me always will. It’s cliche, but I spent the best years of my life with him. He’s the reason I have you. He betrayed me, but I hurt him too in a lot of ways. We’ll always be connected even when we don’t want to be.”
“I’m surprised. When I was little I was sure your didn’t love either of us.”
Her mother’s face tightened. “Why would you think such a thing?”
“You were always so busy.”
“I believe in working hard. My career was always important to me. My mother never worked outside of the home and she always seemed so unfulfilled. I wasn’t going to be like her. I wanted a career. I have a lot to offer.”
“I know you do, but there was a lot you could offer us too if you were ever home.”
Her mother shook her head. “You act like I was never there for you.”
“Who went to all of my recitals and track and field events?” Lisa waited for her mother to answer and when she didn’t she answered for her. “Dad, that’s who. Who was there when my first boyfriend dumped me and when I got my period for the first time.”
“Lisa, you’re like a broken record. The past is over. I can’t change any of that.”
Anger started to bubble up in Lisa, but she took a few deep breaths to calm herself.
“When will you forgive me and move on?”
“I would if you acted like you’d done something wrong, but every time I mention your absence you get defensive. I’d like you to acknowledge that I was hurt by what you did. That’s all I want.”
Her mother put her fork down and looked at her plate for a moment. When she raised her head her blue green eyes locked on Lisa’s. “I’m sorry you felt like I wasn’t there for you. I was doing my best at the time. That’s all any of us can do. If I had it to do all over again, I’d spend more time with you. I missed some of the important moments in your life because I was working more than I had to. That was a bad decision on my part.”
Lisa thought an apology from her mother would instantly clear away all of feelings of resentment. It didn’t, but it was a start. “Thank you.” Lisa held back the tears. She wanted this to be a new start for both of them, but only time could tell.
“I’m trying,” her mother said. She pursed her lips. “You have to try too.”
“I’m here, aren’t I?”
Her mother nodded. “You are.”
Lisa felt like time was slipping away from her, but she still believed in her future. She hoped her mother did too. She was destined to succeed this time. She just knew it.
When all of her packing was done Lisa didn’t quite know what to do with herself. She sat in her empty room on the floor looking at the bare walls and thinking. Damon was still in Miami. He texted her every day, and in the evenings, they’d talk on the phone.
“It must be exciting there,” she said. She lay curled in her bed with her phone pressed to her ear. The bare walls surrounding her made her feel like she was somewhere else. The room just didn’t feel like it belonged to her anymore.
“It is, but I wish you were here.” She could hear the pumping of dance music in the background and a crowd cheering.
“Sounds like there’s a party going on.” Lisa wanted to see Damon but was secretly glad she couldn’t go. She needed time to sort through her thoughts. The empty walls around her provided the perfect space to think.
“Yeah.” He sounded distracted. “I really should get back inside.”
She knew he should go but didn’t want him to. “Tomorrow’s my last day at the Starlight Café.” Just saying it made her choke up a bit. She hoped she would be able to get through work without crying. Her time at the cafe had been so important her in this past year. Her coworkers were like family and the customers were close friends.
“Lisa, I’ve got a go,” Damon said.
Lisa could hear a woman’s voice in the background, calling his name over the music. “Who is that?” she asked.
“No one,” he said. He answered a bit too abruptly. “I’ll call you tomorrow.”
It wasn’t the conversation she wanted, but she couldn’t do anything about that. “Okay.”
The woman said something else. Lisa couldn’t quite make it out. “I’m coming,” Damon said. Lisa knew he wasn’t talking to her.
“You should go,” she said. “Have fun.”
“Have a good night.” He sounded so distant. “Talk to you tomorrow.”
“Bye.” The word hung in the air, lonely and incomplete. Lisa felt like there should’ve been more to say. She knew he was busy and they hadn’t really known each other long, but she wanted something more. Did she want too much? She wasn’t even sure. She suddenly found herself doubting the time they’d spent together. Did it really mean anything? She was just having fun. She kept reminding herself of that, but her need to connect with someone made it difficult to separate a casual relationship from something more serious. When he was with her he acted like that was what he wanted, something more serious, but maybe she was reading him wrong. Sometimes she had problems reading people.
It was funny how it took him going a way for her to notice that she actually missed him. She missed him so much it ached. A man that she’d only known for a few weeks shouldn’t have had this effect on her. She was trying to be strong. She wanted to be happy being single. That’s what she needed to figure herself out and now she was getting caught in the web of another relationship. Who was the woman calling him at the party? Was she pretty? Was she smart? She was probably an artist too. He probably liked that. She wondered if she liked the woman at the party more than her.
Lisa sat up in bed and shook her head, trying to shake that thought out of her mind. She couldn’t do this. It was crazy. He was his own person and she was hers. They weren’t technically in a relationship. They’d made no formal commitment to each other because she didn’t want to. She had no right to feel jealous, but thinking about him in Miami was starting to eat her up inside.
“I’m sad to see you go,” Betty said. “Grad school will be good for you though. My husband was from Chicago.”
“Oh really?” Lisa said as she put Betty’s Americano on the counter in front of her.
“Yes, really. Why would I lie about something like that?” Betty pressed her smudged lips together and started adding sugar to her coffee.
“I didn’t think you were lying. It’s just something you say.” Lisa had always liked Betty and didn’t want to leave on bad terms.
Betty stopped stirring her coffee and looked up at Lisa. “Maybe you’ll meet someone like my Sam.”
Betty had told her stories about her husband. From everything she’d said, Sam seemed like he was a really charming guy. “I hope so too.”
The café was busy and the day flew by. Lisa hardly had a chance to think about how much she would miss it there. Once the final customer left she busied herself putting the chairs on the tables so the floor could be mopped. She kept telling herself that this wasn’t her last time at the Starlight Café, but the idea of coming back as a customer and not a barista was so strange.
“So when are you leaving?” Ruth asked.
“I was originally planning on leaving in five days, but I keep feeling like I just want to take off tomorrow.” Lisa immediately thought of Damon in Miami. If she left any sooner than she had planned she wouldn’t get to see him again. As she worked that day, she started to think that that might be a good thing. She was getting to like him too much and knew from experience that those feelings could only bring heartbreak. Look at what happened with her and Richard. Look at what happened with her parents. She knew she was being silly, but she couldn’t help but wonder who he was with last night. Jealousy was picking its way through her from the inside. It was taking her apart like a jigsaw puzzle. It wasn’t healthy.
“I can’t blame you for being in a hurry about getting out of here. If I were you I do the same thing.”
“I want to get my new life started as soon as possible and…” Lisa trailed off when she realized that she was saying too much.
“How are things going with you and that artist?” Ruth asked.
Lisa took the rag out of the sink and rang it out. The water made a hollow thumping sound as it fell into the large basin. “I don’t think it’s going to work out.”
“That’s too bad,” Ruth said. “I liked him.”
Lisa liked him too, but she thought she liked him too much. She wasn’t going to make that mistake. She ran the rag along the countertop watching the wet trail it left in its path. “It’s okay,” she said. “I had fun just like you said I would.”
Ruth went to the back room to get the mop to clean the floor. While she was gone, Lisa hummed along with the music coming out of the speakers and tried not to think about Damon. Ruth came back and started sloshing the mop around on the floor. Connie tore into the room from somewhere in the back. “Good you’re still here,” she said, holding a white envelope out to Lisa.
“What’s that?” Lisa asked.
“Open it and find out.”
Lisa tore the envelope open. Inside there was a colorful card that was signed by all of her coworkers and the gift card for an online store. “Thank you. That’s so nice.” She reached out and gave Connie a hug. All of the time that Lisa spent working at the café she had never seen a leaving employee get a card. “I’m really overwhelmed.” Lisa’s eyes began to get hot, but she did her best to hold back tears. Connie had treated her so well ever since she started at the café. From the start, she had given her more responsibilities than any other new employee. Connie trusted her and Lisa appreciated that.
“From the first day, you were a perfect fit for this place. I hate to see you go, but I know you want to do other things with your life.” Connie wiped a tear from her eyes. “We’ll miss you around here.”
Lisa was touched. She never realized how much Connie liked her. Standing there holding the card in her hand, she started to remember other kind things the Connie had done for her. She was one of the most understanding bosses Lisa had ever had. She never gave Lisa a hard time when she had to call out. She always made adjustments to the schedule when Lisa requested it. She was friendly and laid-back. As long as she got the job done right, Connie would leave her alone. She wasn’t like some bosses who were always trailing along behind Lisa nitpicking. “Thank you,
Connie,” Lisa said. “I can’t even tell you how much this means to me.”
“Prove it to me by being a high-powered businesswoman when you come back.” Connie’s eyes sparkled.
“Will do,” Lisa said. She noticed the Connie was suddenly distracted.
Connie watched Ruth sloshing too much dirty water around on the floor. “Why are you mopping?” she asked. “The floor always ends up dirtier after you mopped.”
Lisa put her card down on the counter, quickly walked over, and took the mop from Ruth. “Don’t worry, I’ve got this.”
“Lisa saves the day again,” Ruth said before disappearing into the back.
Lisa always enjoyed mopping. The repetitive motion of moving the mop back and forth across the slick tile floor helped her think. Seeing the gleaming tile when she was done made her feel like she had accomplished something. She wished every task in her life was more like that. Sometimes life seemed so nebulous that she felt like she was falling behind. That evening as she wiped smudges from the floor she decided once and for all that she would leave for Chicago early. She and Damon were not meant to be. She wasn’t meant to be with anyone right now. She decided she would call him before she left to let him know her plans.
Lisa thought it would all go differently. She still believed in miracles and somewhere deep down she thought that even if she left early a miracle would keep her and Damon together.