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“Izzie!!!” Sophia jetted to me the moment I arrived in the baggage claim.
Bosworth was right behind her, rushing to ensure she didn’t get lost, hurt, or kidnapped as she whizzed through the crowded area.
I leaned down to pick her up. “Soph, is that you?!” I situated her on my hip. The ladybug wings strapped to her back, over her coat, brought a smile to my face.
She nodded. “I’m a big girl now!”
“Wow. You really are a big girl. Have you been keeping B company for me like you promised?”
“You’re not allowed to fly away from me like that, Ladybug. We’ve talked about this.” He stated sternly.
“But it’s Sissy.”
“I know, but there are a lot of other people here too. It’s not safe.”
“Listen. He always knows what he’s talking about.” I placed a kiss on her cheek.
“You look terrific, Sweetheart. We’re happy to have you home for a second.” He managed to hug me as I held Soph.
“It’s weird being here after all this time. I remember everything and everyone, but it’s hazy, like trying to recall a dream after waking up.”
We walked to the luggage carousel that contained the bags from my flight.
“Your hair pretty. I likes it a lots. It’s all whirly.” She petted me from her vantage point.
“Why are you so cute?” I tickled her tummy.
She squealed and squirmed.
“We’ll be taking you to Audrey’s house. She was followed by paparazzi when she arrived in town yesterday. Rumors of her breaking up with Everett have been circulating because they don’t know her true reason for leaving their tour.”
I stopped playing with her and looked over at him. “Is she okay? She’s seven months pregnant for crying out loud. She doesn’t need them to stress her out like that.”
“She’s fine. She knows their marriage is secure. She didn’t want them to get pictures of you with her. She knows you like no one knowing who you know at school. I was explaining why she’s not here and why your flight is leaving so early tomorrow.”
“Oh, okay. Have you seen her?”
“No, but I spoke to her earlier. She’s been resting most of the day.”
“I understand. Jet-lagged and pregnant doesn’t seem like a fun combo.”
I pointed out my suitcase. He went to retrieve it. Sophia took it upon herself to keep me entertained by showing off her newest ability, counting to 50. The family town car was waiting outside to take us to New Jersey.
I wasn’t ready to face all of my old life, especially the traumatic. I hadn’t spoken to my dad since I left rehab. He sent an email every couple of weeks to ensure I was alive and well. I didn’t know if they were from him or his secretary, but I answered none the less. A part of me was holding onto hope that he’d wake up one day and be desperate for a real relationship with me. I wanted him to know that my door was open, that I was willing to try if he was. Pleasantries more than our previous level of communication. It was minimal, but it was progress.
Looking past the security gate and long driveway, Audrey and Everett’s home would’ve looked out of place alongside those of other rock stars. Instead of a sprawling mansion, they built their own vision of a dream home, a two-story French-style cottage in the middle of the woods. It had six bedrooms, five bathrooms, a basement, and a two car garage with quaint wooden doors. The backyard had a pool, patio, and a swing set. They had everything they wanted and paid it off before building was complete. The temperamental nature of his occupation was a concern for Aud. She wisely invested both of their incomes to create a nest egg, making sure they would go unscathed if his music career ended overnight. I really respected their decision to create a secure and private oasis they could escape to and live their other dream of having a family.
I rang the doorbell. Bosworth stood behind me, holding Sophia’s hand. Audrey opened the door. It looked as though she was smuggling a watermelon beneath her sweater. My eyes widened in shock.
“I know I’m huge, but you still have to hug me.” She approached me with outstretched arms.
“You’re so pregnant and I love it. I can’t wait for my niece. Are you sure it’s safe for you to fly? I’m scared you’re going to pop at any minute.” I hugged her as closely as we could manage.
“I’m in the final stretch, but she won’t be making a debut for three more months.”
“Hi, B.” She hugged him.
“You’re carrying her very well. How are you feeling?” He placed a kiss on her cheek.
“Tired, but well for the most part.”
I unbuttoned my coat and hung it in the hall closet.
“Hi, Cutie. I see you like birthday present I sent you.” She leaned down and kissed Sophia’s forehead.
“She wears them everywhere. It drives Genette insane.”
“She’s little. She’s supposed to play dress up. It’s creepy when Gen dresses her like a miniature adult.”
“Audie, why do you have a ball on your tummy?”
She shut and locked the front door. “It is my tummy. There’s a baby in there. I’m going to be a mommy soon, remember?”
“Who’s the daddy?”
“Everett. Our daughter will be here in February.”
“A new sister?” Her face lit up.
“No, Sweetie, you’re going to be an aunt. Only big girls can be aunts. Will you be okay with being hers?”
She nodded eagerly.
A beeping sound rang through the foyer. “That’s dinner. I made lasagna. You’re welcome to stay.” Audrey placed her hand on her lower back and waddled to the kitchen.
“We’ve already eaten. It’s almost time for her bath. We just wanted to stop in to say ‘hello’.” He called after her.
“I’ll be coming home after Thanksgiving. We’ll have lunch or something.” She replied from the next room.
“That sounds great.”
“I’ll be going back to school, so I want hugs from both of you.” I walked up to them.
“Thank you for heeding my advice and holding on. You’re doing well. I know you’re happy. I love you, Sweetheart. Keep taking care of yourself.” B breathed into my hair as he held me in his arms.
“I will. I promise. I love you too.”
“My turn, my turn, my turn!” Soph bounced.
I knelt down and picked her up. I spun her around. “I thought I’d let you fly, Ladybug.” I stood still.
She put her little hands on my shoulders. “Come back soon?”
“Yes, I’ll be back in December. We’ll have plenty of time to play then. I love you.”
“I love you.” She touched her finger to my nose.
I saw both of them out. I situated my suitcase and purse in the corner by the closet, out of the way. I joined Aud in the kitchen. She was already eating her meal at the kitchen island. My food was waiting on the placemat beside hers.
“That smells amazing.” I washed my hands in the sink as she plated our meals.
“It was frozen thirty minutes ago. I can’t really take a compliment for not burning something.”
“I would. I can’t cook at all. You made me a pretty salad and poured me juice too. This is a legitimate meal.” I towel dried my hands and tossed it into the trashcan beneath the sink.
“Apple, your favorite.”
“You’re going to be the best mom. Do you know what you’re going to name her?” I sat down at the kitchen island.
“Emilia Violet Woods, after Papi. He mistakes me for Mom now, but he is still the one that took me to the Miami Museum of Science every summer and winter as a kid. He always encouraged my dreams. I want to remember all that he’s done for both of us.” She wiped her cheeks with the back of her hand.
I switched my fork to my other hand and rubbed her back. “He’s still here to interact with her. When he’s gone, we’ll share stories and pictures.”
She cleared her throat. “Eat your food, Honey.”
I kissed her cheek. We returned to our meals. I took the initiative to load the dishwasher and clean up afterward. She showed me upstairs to my room.
All of my belongings from the penthouse had been transferred to one of their spare bedrooms. My stomach churned at the sight of the clothes that no longer fit, the bed I collapsed in after getting sick, and décor Genette’s stylists selected. My breathing pattern and heart rate picked up as I looked around.
“Izzie Bee, what’s going on?” Aud put her hands on either side of my face and forced me to focus my eyes on hers.
“I can’t – I can’t be in here.” I trembled.
She draped her arm across my shoulders. She guided me into the master bedroom.
I removed panic attack medication from my purse. I took it by shoveling water from the bathroom sink into my mouth. I removed my sweater, remaining in my tank top I had on underneath. I tossed my hair up in a high bun. I splashed my face with cool water as I waited for my medication to kick in. I simultaneously imagined my happy place.
Instead of in the sky, far, far, away from all that could hurt me, I was in the living room of my suite. All of my friends were there, laughing and goofing off. Milo had his arm around me. Every once in a while, he’d kiss the top of my head, just as he did when we cuddled while watching television.
I exhaled when my chest unclenched and my heart stopped pounding out of my chest.
“How many panic attacks have you had at school?” She used one hand to prop up her back and the other was rested atop the curvature of her belly.
“None.” I dabbed my face with a hand towel.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“There’s not much to say. I need to take a shower.”
“What part of the room set you off?”
“It’s a replica of my old one; so much happened in there.”
“I didn’t think about it like that. I’ve been very busy with the baby, work, and traveling. I should’ve –.”
“I’m not mad at you. I’m frustrated with myself. I thought I was all better, but I’m not. And it just – I’m so sick of it, being messed up.”
“You’re not. You’re moving forward and living your life. All of it won’t be easy.”
I used my hands to lean on the counter for support.
“I’ll get you a towel and wash cloth.” She waddled to the linen closet.
I went into her room to get my toiletries from my suitcase. Aud was perched on the edge of the counter, waiting for me when I returned.
“Can I see your legs?”
“I haven’t –“
“Your legs.” She restated firmly.
“This is humiliating. Your lack of trust feels great too.” I got rid of my jeans.
“I’m responsible for you now. I’m not letting you fall through the cracks. I’m not sorry.” She scanned my legs. “Shirt.” She requested when she didn’t see anything.
I yanked off my tank top and tossed it onto the ground. I placed my hands on my hips. Her eyes scanned my body.
“Are you getting a rash?” She touched her index finger to the pink splotches on my neck and chest.
“No, their healing hickies.” My cheeks warmed.
“Milo.We have a friends with benefits thing going. We got to second base last weekend.” I adjusted my bra to cover the more riské ones.
“We were kissing with our shirts were off. I eventually got rid of my bra, then he –.”
“I know what second base is. I am not as out of the loop as you think I am. I’m surprised it didn’t trigger a panic attack.”
I looked down. “I wasn’t drunk. He’s gentle with me, constantly making sure I feel comfortable. He doesn’t even know. That’s just what he does.”
She guided my face up to hers, putting her index finger beneath my chin. “That’s how it should be. You’ll be explaining more after your shower. I love your confidence.” She tapped my bottom on the way out.
“Hands to yourself, Mommy!”
She made a kissy face as she shut the door to give me privacy.
Scrubbing my body and hair allowed me to start again, cleansed of my first break down in months. I padded out of the bathroom, wrapped in my towel and my personal items piled in my arms. Audrey had changed into pajamas and was lying in bed, reading a published chemistry journal.
“I’ve found Ev’s biggest distraction.” I nodded to the cleavage spilling out of her top.
“He can look at my new triple ds all he wants, but they are too sore for anything else. It’s bittersweet for him.” She pulled up her neckline, but it didn’t make much of a difference.
“I imagine.” I knelt down in front of my suitcase.
I put on my night clothes and smoothed on deodorant and lotion. I bent over and vigorously towel dried my hair.
“Can I braid your hair?”
“Like when I was little?” I returned to an upright position.
“I need practice.”
“Well, when you put it that way…” I grabbed my brush and phone and climbed onto the bed.
We situated ourselves so that she could work comfortably. I found a photo message from Elle waiting for me on my phone. In the picture, she, Sami, Morgan, Ryan, Nick, Finn, and Milo were posing around an empty dining hall chair with exaggeratedly sad expressions. The caption read, “The gang’s not all here. We need you back, Babydoll!”
I grinned like crazy.
“Look at what my friends did.” I held my phone over my shoulder.
She stopped running the brush through my hair to examine it.
“I can’t wait to meet them. They look like so much fun.”
I lowered it back down to my lap to text Elle. “They are. They are hands down the best friends I’ve ever had.”
“I knew there would be people smart enough to love what you have to offer. While we’re on the topic, let’s talk about Milo.” She brushed one half of my hair over my shoulder after making a part with her fingers.
“It started on Halloween. We’ve agreed to take it slow and see where it goes. We don’t know what we are, so we haven’t bothered to tell anyone else. Second base is the farthest we’ve gone. He’s a really good kisser.”
She plaited one side of my head. I put a hair elastic on the end to hold the braid in place.
“Do you want a relationship yet?” She started on the other.
“Boyfriends and girlfriends break up. Friendships just fade in most cases. I like him a lot. I’m not ready for him to leave yet.”
“Does he know why you’re like this?”
“Yeah. He doesn’t have the best relationship with his parents either. It’s another thing we bonded over. It’s not to my extent, but he’s able to understand.”
“Are you comfortable letting him see your body?”
“He’s well aware of everything I’ve got as my dance partner. That really helped. We talk too. I know he’s attracted to me and vice versa. He doesn’t know I was anorexic. Elle does. We help each other.”
“You’re connecting. That’s really good.”
“I made pacts with them. Elle and I promised to remind each other that we’re great when we feel like nothing. Milo is taking the lead more because I’ve agreed to speak my mind. It’s nice not to feel so alone.”
“Ev and I still make pinky promises.”
“I know. I was your maid of honor at your wedding. Instead of saying ‘I do’, you said, ‘pinky’ and ‘promise’.” I giggled.
“It carried more weight for us. Our latest pinky promise was about enduring a natural childbirth together.”
“Agh, whose idea was that?” I cringed at the thought.
“Mine. I’m terrified of being unable to handle the pain, but I’m more uncomfortable with the side effects of the drugs, especially on her. I trust him to help me be strong, even while I’m screaming at him for seducing me with a glass of wine and a homecooked meal after a long day at work.”
“Stay. You’ve always been brave. It’s one of the reasons he loves you.” I corrected. “And really? That’s how she happened?”
“He knows my weaknesses and exploits the hell out of them. I’ll admit that I do it too.” She finished my second braid and put it over my shoulder.
“Thanks for doing my hair. It feels super cute.” I sealed it in with another hair elastic from my wrist.
“Emmy’s going to be a soccer player.” She exhaled and rested her back on the headboard.
“Can I feel her kicking?” I settled onto my side.
She lowered the covers and raised her top to expose her stomach. She placed my hand on top of the spot she was pounding into.
“There’s a lot of power in those little limbs. Feels like a dancer to me.”
“I might have to call her daddy if she keeps it up. His voice calms her down.”
“She can hear way down below?”
“Mhmm. She does plenty in there. Feel free to talk to her.”
“I’m your Aunt Izzie. Stay in there and keep growing big and strong. I’m going to spoil you rotten. Let Mommy sleep. We’ve got a busy day tomorrow. Night, Em.” I kissed Aud’s belly.
She removed her glasses and turned off the bedside lamp. She cuddled with a special pillow. Christina accompanied me to dreamland.
Our early bird flight was packed, despite the fact that it took off at 6 AM on a Wednesday. It was to be expected the day before a major holiday. Audrey’s discomfort as we walked through the Miami airport was apparent. Sitting through a crowed 3-hour flight while pregnant wasn’t to blame. It was the staring, pictures taken without her consent, and invasive questions. She forced a smile and remained polite. I did all I could to comfort her, donning a pair of sunglasses.
She sighed heavily and rested her head on the head rest of the rental car with her eyes closed.
“Are you okay?”
“I’m so proud of him for achieving his dream. I really am, but sometimes, like when I’m a whale and accused of leaving the father of my child, I rethink my decision to be in this situation. I try to imagine my life without him, but I can’t picture another man in his place.” She rubbed her belly and kept her eyes shut.
“Are you worried about Emmy?”
“Yes, especially after what happened to you. We’re going to try really hard to do it all. And if we can’t, she’ll be what comes first.”
“Is your marriage in trouble?”
“I love him. He’s going to be a great father. We’re counting on him to remain grounded. He’s never let me down before. But if he does, there is too much at stake to wait it out.” She clicked on her seat belt.
“He’s the man I want to spend the rest of my life with. Diverting from that plan would hurt to an unthinkable extent, but a repeat of your ordeal would kill me. He knows that.”
“And he’s okay with it?”
“He said that my strength is one of the reasons he loves me, it would be the right thing to do, and he will never make me have to make that decision.”
“He loves you so much.”
“As do I. He’s my best friend.”
I enjoyed the scenery as Aud drove to our hotel. We checked in and freshened up before heading to our grandparents’ retirement community. All the while, I mentally prepared myself for Papi’s state. He only recognized me for a few hours the last time we visited. The prognosis that he was worse off than before was frightening because I didn’t know what that meant.
She signed us into the security roster. The two of us took the elevator to their suite.
“Mis hermosas nietas, I’ve missed you.” Yaya stepped into the hall and hugged both of us at once.
Her warm embrace, pillow breasts and cushy torso, and scent of cinnamon candy transported me back to the portion of my childhood I never had to repress.
“We’ve missed you too.” I closed my eyes and melted into her.
“Come in, come in.”
We followed her into the apartment. Papi was seated in a recliner in the living room, wringing his hands as he looked around with confusion written all over his face.
“Hi, Papi.” Audrey waved with a bright smile.
“Leslie and Audrena?” He guessed with apprehension.
“Patiently correct him. If he forgets, let him keep talking. We want to keep him engaged.” Yaya whispered.
“No, Emilio, it’s Audrena and Isabella.” She corrected loud enough for him to hear.
“It’s been a while. You look so nice.” I leaned down and gave him a hug.
“Where are your glasses, Mi Tesoro?” He looked up at me when I returned to an upright position.
I never wore glasses. Aud got her first pair when she was twelve.
“Contacts. I can still see.” I forced a smile.
I sat down on the couch as Audrey hugged him. Yaya needed to help her sit down on the couch.
“It’s hard for me to get around these days.” She wedged a pillow behind her lower back.
“I’m getting drinks. Would you like anything else?” Yaya asked.
“Some sort of fruit, like an apple or grapes, would be nice.” I requested.
“Something sweet would make both of us very happy.” Aud rubbed her stomach.
“I can do that.” She walked to the adjacent kitchen.
“Do you know what you’re having yet?” Yaya asked as she worked on our snacks.
“Yes, a girl. Everett and I couldn’t be happier.”
“Where is that husband of yours?”
“Amsterdam. He sends his love.”
“Such a sweetheart. Will he be home when she’s born?”
“Yes, his tour wraps up in December. Her due date is February 8th. We’ll have plenty of family time.”
“Stewart was late to your birth and out of town for Isabella’s. I was there for Leslie both times. You don’t deserve a hijuemadre padre. You’re good girls.” She chopped an apple with anger.
“Isabella. Leslie, name the baby Isabella.” Papi insisted.
“That’s what my mom named my sister. I’m going to name my daughter Emilia Violet.” Aud corrected with a kind smile.
“That’s beautiful, Audrey.” Our grandmother poured fruit juice into glasses.
Yaya walked in with a tray. She carefully placed it on the coffee table. Audrey and Papi were given their drinks. I picked up my own and my bowl of apple slices and grapes.
“Where are your glasses, Mi Tesoro?” Papi studied me.
“I don’t need them anymore.” I eased an apple wedge towards my mouth.
“How is your friend, el niño hiperactivo?”
I smiled uncontrollably at his description of Everett. “I can see myself marrying him and having a baby.”
Aud nudged me with her arm.
“It’s true.” I shrugged.
“Isabella, how are you feeling?” Yaya sipped her drink.
“Well. Rehab helped a lot. I see a counselor at boarding school.”
“She’s made a lot of new friends too.” Aud took a bite of her doughnut.
“I hate your father. I called to give him a piece of my mind. Ese hombre es una gonorrhea. He was supposed to take care of you. He and that little cazafortunas he married tortured you instead!”
Arguably, it was impossible to refer to Genette as a gold digger and not my mother. He was handsome, but his behavior was tolerated because he could buy them whatever their hearts desired.
“Which one?” I looked down at my fruit.
“Ella es tu madre. She gave you life. Respect her.”
“She didn’t want to. She told me all time that having me was the biggest mistake she ever made.” My vision clouded.
“Bella, she was high and drunk. She didn’t mean it.”
“She was, but she did.”
I was uncomfortable with everyone’s eyes on me. I excused myself from the room.
I locked myself inside. I sat down on the toilet seat cover. I removed my phone from my purse.
“Hello, Beautiful, how is Miami?”
“Beautiful? That’s generically sappy.” I used my free hand to play with my necklace.
“No, I’ve thought it out. It’s special in your case. I use Izzie and Iz all the time. I thought I’d rotate. You don’t like being called Bella. You said it’s the only Italian word you prefer in English. It means beautiful. That’s what I’m going to call you.”
“I kind of like it when you put it like that.”
“Are you going to tell me how you’re doing?”
“I did it, spoke my mind. It made things awkward. I’m riding it out the tension in the bathroom.”
“I’m your toilet dial? How romantic.”
I rolled my eyes with a small smile. “Are you still at school?”
“No. After my room was ransacked, I was transferred to a 5-star prison. I was drug tested upon arrival. Now I’m watching television in my cell.”
“It’s the middle of the afternoon. I’m still working on my list of what looks interesting. The show starts at sundown.” He played along.
I laughed. “Such a classy individual. You truly earned your family ring.”
“Being born was hard work.”
“Oh, yeah, you could’ve choked on the silver spoon.”
“We both gagged on it. That’s why we’re as close as we are.”
“No, I’m still only in this for your body.”
He chuckled. “I’m still okay with that.”
“Good. Um, I should go soon. I’m at my grandparents’ apartment. I need to resume posing as my sister.” I deflected my feelings with an attempt at humor.
I sighed. “It’s hard to see him like this. He doesn’t remember me at all. He gave me Christina after my first recital. It’s like it never happened.”
“Memories fade and lives inevitably end, but that’s not going to change the fact that at one point in time, you were in a moment, it made you feel something, and you get to call it part of your life.”
I dragged air into my lungs and used a wad of toilet paper to dry my eyes.“Is that how you did it?” I croaked.
“That’s how I still do it. I tend to get lost if I’m not moving forward.”
“We’re not long lost twins. I’ve double checked.”
I smiled. “Thanks, Buddy.”
“I’ll talk to you later, Beautiful.”
“You will. I hear socialization makes the sentence go by quicker. Text you until then. Bye.”
I hung up and took a deep breath. I washed my face and returned to the living room.
“When did you get here, Audrena?” Papi asked as Yaya and Audrey went through a photo album.
“Just now. How are you?” I walked over to his chair and gave him a hug.
“Happy to have you here, Mi Tesoro.”
I used one of the folding chairs Yaya used when she had friends over for poker to sit beside Papi. I helped him work on the jigsaw puzzle on his TV dinner table.
He struggled to stay focused, mistook me for my sister, and repeated the same questions several times, but he was still the man that read me stories, taught me the bunny trick to tie my shoes, and called me a lucero (bright star) each time I made him watch me dance in the living room. He was a major part of the family I patched and stitched together for support. In addition to him and the rest of my family, I had non-relatives filling in the gaps my parents left behind. Milo was included in that. I wasn’t willing to risk my foundation for a momentary rush that the rest of the world referred to as “love”.
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