This story is by Kayla Aldan and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
It’s Sunday, and today is the first day in three years in which I’ll be spending the entire day with my daughter, Josephine. I live with my mother, or Nana as Josie calls her, and I work ten to twelve hours a day at a family restaurant across the street. This morning, my boss called to tell me that the restaurant would be closed to celebrate the birth of his son. The stack of unpaid bills leered at me from the counter during the call.
Nana shuffled out of her bedroom in a floral nightgown and disheveled silver hair.
“Nana!” Josie squealed as she ran towards her with open arms.
“Good morning, sweetie,” she said, pulling Josie in for a hug. “Maria, what’s going on? You’ll be late!”
“Mom, please calm down—.” She’s a big woman with a big temper, so I needed to be quick. “I got a call from Sandro—“
“He fired you, didn’t he? I told you—“
“No, no, mother listen. He’s not opening today because he and his wife just had a baby.”
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! Maria, you can’t miss work—you can’t be late on the rent again this month!”
“It’s okay mom.” I took a deep breath, “it’s a a paid vacation.”
Nana’s hand hit her chest, and she looked up at the ceiling, “Oh thank God!” She brought her gaze back to me, “What’ll you do today?”
“I’ll spend the day with Josie. We’ll do whatever she wants to do. Do you want to join us?”
“That’s alright. I’ll cook dinner. You spend today with your little girl. These days don’t last forever.”
“I know mom. What time should we be back?”
“How about six?”
“That’ll be perfect.” I gave my mom a hug.
“By the way, Maria, happy birthday.” She kissed my cheek before trundling into the bathroom. I looked down at my little girl, “well, Josie, what would you like to do today?”
“I wanna go to the park!” Her eyes sparkled, and her auburn curls bounced.
I made sure I had everything we’d need, and we headed out the door.
The park is close to a mile from our apartment, and I try to take Josie there once a month, even in the winter. Today, the sky is an unblemished blue, and the sun is high overhead. My clothes are saturated with sweat by the time we’re almost there. I know we’re close because there’s a gated mansion whose property line rests along the park’s edge.
A man I went to high school with owns the home. He’s one of the few students from our school who had the money to go to college, and his name’s Enrique. These days, his face is plastered on billboards in the area. I heard he graduated in three years and landed a high-paying job before receiving his diploma. I know he’s been back for over a year, but I haven’t seen him since he left. Even though I tried contacting him while he was away, he never had time to talk. His house is a looming reminder that I need to speak to him, and my brain is clever enough to convince me to worry about it tomorrow.
When Josie and I reach the park, she sets out to feed the ducks. Everyone who comes here feeds them, but Josie is the only one I’ve ever seen successfully pet them. Whenever anyone else tries, they hiss and beat their wings while chasing the poor person. This has yet to happen to her. She knows she’s different, too, because she tells me “they like me,” in response to each warning I give her.
I sit down under a tree not far from where Josie’s sitting and unpack my sketchbook and pencils so I can start drawing her amongst her adopted flock. I have an outline complete when someone calls my name. I was so in focused on documenting the moment that I didn’t hear it the first time.
“It’s been a long time since I watched you draw anything,” A man’s voice close to my left ear startled me. I looked over to see a familiar face next to mine.
“Enrique!” I was shocked to see him sitting on the ground in a crisp suit, “you’ll get your suit dirty!”
He shrugged and smiled, “How’re you? How’s your mother? She still in town?”
“I’m good. She’s still here. How about you? How was school?”
“It was tough, and I’m glad it’s over. Work’s better than school.” He leaned over my shoulder, “What’re you working on?” When we first met, he approached me while I was sketching a robin feeding her chicks in a nest. He used to tell me how much he loved watching my art grow on the page.
“I’m sketching my daughter with the ducks.”
“She’s your daughter? She’s adorable! When did you get married?”
I wavered. “I’m not married.”
“No? Who’s the bastard who left you with her? I’ll kick his ass.” He nudged my arm with his elbow. I hesitated too long and saw him tense up next to me. “Why didn’t you tell me?” The change in his voice told me he made the correct assumption.
I didn’t know what to say. I tried to tell him. I was four weeks pregnant when I called the first time, and I called once a month after that. The final call I made was on the day Josie was born. I always got the same response, “whatever you have to tell me will have to wait; I’ll call you back when I have time.”
I could hear the sadness in his voice when he spoke again, “Were you ever going to tell me?”
I couldn’t look at him. Not a day went by when I didn’t ask myself that question. “I don’t know.”
There was silence. He made no effort to leave, and I wasn’t sure whether I wanted him to or not. The ducks’ quacking and Josie’s giggles were deafening.
He broke the awkward stillness. “She’s four now?”
I nodded, “Her birthday was in April—April 27.”
There was a pause. “What’s her name?”
“Josephine,” I looked at her and smiled. “We all call her Josie.” My grandmother and his mother were both named Josephine.
He shifted. I knew he wanted to say something, but he wasn’t speaking, so I blurted, “I wanted to tell you. I tried—”
“And it’s been so long—I didn’t want you thinking I was only telling you because I was after your money because I’m not. We’re doing okay—”
“I was scared. I never heard back.”
“Maria!” The force in his voice made me swallow my word diarrhea. Then his voice lowered, “I need some time.” I was about to respond when Josie plopped down next to me to tell me she was hungry. When I turned to look at him, he was already headed back towards his house.
When Josie and I got home, she told Nana all about our day. She was still chattering when we sat down to eat, and getting her to pause long enough between sentences to chew her food was presenting a challenge. We weren’t far into our meal when there was a knock on the door.
“Maria, would you get that? I promised Dolores next door I’d feed her cat over the weekend while she was away. She’s stopping by to drop off her key.”
I go to the door, “Hello Dolor—”
“Uh, no, but she did ask me to bring her key over so she wouldn’t have to walk,” Enrique handed me the key. He stood in the doorway holding boxes of differing sizes wrapped to look like a four-tiered cake topped with an enormous bow. “I wanted to get Josephine something for each birthday I’ve missed. I also started a college fund for her—I’ll be depositing money into it each month. I just wanted to drop these off and tell you that.” He held out the gifts for me to grab.
I didn’t know what to say, so I asked him if he wanted to bring them to her.
“No, I don’t want to impose.”
“You’re not. You can meet her.”
He opened his mouth as Josie came around the corner giggling. When she saw Enrique, she said, “I saw you today. Are those for mommy?” She pointed to the presents. He hesitated, and she reached for his hand, grasping three of his fingers, “We’ll be having mommy’s cake soon, and we can open them after.” She pulled him into the room, told him to set the presents on the counter, and to sit next to her so she could tell him about the ducks.
I shut the door and joined them. I don’t know where this puts us yet, but today’s my birthday, and I’ll worry about it tomorrow.