This story is by Madeline Slovenz and was part of our 2020 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
After fifteen years as a widow and single mom, things were looking up for Rosemarie Garcia. She decided it was time she treated her son Matías like a man and told him the truth about her plans. Matías had celebrated his quinceañero this week and tonight she would introduce him to the love of her life and fiancé, Johnny Callow. It was to be a surprise.
Johnny was a partner at the San Francisco law firm where she had worked her way up from typing pool to paralegal to executive secretary. His proposal of marriage included a promise to nurture and support her son. From this point on, she would be free to finally put the painful past behind her and embrace the countless opportunities her upcoming betrothal would bring. Best of all, Matías would finally have a father figure he could look up to.
Rosemarie was on her way out to get her hair done when the telephone rang. The avocado green phone hung from the wall in the kitchen next to the back door, so she grabbed it on the first ring.
There was no answer—only street sounds. She thought it must be someone calling from a payphone, so she tried again, “Hello? Is anyone there?”
“Rosie?” The man on the other end hesitated. “Is that you?”
Chills ran up her arms, then her legs weakened. When she reached for the kitchen counter to brace herself, the receiver clanked on the surface and her purse slipped down from her shoulder to tug at her wrist.
His voice cried out. “Rosie? Are you all right?”
Without bringing the receiver up to her head, she struggled to wrap her mind around how to approach him. She could muster only two words. “Hold on.”
Long steady deep breaths. In and out, like she had learned in yoga class. She took stock. Matías was in his room just off the kitchen. She already had her coat and hat on, so she stepped outside to speak privately.
“Eddie, where are you?”
“I’m here, Rosie. Here in San Francisco.”
The gentle tone of his voice brought up memories. A sudden rush of warmth flushed through her body. The muscles in her loins contracted with anticipation. The thought of her lover Eddie coming back into her life was something she had considered but had never thought through. Leaving New York for California made the possibility of ever seeing him again so remote that she refused to torture herself with ideas of how it might happen.
Rosemarie exhaled audibly into the phone. Under her breath, she prayed, “Mary, Mother of God, save me.”
Over the years, she had covered up the details of her past life so well that she almost believed the lies she had concocted. Now she had to face them head on.
“Rosie, I know you’re there.”
Her breathing was heavy. She labored to speak. “It, it’s…it’s been so long.”
“I’m calling from Chinatown. Hold tight. I’m on my way over to your place.”
With one phone call, she saw all of her plans for the future sucked down into the vortex of the dark past she had long ago abandoned.
“You can’t come here. Not now, Eddie. Not now.”
Her heart pounded. What would I tell Matías?
All Rosemarie’s past indiscretions flashed before her. The secrets had begun in early 1971 in New York when she became lovers with her martial arts instructor Lin Hing-Wah. (Eddie was his English name.) Rosemarie had met Eddie when she enrolled in his self-defense class for women, conducted in the rear of a store-front boxing gym in Manhattan’s East Village. Back then, she had been a petite but fiery eighteen-year-old Puerto Rican woman with thick wavy black hair who greeted Eddie with fear in her wide brown eyes, as she told him her reasons for wanting to learn kung fu. She had expressed it as a matter of life and death.
For Eddie, it was love at first sight. He promised to protect Rosemarie from her abusive husband Gabriel. The chivalry he showed toward her made her feel safe, and their teacher-student relationship soon turned into a clandestine affair which led to her pregnancy. Eddie had vowed his loyalty and promised to support their unborn child.
But everything changed one fateful night when Gabriel attacked his pregnant wife outside a tavern. In her defense, Eddie challenged him. With a single punch, he delivered the fatal blow that killed Gabriel—one well-placed phoenix-fist strike to a pressure point on his chest. Rosemarie begged Eddie to flee because he had no legal status. But before he left, he kissed her goodbye and swore he’d return.
Three months later, Eddie had not surfaced and Rosemarie gave birth to Matías. There was no reason to put Lin Hing-Wah as the father on her son’s birth certificate when she had been legally married to Gabriel Garcia at the time of conception. Rosemarie had decided, the less said the best all around.
“Everyone said you’d gone back to Hong Kong.”
“I wrote, but my letters were all returned.”
“I didn’t know.” She felt tears well up. “A lot has happened.”
Rosemarie had given up waiting, and when the insurance money and social security from Gabriel’s factory job came through, she took her newborn son and moved to the West coast to start a new life.
“You were not easy to find and—”
“You have a son,” she said.
“My son,” he said. “I like the sound of that.”
“He doesn’t know you exist, and I’d like to keep it that way.”
“Rosie, please let me explain.”
“Stay away from him. He’s a good boy.”
At that moment, the operator’s recorded sing-song voice chimed in, “Your three minutes are up. Please deposit another twenty-five cents.”
After a pause, the call disconnected.
Matías opened the door. “Ma, what are you doing out there in the cold?”
She handed him the receiver and said, “Hang this up for Mama.”
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
I have just spoken to one, She thought. How can I tell Matías his real father is alive?
Matías hung up the phone and pulled out a kitchen chair. “Sit down, Ma, you look pale.”
Rosemarie sat and held her face in her hands. Chinatown was close to their North Beach apartment. She feared Eddie could be there in minutes.
What do you do when the man who had once saved your life and opened up your world to new possibilities is the same one whose mere presence could take all that away?
Matías sat quietly with his mother.
When the front doorbell chimed, Rosemarie gasped.
“I got it, Ma. It’s for me.” As Matías ran for the front door, his voice trailed off. “There’s someone I want you to meet, but I didn’t want it to be like this. You were supposed to be at the hairdresser.”
From the archway between the kitchen and living room, Rosemarie watched as Matías swung the door open and said, “Sifu, please come in.”
Rosemarie’s, and Eddie’s eyes met.
“This is Sifu Lin Hing-Wah,” Matías said. His voice was full of excitement. “Sifu means teacher-father in Chinese. He’s my martial arts teacher.”
Eddie still had his looks, though he appeared much older now. He had a wispy beard like an ancient Chinese scholar and each side of his mouth still turned up in a natural grin that often belied his true intentions.
With her eyes still fixed on her son’s birth father, Rosemarie sent him a silent message. How dare you!
“Ma, you’re not mad at me for taking kung fu behind your back, are you?”
She opened her mouth but could not form the words.
“If I may,” Eddie interrupted. “Mrs. Garcia, your son wanted to surprise you for his quinceañero.” His formality was awkward but she understood he was signaling that her secret was safe. “He’s been studying with me for a year and wanted to show you he has developed the strength and skill to protect you like a man.”
Rosemarie clasped the gold cross that hung from a chain around her neck.
Matías asked his mother, “Can Sifu Lin come with us to my birthday dinner tonight?”
Seeing her son for the first time with his natural father, and hearing the joy in his voice, was all it took to convince her.
How quickly things can change, she thought. How do I tell Johnny?
“It’s all taken care of,” Eddie said. “I hope you don’t mind. I made reservations for the three of us at the Golden Palace.”
Rosemarie smiled. “I would like that.”
Matías threw his arms around his mother, something he hadn’t done since he was eleven. “I love you, Ma.”
“I love you more, Panda Pooh,” she said with a laugh.
Eddie put his hand on Matías’s shoulder and whispered, “One day, when you are a father, you will understand that a parent’s love has no bounds.”