A beam of light peered through the space between my light-blocking curtains — the place where they didn’t overlap. It’s probably my neighbors’ porch light again, I thought.
Maria Martin was 15 years old when she met her father’s wife. She arrived at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta Airport carrying a suitcase, a backpack and a stuffed duck, which formed a U shape around her neck — the orange bill hitting her right collarbone, two orange feet hitting her left. She hadn’t been this nervous since she delivered her first Toastmasters speech.
Her eyes outlined in black, Maria hoped to take attention away from her increasingly irritated skin –mountain ranges of acne spanning from forehead to chin. Her straight, white teeth weren’t enough to give her the confidence to carry herself proudly, so she spent her time primarily with characters in books. People with whom she could form relationships without having to reveal who she was: a homely pubescent girl with dark hair on her arms and a superfluous layer of fat.
Samuel Martin had flown Maria to Atlanta to pick up the car he bought her for her birthday, which she would drive, accompanied by her stepmom, from his home in Chattanooga back to Houston. Flights to Atlanta were half the price of flights to Chattanooga.
Maria’s friends envied her father’s generous gift, but Maria found the gesture insincere. She knew it was his way of apologizing for not having visited her since she and her mom moved to Houston. Or maybe for missing the last several of her birthdays. Possibly he was sorry for taking out his and her mother’s divorce on her.
Books and a journal weighed down her backpack as she walked past baggage claim, seeing families reunite with excitement. Maria exited the airport, a wall of heat greeting her as the doors opened, and situated herself on a bench. She pulled out a book, knowing she’d have time to get through a couple of chapters. This was not her first time visiting her father.
Forty-five minutes after deplaning, Maria climbed into the back seat of her dad’s pickup truck. She sat behind the driver’s seat where she’d have a better view of her stepmom, whose light hair matched her skin, her aquamarine eyes framed by feathery lashes. She was beautiful.
It was when they entered the city limits of Marietta that Maria asked, “Dad. How old is Tanya?” Maria watched his eyes in the rearview mirror. When they didn’t move, and he didn’t answer, Tanya turned to look at Maria. “I’m 20,” she offered, her delicate cheekbones catching the light of the setting sun, her eyes like jewels.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” Maria said.
“Watch your language,” Samuel said, meeting Maria’s eyes.
“She could be your daughter.”
Tanya turned back around and pulled down the visor mirror, brushing her eyebrows into shape. Maria became aware of her own eyebrows, unmanicured and disproportionate to her face. Shaking her head and muttering to herself, she reopened her book.
“Maria,” Tanya said minutes later. “Your dad tells me you write.” It was a feeble attempt at conversation. Maria was in no mood to get to know her dad’s young, pretty wife. That was, as her father had reminded her, something she’d have the opportunity to do on their road trip. She ignored the question and returned her concentration to her book.
Maria and Tanya left for Houston the following morning.
The journey to Houston was not something she later wrote about. Having a driver’s permit but not an adult over 21 to accompany her, Maria was barely able to drive her new car. Tanya was behind the wheel when, in Alabama, they ran out of gas on the interstate, three-quarters of a mile from the nearest exit. Relieved for an opportunity to break away, Maria offered to walk to the gas station.
She returned an hour later with a two-gallon can of gas, two sparkling waters, beef jerky and a gloss of sweat. Maria poured the gas into the car, put the can in the trunk and returned to the passenger seat.
“That took a while.”
“It was a mile away.”
“Well. Thanks for doing it.”
“Sure,” Maria said. Tanya didn’t mention her smelling like smoke.
That night in a motel in Baton Rouge, Maria in the bed and Tanya on the pull-out couch, Tanya said to Maria: “You should know, I really love your dad.”
“You love my dad’s money. I’m not stupid,” Maria said.
“I know it’s weird, you and me being so close in age. But that’s not what this is about.”
“No? Then what is it? He’s great in bed? He’s three times your age but he gets you? Is that what it’s about it?”
“We wanted to say something last night but you didn’t come out of your room. We waited for you at the dinner table.”
“Don’t tell me you’re fucking pregnant.” The room was dark, but Maria could feel Tanya craning her head back to look at her.
“I’m fucking pregnant.”
Maria sat up, grabbed her book off the nightstand and fumbled to collect her keys and backpack. She went outside, the humidity hugging her as she walked to the car. She got in the car and dug through her backpack, praying she didn’t leave her cigarettes inside. When she found the pack, she lit the last cigarette, started the car and turned the air conditioning up to four. She closed her eyes and slept.
Samuel and Tanya divorced the following summer.
Maria tried not to think about her father the day she married Jerome. She did, however, despite her best efforts, consider her parents’ track records: Mother: Married three times, divorced three times. Father: Married two times, divorced two times. The odds were not in her favor, but she had it in her mind, and in her journals and dream boards, that she would marry and remain married, and she declared as much to her mother on their walk down the aisle together, arm-in-arm.
Her marriage, and her steadfast dedication to being unlike either of her noncommittal parents, had lasted five years by the time she was home one evening drinking a glass of tempranillo while Jerome worked late. She was reading a collection of essays when her phone rang. The number was unknown.
“Hi, Maria, it’s Tanya.” Maria paused for a beat.
“Tanya. Like my dad’s Tanya?”
“Yeah. Amanda’s mom.”
They hadn’t seen each other since Maria dropped Tanya off at the George Bush Intercontinental Airport after their road trip more than a decade prior. They had exchanged a couple of email correspondences, mostly photos of Amanda and one of Maria and Jerome, but as time passed, so, too, did Maria’s urge to be a part of her sister’s life.
Tanya asked Maria about work. She told her about Amanda’s middle school graduation. How she was still waiting tables at Rodizio Grill. How she hadn’t remarried.
“And my dad? Have you talked to him?” Maria said.
“We talk, yeah. I see him every other weekend when they take Amanda.”
“Oh, what?” Maria said.
“He remarried. I’m sorry, I thought you’d have known.”
“Oh. No. We don’t really talk.”
“He’s happy, I think.”
“How old’s this one?”
“Come on, Maria.”
“I’m just curious. How old is she?”
“She’s, what, 31? Three years younger than me. So, no, I think she’s 32.”
“What’s her name?” said Maria. She could hear Tanya’s exhale, a breeze catching the line 800 miles away.
“Maria. Of course, her name is Maria.”
“So, I know you and me never connected much and we have kind of a weird relationship, but I was wondering –”
“A weird relationship. We could be sisters.”
“I know, it’s weird. But I was wondering if me and Amanda could come visit you.”
Maria closed her eyes. She breathed in, hearing Dustin from her vinyasa class guide her through a seated meditation, instructing her to fill her lungs with oxygen. She quit smoking when she and Jerome found out they had fertility issues, and the pair of them began practicing yoga. Maria breathed out, released her stale air, and opened her eyes. “You and Amanda?”
“Yeah. I was thinking mid-September, just a weekend. Gives me a couple months to save up.”
“Where would you stay?”
“We wouldn’t have to stay with you. There’s motels around. I already searched.”
“What does my dad think?”
“She asks about you, Maria. I’ve shown her pictures. She asks why you don’t visit her, why she can’t meet you. I don’t know what to say anymore.”
When Maria didn’t respond, Tanya, voice quiet, said, “I thought you’d maybe want to know her too.”
After she hung up the phone, after Jerome came home and kissed her on the forehead, after she finished her second glass of wine, Maria walked to the cabinet next to the kitchen pantry, opened the door and looked at the calendar tacked inside. She flipped to September. With the pen hanging by a piece of yarn from the same tack, Maria circled the 16th. It was a Friday.