CHAPTER NINE -
Xavier pulls up to the apartment to pick Ana up for their date. Before exiting his SUV, he lets the song on the radio finish playing. His mind wanders back to another place and time.
"Hey Zave, Papa wants you inside," Xavier's older brother Agustino yells.
Ten year old Xavier runs across the street from his friend Micah's house where they had been playing soldiers.
"Papa, you wanted to see me?"
"Si, Si. Sit down here with me, Xavier, Mi bambino," his father said, patting the cushion next to him on the sofa.
"Not a baby anymore, Papa," Xavier said, smiling and shaking his head.
"Pay attention to me. Listen to your Papa," Manuel Rivera said solemly.
Xavier suddenly became worried. Why was his father acting so serious? Xavier was sure he didn't want to know.
"I have to go into the hospital. The doctors, they say so. They say my heart, it's no good. They gotta fix it. Do you understand your Papa, Xavier?"
"Si. I understand, Papa. But how long will you be away?"
Xavier's brow furrowed deeply. He did not like to think of being here at home with his papa not here with them.
At night, after dinner was done and the dishes were clean, Papa would bring out his guitar. He would sing songs in his native Spanish.
Xavier did not know many of the words, but he could tell when it was a happy song or sad. Agustino and Sophia knew most all of the words, as they were born on the island of Guatemala, just as their parents had been. Spanish was the first language they had learned. Although Xavier tried, he was not fluent, so his parents tried hard to speak English.
Mama would sit in her rocking chair and nod, smiling, as she knitted sweaters, mittens, hats and scarves for Xavier and his siblings. Washington had extremely cold winters with lots of snow. In Guatemala, their was nothing but sun and rain. Xavier knew his Mama and Papa missed their home, but life was good here. They told him so all the time.
"I do not know for how long. As long as it takes. They say they will have to cut me open and fix my heart. But Xavier - "
Manuel, short of breath, stops mid-sentence, then continues.
"Xavier - Si, you are no bambino - my young one. You must fulfill your duties here for me.
Your Mama, she gonna try work. She will be taking in strangers clothes to be, how you say, 'altered.' I want to work - I have always been the one who worked, but no more, not for a while.
Agustino, he found work at the Mexican meat market downtown. They don't ask his age, he don't tell. They are used to minding their own business and want people to stay out of theirs, you see. Good people.
Sophia, after school, she gonna cook and take care of the house. She will run errands to the store for food and other supplies.
You, my Xavier, I have special job for you. Listen to me, because this is muy importante'. I want you to study - study hard, as hard as you can do, you study for your papa."
Xavier stared at his father with a mixture of confusion and disappointment on his face. This was it? His big responsibility to his family while Papa was away - to study?
"But Papa, I don't understand. You give Gus and Sophie such important jobs, such great responsibility, but none for me. This will shame me! Do you think me too little? Papa I am strong. I can do anything that you need me to do!"
Xavier spoke with fervor, but not disrespect. His father understood this, and was also aware that he had injured Xavier's ten year old pride. His son, so much like himself, was a doer , someone who would not sit idly by and watch others. He would never stand for feeling helpless.
"My son, the greatest thing that you can do for your mama and me is to have the best education you can. This is why we came here. We received no education there. As soon as we were able to walk, we were taught a trade, to work with our hands.
We were ruled by dictators. There was no freedom to choose anything. We worried for your sister and your brother, that they would end up governed by fear, as we were. We brought them here, and they learned the American ways. God gave them a second chance. And then, God gave us you.
There is no future where we come from. There is no hope. But there is hope for you here. You can be anything that you set your mind to be. You have that right. People here call it a God-given right, but sometimes it's a right that must be fought for and won.
Do not be what others want you to be. Choose your own path. All I ask of you is to make it a path that will keep you moving, keep you learning. People here, they take education for granted. Do not take a single opportunity for granted, Xavier. Learn, my son, learn! "
CHAPTER TEN -
Ana knew her Poppy loved her and wanted the best for her, but she didn't want to change schools. She already had friends at Beacon Hill Elementary. She had known them since Kindergarten, and didn't want to leave them.
Like her best friend, Victoria Hazelwood - or Tori as her friends called her. The boys always teased them, calling them, 'Tori and Torres,' but they didn't mind. She and Tori thought it was pretty cool.
Ana and Tori were inseparable. If they weren't at one or the others' house, they were out exploring the many fun spots of Seattle, which was safe to do back in those days.
They used to do extra chores to earn money and ride their bikes downtown. They'd spend an hour in the dollar store trying to decide what to buy, or blow it all on ice cream at Molly Moon's.
Ana's mother, Marta, used to take Ana, Tori and Pilar to Kelsey Creek Farm, a huge petting zoo in Belvue. The bunnies were their favorite, although the fainting goats - they had goats, that actually fainted - were pretty hilarious. Ana's mother would pack a picnic lunch and spread out their blanket near the serene little creek that ran through the park.
Sometimes Poppy would come with them when he didn't have to work. But he never worked on Sunday. That was their church and family day.
Now, most Hispanics are known for being Catholic, it's just a simple fact. This was the case as well with Justino and Marta Torres when they first migrated from Mexico to the United States. But Ana remembered well the day her Catholic family became Baptist.
One day a coworker invited Justino and his family to the church he and his own family attended - a Baptist church.
"I know you have your own beliefs, Justino, but at least come to our singing. I really think you'll enjoy that. Plus we have a potluck dinner after the service this Sunday," Greg told him.
Justino and family arrived early, wearing their Sunday best. As people started filing in, Justino noticed that they mingled, shaking hands and laughing at anecdotes from earlier in the week.
As the members made their way to the Torres family sitting in the back pew, they greeted Justino and family warmly, welcoming them to their church. There seemed to be such peace and happiness here, thought Justino. The surprised look on Marta's face told him she was thinking the same thing. Greg and his family came and sat with Justino and family, Greg heartily shaking Justino's hand.
"So happy you could come, buddy. Welcome!"
Part of the service contained a group of singers, just as Greg had told him. The songs they sang were so spirit-filled and lively. People in the congregation were smiling, some even clapped in time with the music. This was in such contrast to the singing, mostly in Latin, that went on in his own church, Saint Andrew's.
Where were the somber faces? The silent individuals, approaching the alter and lighting a candle for their loved ones? The Confessional booths? The people anxious to rid their burden of sin each week so that they may go out and sin again? These people here, maybe they sin too. But something, something was different as to how they were handling it, that was obvious to Justino.
But the most significant aspect to Justino, was that he felt more alive than ever before. He felt his heart welling with love and peace. Something was going here at this place of worship, and it was Justino knew what it was. God was present in this place.
The pastor began the service with a funny anecdote, bringing a collective chuckle from the congregation. Justino and his wife Marta were afraid to laugh in church. It seemed sacrilegious to them at the time. But daughter's Pilar and Ana giggled. No one gave them a second glance, let alone a harsh look. Joy and laughter seemed to be at home here.
The pastor's message, while not long enough to be tedious, was powerful. Justino was surprised and encouraged by much of what he heard.
"Let's turn to the Book of John, chapter three, verse fifteen. 'For God so loved the world, that He gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him, should not perish, but have everlasting life'. Therefore, by accepting Jesus Christ as your savior, you will be saved."
"Amen!" a man in the crowd said.
"Praise God!" shouted another.
Startled, Justino looked around and saw the sheer adulation on the faces of people as they nodded and listened, engrossed in the sermon.
After the service, Justino told his family to go on to the Community Building, where everyone was headed for their Homecoming celebration meal, and he would meet them there. While the pastor of Seattle Baptist Church was tidying up the choir vestibule, Justino waited patiently on the front pew.
"Well hello. I didn't see you sitting there. You're a guest of Greg Jackson, aren't you? I'm pastor Michael Young," the man said, extending his hand to Justino.
"Justino. Justino Torres. Very nice to meet you. I - we enjoyed service today, very much," Justino became very agitated, wringing his hands as he spoke.
"I have question. For you. I hope you can answer," Justino spoke softly in broken English.
The pastor nodded, a signal for Justino to continue.
"I am ashamed of even thinking. But to ask is very hard for me. What if...what if a Catholic person don't know if they want to stay in Catholic church? Is a sin, no? He go to Hell. I no want to go to Hell, and I do not want my family go to Hell."
Justino was nearly in tears when Pastor Young put his hand on Justino's shoulder. The man spoke gently and firmly.
"Justino, do you love God?"
"Si, si! So much, so very much we love Him!"
"Well, He absolutely loves you. Do you think He would send you to Hell just because you showed your love in a different way?"
"No. No I don't think so. But the Church says - "
"Justino. The Church is in here," Pastor Michael said, tapping Justino's chest with an index finger.
"It's love for your fellow man, and it's love for God. The building has no significance. The denomination has no validity. It's who you are inside and how you live your life."
As if watching a sunrise, Pastor Michael saw Justino's face begin to luminate in phases. It went from sadness to confusion, to hope and finally, to joy.
"The Church," Justino said, patting his own chest with his palm. "The Church is in here."
CHAPTER ELEVEN -
So where are we going?"
Ana, excited about their first official date, yet nervous as well, buckles herself into Xavier's SUV.
She was dressed casually, with a peach ombre sweater that really accentuated her skin tone, and dark denim jeans. She wore a short woven, fringed infinity scarf with light oak colored wooden buttons sewn along the side. The scarf was cocoa colored, and perfectly matched her brown leather clogs.
Although Ana rarely drank, she had to admit the buzz that she'd had the night they met gave her much bravado. Not so much that Xavier would think her brazen, yet just enough to scare away those butterflies that are associated with meeting someone you're instantly attracted to.
"You'll see," Xavier grinned.
"Aye, why do people always say that? Of course I'll see when I get there. I wanna know now!" Ana said with a playful pout, bringing a laugh from Xavier.
"It's cute how you do that," he said.
"Oh, I dunno - add an 'UH' to the end of your sentences," he said with a devious grin.
"Omigosh! Jaiden hates that! Since we were kids, she's scolded me about it! But sometimes it still slips out." Ana said, rolling her eyes.
"Well, I'll never scold you about anything - unless it's being away from me for too long," Xavier said gently.
"Something tells me that's not gonna be a problem," Ana grinned.
The couple chatted easily as they drove. Xavier held firmly onto Ana's hand, every now and then giving it a squeeze. With each squeeze, Ana's heartbeat quickened a little.
One thing was for certain; for the first time in her life, Ana Torres was genuinely falling in love. She'd had crushes and infatuations that never lasted very long, but none had ever felt this powerful, this intense.
Ana noticed that they were leaving Seattle, heading toward Tacoma and Portland down the I-5 Expressway. Looking over at Xavier, she raised an eyebrow. He simply gave her a wink and a grin.
"Well if we're headed for the airport, I forgot to pack," joked Ana as they followed signs heading toward Sea-tac.
"You got me. I'm abducting you on a private jet and taking you to Pakistan. I hear there's an uprising there."
Ana shook her head, laughing. She was curious, though. He talked a good game, but would he really be able to surprise her; that remained to be seen.
As they entered Renton, Jaiden's birthplace, Ana smiled. Had fate and Robert Knight's growing practice not intervened, she and Jaiden would have never met.
But for now, she focused her attention on Xavier. Fate - no, God had brought him into Ana's life. She felt this as surely as she felt her own heartbeat.
On past Renton where I-405 went on for miles. Soon they were taking exit 4 onto highway 169 S.
"Not even a guess yet?"
Xavier's teasing made Ana slap him on his thigh playfully.
"Feisty little thing! I see you're hot - blooded as well as bloody hot," Xavier said, giving his best Austin Powers impression.
"No more! That was terrible!" Ana was laughing hysterically.
"What was it, the corny joke or the awful impersonation?"
"Oh it was both," Ana laughed, barely able to breathe.
"That's harsh. You, my lady, are brutal. Oops, almost missed our turn."
Suddenly Ana realized where they were. Black Diamond.
As they turned into the parking area of a place called Azafran Bistro - Mediterranean Cuisine, Ana looked at Xavier, perplexed.
"Black Diamond? You brought me an hour away to have dinner? Seattle has tons of restaurants. You didn't have to do that," Ana said.
"Yes, Seattle does. So do all the adjacent cities. Places where other guys might have wined and dined you. I wanted our own place.
As to 'why Black Diamond?' Because that first night I laid eyes on you from across the room, I thought, 'Her hair shimmers when the light touches it, like it's strewn with diamonds'. Black diamonds."
Ana, mouth ajar, was for a moment at a loss for words. But as she found them, she threw her arms around Xavier's neck.
"Oh baby! That is the most romantic thing anyone has ever said to me," she said, tears springing from her eyes.
As she relinquished the embrace, Xavier took her face in his hands, his thumbs gently wiping away her tears. The expression on his face was so intense that Ana almost lost herself in it, but putting her finger to his lips, continued her declaration.
"We don't need 'a place.' Baby. Our 'place,' it's in here", she said, laying her hands upon both of their hearts, feeling them both quicken.
"This is where we will be together, forever."
Xavier, tears in his own eyes now, pulled Ana in for a kiss - not the usual, soft, sweet brush of the lips. This one was filled with passion - with love. As their mouths explored one another, it felt to Ana that their souls bonded in that instant.
Breathless and realizing that an elderly couple were walking by their car, gawking at the young people making out, they both laugh.
"I'll bet the old lady is scolding him. 'We used to be like that!' That'll be us someday, except we'll still be like this," Xavier says, placing his forehead against Ana's.
"Now, let's say we go get something to eat. I'm starving!"
Ana smiles as Xavier runs around to her door to open it. She snuggles her head against his side as the walk across the parking lot.
"Aye! You're so tall! I could literally fit underneath your armpit. I feel like a little person walking beside of you!"
Ana playfully bumps against Xavier's thigh with her hip and they both laugh. Happily. They laugh happily.
Yes, this will be us, she thinks, as the love of her life held the door, and they enter the restaurant, hand in hand.
CHAPTER TWELVE -
Ana sits across from Xavier in a quiet booth inside Azafran. She has ordered the Salmon Orzo. Served with asparagus, peppers, feta, cream, cherry tomatoes and olives, it is the best salmon Ana has ever tasted.
Xavier chooses the Shish Taouk, shish kabobs with chicken and assorted veggies, with hummus and couscous on the side.
Aside from the delicious food, Ana notices there is a warm, cozy atmosphere, perfect for romance. Being in a corner booth in the back, Ana and Xavier are able to sit close and snuggle, while feeding each other bites of their food.
For the first time, the couple began to talk seriously, without the playful banter of their previous time spent together. They both are pretty sure they know where this is going, and that it has gotten serious, fast. They mutually feel like they can share anything and everything.
They talk about so many things in the two hours they spend at the bistro, that time seems to have come to a stand-still.
Xavier talks to Ana more in depth about losing his father, and how it broke his mother's spirit. How she was never the same after losing the man she had shared her life with for forty-seven years.
"We knew she couldn't stay here long without him. The fact that she made it as long as she did was that she was torn between two worlds - in the one, she had children, grown true enough, but still her babies. She did not want to leave us to fend for ourselves. She knew as well that it would devastate us, as it did when our Papa passed.
In the other, awaited the husband she adored, and who cherished her. She longed to see him again, and there was no form of gravity that could hold her into this world without him."
Xavier swallowed hard, taking a deep breath before continuing.
"Ana, I lied to you before about how my mother died," Xavier says sadly. "I couldn't share this with anyone until now."
Ana stayed silent, yet she was confused.The look on her face told Xavier so. She waits for him to explain.
"She stopped eating and drinking, gradually at first, so much so that we didn't even notice. But then Sophia began to find her food hidden in the garbage pail beneath newspapers and sales flyers.
Mama began stumbling and falling. She was covered in bruises. When I came home from school each day, Sophie and Gus were there by her bedside, talking to her about things they'd heard and seen in town, comical things, newsworthy things. Chatting about normal, every day things, trying to get her to snap out of it.
I talked to her too, telling her all about my classes and friends, and how the teachers praised my Academics and attendence.
But the one thing we had agreed that we would never say to her was that we needed her to stay. That would have been cruel as well as untrue. We wanted her to stay, but we would survive on our own. She couldn't bear that burden of guilt for the decision she was making.
One day, we all sat with her together. Her breathing was becoming ragged and shallow. Her face was haggard and pale, cheeks sunken, and eyes had shrank back into her head. She was a living corpse. We could not bear it any longer, her suffering.
'Mama,' my brother Agustino, her eldest, said gently. She looked at him, her eyes pleading. 'Mama, we love you so much, but you can let go now. Give Papa our love.'
Ana, may God be my witness, my Mama squeezed Gus' hand, took one final breath, a deep one, a relieved one and no more. She was gone. She had gone home to her one true love."
Ana, her face soaked with heartbreak for the man whom she herself loved, held Xavier's hand and kissed his face, her tears in notable contrast to the lack of his own. As if reading her mind, Xavier again spoke.
"But you know, as much as we cried when Papa died, with Mama we didn't. It was a shock, losing him. He went to the hospital to be healed. We went there to visit him and had planned a celebration, but instead of a party, there was a funeral. We were expecting him to come home, you know? We grieved, not like Mama did, but we all did our fair share.
With Mama, how could we explain to authorities that we allowed her to starve? If we had taken her to the hospital, they would have forced her to stay, they would have artificially sustained the life force that she no longer wanted nor needed. They allowed our father to die, but we would be damned if they would force our mama to live.
We had our own ceremony in the little cemetery out back, right beside where Papa had been placed. Agustino and I fashioned a simple coffin out of pallets he asked to bring home from the grocery where he worked. We applied coat after coat of water sealant.
Sophie hand-stitched a quilted satin lining in lilac, her favorite color. And she was wearing her blue lace dress, the one that Papa said she looked so pretty in. With her hair fixed just so, she was beautiful and ready to take her place beside of Papa in Heaven."
Ana did not speak for a long moment, but merely stared at Xavier, blinking and nodding slowly.
"Do you think we were awful? For not calling the authorities? For letting her die?"
Xavier searched Ana's eyes, anxious for answers, yet afraid to receive them.
"No! No, baby...I just couldn't find the words. To tell you how brave you were, you all were. To even begin to imagine how you dealt with such unthinkable loss, yet have the wisdom and maturity to understand why things just had to be how they must be.
I couldn't find the words to tell you that you are the most amazing person I have ever known, and that your parents must be so proud of you and the man that you are. And how unbelievably blessed I am to have someone like you in my life!"
Xavier took both of Ana's hands in his and brought her closed fingers to his lips, kissing them one by one, while gazing deeply into her eyes.
"Now it's funny you should say that. Because here all this time, I've been convinced that I'm the lucky one."
Smiling, her eyes crinkling as she kissed first the tip of Xavier's nose, then his lips. Ana could not imagine her life being any more perfect than it was right now.
But life always seems to have a way of bringing on the calm before the storm.