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The One That Matters by Elle Linder (1)

 

Chapter 1

Okay, Abuelita

Craig’s aggravating voice droned on and on, with excuse after excuse. She had heard it all before, dozens of times. And yet his nonchalant attitude as he canceled his weekend with their son always felt like a punch in her gut. Try as she might, she couldn’t remember a time when Craig had put her or the kids first. It wasn’t that he didn’t know how to be devoted to anything. He did. In fact, Craig’s loyalties were to his parents and his family’s construction business—and himself.

“Marie! Are you listening to me?!” His bombastic voice shook her from her reverie. The man had to have been a drill sergeant in a previous life, the way his voice boomed at the slightest frustration.

“Yes, I’m listening. You’re going to Vegas with Sasha.”

“Just tell Jackson ‘another time’. I have to go. Our flight leaves in a couple of hours.”

“You make it sound like being a parent is an option. He picks up on that, you know.”

“You wanted full custody; now you’re going to complain?”

“Huh-uh, don’t twist this around. I’d love never to see you again, but you’re still Jackson’s father.” Marie braced herself against the kitchen counter, gripped by the weight of her emotions threatening to pull her to the ground.

“Dammit! Don’t do this!”

“What, hold you accountable to your children?”

“Shit. I’m doing you a favor canceling, so you won’t be alone.” Alone. The singular word had the power of a thousand to tear her down, and he knew it. She winced through the stretching and twisting of her innards. “I’ll just email from now on.”

“Perfect.”

 

 

 

The hot water poured over the breakfast dishes while Marie stared out the window, transfixed on a tattered fence, trying to calm herself. Numb with nostalgia, she recalled her old view of a sparkling pool with strategically placed palm trees. The tranquil setting had been a lovely substitution for her ocean and made washing dishes bearable. If she tried hard enough, she could hear the roar and swoosh of the breaking waves and smell the seaweed. She could even feel the slithery vines snake around her ankles while she jumped into the frigid water.

A day at the beach with her abuelita was one of her fondest times. Once Marie had children, she took them to her favorite spot along the shore and created new memories with them while they splashed around in the Pacific. Giggle after silly giggle transported Marie back to her youth and to her dear grandma. Those short-lived days were a thing of the past. Now the old, weathered wooden fence in her view mirrored her lowly state.

You’re pathetic, she thought as she turned off the hot water. This was what her life had become post-divorce: one ordinary, trivial task after another, with no one to hold her at night.

Her abuelita’s words invaded her thoughts as they often did during times of distress. “Marie, no estar solo. Do not be alone,” she had told Marie on the day she had joined Marie’s abuelo, Pancho, in heaven. All her life, Marie had believed her dear sweet grandmother had spiritual powers, and that day when she took her last breath and said “no estar solo.” Marie had rolled her eyes. But now, Marie was alone.

Well, this weekend she wouldn’t be alone. There was a silver lining in all of this. Jackson wouldn’t be disappointed Craig canceled their weekend. He would be relieved. And Marie wouldn’t be left in a puddle of tears after she coaxed Jackson out the door to go with a man he was invisible to. Perhaps if Jackson felt loved…wanted…and made a priority, he might want to go to Craig’s of his own free will.

But Craig didn’t see it that way and believed relationships didn’t need nurturing. Nor did they have to be a priority unless you were a swimsuit model. Her mother had told her as much when she started dating him. She saw things Marie didn’t see in her star football player.

“He’s not like us,” her mother would say in broken English.

To that Marie would reply, “I thought love conquers all, Mamá.”

No siempre, mi amor,” (not always, my love) her mother would tell her.

“But Abuelita used to say, ‘All you need is love.’”

Her mother laughed. “A Beatles song? No, no, Abuelita is a romantic. Tu corazón…your heart is delicate. Choose wisely, mija,” she had advised.

Perhaps Marie should have taken her mother’s cautions more seriously. But then she wouldn’t have Lexi or Jackson, and they meant everything to her. If nothing else, Marie would teach her children family is everything. It was the Valdez family motto: “Familia es todo.” Aunts and uncles would throw those three words around like a hex if you didn’t put your family first. Children grew up knowing their number one priority was family. As a child, Marie understood what her abuelita and elders had chanted on a daily basis. It showed in their actions. Everyone helped each other, even in the most mundane tasks, like doing the dishes. Someone always had your back, and they believed in the whole “it takes a village” mantra, something Marie would fully embrace now that she was alone. Her family always kept their word and they wouldn’t dream of letting each other down. They loved big—family is everything.

Marie loaded the dishwasher and wiped down the counters. Craig’s unexpected call had thrown her off her normal routine, and now she was running late. Still, her thoughts for the weekend were at the forefront of her mind.

Maybe Lexi will come over for dinner, she thought, now that Jackson would be home.

It had been a few weeks since she last saw Lexi. During that visit, Lexi had said her second year of college was ten times more difficult than she expected, requiring more of her time. Marie was so proud of her. She was doing things Marie didn’t get to do at twenty years old, living life to the fullest, free and independent. Lexi was her own woman; no one controlled her. Marie couldn’t be more grateful.

Looking up at the ceiling, Marie took a deep breath, her jaw set for the ritual of getting Jackson out the door. It was time to face off. “Jackson, we gotta go. I’ll be late for work,” Marie hollered from the base of the stairs. He was his typical uncooperative, angry eleven-year-old self. If their relationship didn’t change in a significant way, Marie feared what the teenage Jackson would be like.

“I’m coming! Geez!” he screamed back.

Marie took a deep breath and shook her head. “Every stinkin’ morning he has to be like this.” She grabbed her keys and handbag off the entry table. She cringed, looking up at the second floor. The creaky ceiling made the cheap, nothing-special dome light shake especially hard beneath his rapid, heavy-footed steps. Her eyes followed the sounds as he moved from his room to the bathroom, then back to his room. Finally, he stomped down the stairs in a huff. It took all she had not to lose it. This same scene had played each day like a broken record since the divorce. She would wake him up, he’d grumble, drag his feet, and then switch gears, stomping around the house before they left. Not once would he have a civilized conversation with her. Two years ago, he never would have raised his voice or rolled his eyes in disrespect. But now he looked at her with disdain, and only spoke to her in anger. It pierced her heart over and over again. He had been the sweetest boy since the day he was born, and she had thought their bond was unbreakable. Her tender, funny, smart-as-a-whip boy had changed so much. Worse yet, their relationship was breakable now.

“All right, buddy, let’s hit the road,” she said playfully to lighten the mood. Her efforts received silence. She didn’t know why she tried so hard when all he ever did was ignore her. But Marie held on to hope with a death grip that one day he would come around and have a relationship with her again. She would die before giving up on her son.

 

 

 

Jackson peered out the window as he always did on the drive to school. There was never a right time to talk to him, so Marie just went for it and braced for the backlash. “Looks like you’ll be able to go to Ricky’s birthday party after all.” Jackson flinched with a slight twist of his head toward her, and she knew he was listening.

“Your dad and Sasha are going to Vegas this weekend. It was last minute. He said to tell you he’d make it up to you another time, and he’s sorry.” She embellished it to soften the blow. The slightest curl in the corner of his mouth reflected in the window. No backlash. Just silence.

When Jackson slammed the car door shut, Marie’s tension dissipated. Now she would have fifteen minutes of peace and tranquility on her drive to work. It was just enough time for her to relax and prepare for a busy day, which she welcomed. Marie loved her job, her co-workers, and the law. As an IP paralegal for Malcolm-Bower and Associates, she had found her specialty with copyrights and trademarks. Work was the only place she felt appreciated, respected, and whole. And she wouldn’t be alone.

Her tension returned at the sound of her phone buzzing. She picked it up to see who was calling, then sighed.