She thrust her arm forward and clawed at the open water—reaching—reaching—grabbing handfuls of water and violently thrusting them behind her. Her entire body begged for oxygen—for one tiny breath—just one. Where was the surface? Was she swimming down instead of up? Panic stormed her heart, sending blood thundering through her ears. She kicked her legs into a wild thrashing hysteria until the deep, desperate ache in her lungs became unbearable.
The imprisoning blackness surrounding her began to soften and wrap her in a welcoming embrace. Her head felt pleasantly fuzzy. Insulated in peace. There was no more fighting, just a sleepy smile when she decided to give in to her body’s demands and b r e a t h e…breathe in the water.
* * * * *
Six days earlier.
As if designed for the set of a TV show, the peaceful street preened gloriously in all its suburban harmony. Tidy monochromatic homes flaunted vibrant flower gardens that surrounded their plush, cushiony, dandelion-free lawns. Three happy chattering kids rode bicycles down the middle of the road without a care, waving to the mail carrier as he greeted each of them by name.
This beautiful summer morning continued its idyllic day until it was savagely murdered by the deafening revs of a furious car engine. No one heard the much-anticipated cheery jingle of the ice cream truck as it turned the corner and drove on by.
Mae sat in the driver’s seat, unaware of the unpleasantness she was causing, singing without inhibition to the music in her earbuds. With her foot propped on the gas pedal, she awaited further instruction from her boyfriend, whose head was buried somewhere between the carburetor and the dark abyss.
“Got it!” Greg’s greasy hands reached up and slammed down the hood. “You did good, babe—now get over here.” He stepped back and grabbed at the empty air in front of him. Mae jumped out of the car, nearly tripping in her four-inch heels, and launched herself into his arms. Catching her mid-air, he swung her around, leaving dirty prints behind where he squeezed her butt. For anyone else, engine grease on Mae’s favorite jeans would have been followed by a heated lecture. But with Greg, she adored everything he did and simply giggled, wrapping her hands around his neck for an inspirational kiss.
For the tenth time in the last half hour, her phone vibrated from her pocket, and she groaned. “Sorry, I’ve got to get home. My mom needs help with something,” she said, following it with an exasperated eye roll.
“Not just yet,” he said, deep and seductive. Weaving his dark brown fingers through her light brown ones, he led her into his parents’ house.
“Um, don’t you have class?” Mae didn’t really expect an answer, nor wanted one, and shut the door of his bedroom behind them.
* * * * *
An hour later, Greg dropped Mae off in front of her cottage-sized house. Her mother had been busy that morning suffocating the tiny porch in even more hanging baskets and terracotta pots overflowing with pink and orange geraniums. Mae slipped off her heels to make it safely through the narrow path her mom remembered to leave to the door.
Dropping his arm out his car window, Greg slapped the metal. “Love you, babe. See you tomorrow.” He pointed his finger. “Early.” He added an exaggerated wink for clarity.
She leaned over the porch railing and blew him a kiss. “Wouldn’t miss it.” The warm breeze stole away a few wisps of her espresso-brown hair and lapped them against her rosy cheeks. Most people wouldn’t consider Mae all that pretty, but what she lacked in looks, her body made up for in curves.
The budget was tight living with her mom, Carmen, a single mother without a steady job, and a lack of interest in getting one. Besides, right now, Carmen’s career seemed to be finding the perfect husband. Mae had only been four when cancer took her father away and ever since had endured a lifetime of almost-stepdads, though each would eventually fizzle out for one reason or another.
Just before she could turn the knob, the front door opened and a heavyset man with the stench of stale cigarettes sidled past her while his eyes took a slow, uninvited walk up and down her body. Her startled expression shifted to disgust, and she aided his exit by quickly shutting the door behind her.
“So glad you’re back, honey.” Her mom rushed over and greeted Mae with her usual smothering hug as if it was a miracle her daughter had returned home once again.
Mae needed space when she got home, not asphyxiation in needy love. Yet, if she showed any negative feelings, her mom would launch into sobs, and she would need to comfort her even more.
“Hi, Mama,” she said, hugging her back. “Who was that creep?”
“Oh, just the plumber,” Carmen said, dismissing the subject, then went to clear two teacups and a small plate of cookie crumbs from the coffee table. Mae didn’t want to further that particular discussion either, so she failed to point out that the “plumber” didn’t have any tools with him. “I have lunch made so we can get to work right away.”
“Work? It must be important then—calling every five minutes and leaving a message each time.”
“You should try to keep your ringer on, honey.” Carmen arranged the silverware on two floral placemats trimmed with ruffled lace. “What if something terrible happened? What if Nonna was in the hospital, or I got into a car accident—or married? Wouldn’t you want to know?” She slid her laptop in between them and sat down, placing a napkin on Mae’s lap and then her own.
Mae stared at the mountain of lettuce on her plate, topped with unappetizing cold cubed tofu. Carmen waved her own plate of roasted herb-crusted chicken under Mae’s nose, trying to entice her to drop this silly vegetarian fad. After fifteen years of this, Mae learned it was best just to say, “Yum,” or listen to her mom quoting an hour’s worth of healthy reasons to eat meat that she found on some web page. After two small bites, Carmen pushed her dish to the side, hit a key on her computer, and the screen lit up opened to a dating website.
“Oh, really, Mom? This was the emergency? I thought you had some critical news or something.”
“Now honey, you know how you need a father. I thought you should have some say in it too.” Her mom continued opening an assortment of web pages, tapping keys with the tips of her perfectly manicured fingernails, which matched her perfectly made-up face and hair. She often reminded Mae to always be ready for Mr. Right. He could come knocking on your door any day, handing out brochures.
“For God’s sake, Mom. I’ll be a sophomore in college this fall. I don’t need a father anymore. Especially not some creepy old man fumbling his way into my bedroom in the middle of the night.” This particular vision of her future stepdad always made Mae cringe.
Carmen brushed Mae’s comment off. “Anyway, I want you in on this decision.”
“Find one who doesn’t smoke. Please.”
“Well, honey, my prospects aren’t that plentiful anymore. Maybe if I were under fifty.” She patted the loose skin under her chin. “Do you think I look forty? I’d have more opportunities if I was forty.” She moved in closer to the screen and scrutinized her retouched profile picture—which was taken ten years before—when she was actually in her forties. “Yes. I’m going to say I’m forty.”
“Do you really want to start off a new relationship with a lie?” Mae asked as her mom logged into one dating site after another, updating her new age. “Geez, how many singles sites do you belong to? Are you paying for all of these?” Carmen didn’t seem to hear, so Mae sighed in surrender. “Okay, what exactly are you looking for in a man?”
“I’m thinking cinnamon-colored skin and a mustache. He doesn’t need to be Latino like us, but I do like the dark meat.”
“Yuck.” Mae covered her ears. “Are you aware of the damage you can cause a child?”
“You’re not a child anymore. We’re like girlfriends now,” Carmen said, contradicting her earlier statement while rearranging browser windows in order of preference.
“See? I don’t need a father,” Mae said to deaf ears. She picked up her cell phone to text Greg an assortment of heart emojis.
“Your father died when you were very young. You need the experience of having a father.”
Mae had only been four when cancer took her father away and the few memories she had of him could never be replaced. “You’re enough. You’ve done a good job at both.” But her mother’s mind was already set, so she conceded. “Okay. Let’s find me a new father.” Mae slammed her spirited fist on the table. “What else do you require of him?”
“Well, I know what I don’t want. I don’t want some over-baked potato that sits on the couch with caramel corn embedded in his backside. Someone that doesn’t spend half the day on the toilet and the other half watching sports.” Her list went on for some time, then slowed. Her eyes glazed over, and she looked wistful. “Oh, honey, your father was such a handsome man.” Her hand pitter-pattered over her heart. “One hundred percent pure Mayan decent.” Carmen touched Mae’s cheek. “You look a lot like him. But you’ve definitely got my spunk.”
Mae repeated the word “spunk” softly, not sure if it was truly a word she liked. “I sure do.”
“Sass. That’s another thing we’ve both got. Spunk and sass—”
“And a big fat ass,” Mae added, causing them both to laugh.
After Carmen cleared away the plates, she handed them each a pen and paper. It was time to get to work. Mae stretched her arms and yawned, accepting the fact that this was just the beginning of a very long afternoon.