Shortly after Marina stormed out of Curtain Call, Alex sat at the bar making origami out of the cocktail napkins with the Curtain Call logo when Jared and Mollie emerged from the kitchen.
“Where’s Momma?” Mollie asked, snuggling into Alex’s embrace.
He kissed her forehead. “She said she’d see you later. You and I are going to Abuela’s for dinner and then I’ll bring you back home. But your homework has to be complete.”
Alex nodded. “Yep. You okay with that?”
“Totally.” She turned to Jared. “Raincheck?”
“Yeah, Mollie and I are working on a guitar piece for her holiday talent show.”
“I’d love to hear it.”
Mollie scrunched up her face. “Nope. Not till Uncle J and I get it perfect.”
“Hey, I know something about music,” he reminded her.
“I know, but Uncle J knows more about rock music.”
Jared nodded. “Classic rock to be precise.”
“Lord help us,” Alex murmured, causing Jared to grin. “Well, Uncle J is old.”
“Not old, classic. Alright, man. Check in with you tomorrow?” he raised an eyebrow.
“Sounds good. Swing by Everhouse.”
“Hasta manana,” Alex nodded. He slung an arm around Mollie and led her to the door.
“You can come out now,” Jared called out once the door closed behind them. “They’re gone.”
“How did you know I was here?”
“I’ve known you way too long,” he replied.
“True.” She sighed. “Did you know he was back?”
“Not until he showed up an hour ago.”
“Did he tell you why he came back?”
“Didn’t get that far.”
“He wrote a show. He wants me in it.”
“I said I would. Am I crazy?”
“You, crazy?” he teased.
“Mollie seems happy to see him.”
“I know. She adores him. I want her to know Alex. Her grandparents aren’t going to be around forever and Alex is her only other tie to Danny. I want him in her life.”
“So, what’s the problem?”
“I’m still so pissed at him for leaving the way he did.”
“Did you tell him that? You know, like we tell the kids, use your words.”
“Bite me, smart ass.”
Jared snickered. “That is why you love me. But seriously, I’ll tell you what I told Alex. Talk to each other. Make peace. You are family. You have to deal with each other.”
Marina’s frown deepened.
“Why did you tell him you’d do his show?”
“I don’t know.”
“To be honest, I miss him. We used to be so close.”
“But you can’t admit that to him?”
“What’s to admit? I am pissed. It’s sort of obvious.”
“If you say so,” Jared shrugged, returning to drying his glasses. He only had an hour until the bar opened for pre-show drinks. His bartender, Tristan and waitresses Natalie and Frankie would be arriving any moment.
“I need to go for a walk,” she announced. “I’ll talk to you later.”
“Be careful!” he called after her.
While Jared and Marina were dealing with the past, twenty-three year old, Ben Grey sat on the floor of the Everhouse apartment he had grown up in and picked up his father’s acoustic guitar and began strumming while his girlfriend, Julianne Wood lay on the couch, reading a biology text book.
His absentminded strumming turned into the melody of Elvis Costello’s Alison. He stopped playing abruptly.
“You okay?” Julianne asked, not looking up from her reading.
He shrugged. “I worry sometimes, you know,” he said softly, staring at his black Chuck Taylor’s. “I worry that I might end up like my mother… or like my father…” his voice trailed off.
Julianne looked up and closed her text book, clearly surprised. “What are you talking about?” She sat up, watching him intently. “I know your birth mother was messed up with drugs, but your dad? Your dad is a rock star.”
Ben nodded. “He is amazing. He really is. He raised the three of us on his own, always put Dylan and Riley and me first. My dad is the best.”
“Then what’s the problem?”
“Well, you know my birth mom, Kara had drug issues and that my dad is a recovering alcoholic…”
“Ben, I’ve known you since we were fourteen, I’ve never seen you drink…”
“I know.” He set the guitar aside and gazed across the room at Julianne.
She frowned. “What are you talking about, Ben? You’re not making any sense.”
Ben rubbed the stubble on his chin. “When my dad was a couple years older than I am now, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder… What if? What if I am crazy?”
“Ben…” shepaused, uncertain what to say.
“I think about it all the time. It’s why I never drink. The disorder exacerbated his alcohol issues. I can’t talk to him about it though… It would kill him. I can’t hurt him like that. I owe him too much.”
Julianne slid off the couch and crawled over to him. Wrapping her arms around him, she leaned her forehead against his.
In his parent’s living room in Brooklyn, Alex took a seat on the plush sofa and pulled Mollie down beside him, wrapping his arm around her. They had always enjoyed a close relationship, despite the distance. Whenever his parents brought her to London to visit, she would attach herself to his side, always holding his hand or cuddling against him for his attention. Now that she was a dreaded teenager, he feared they would lose that affection.
“You know I love you more than anything else in the world, right?”
“Yeah…” she rested her head on his shoulder.
“And you know you’re my best friend, right?”
Mollie rolled her eyes. “Sure.”
“I mean it, you, Miss Mollie Jane Marquez, are my favorite human on the planet. Te amo.”
“I love you, too. Uncle Ajѐ. Are you really back for good?”
“Sure am,” he nodded.
“Good. I miss you when you’re in London and I’m here. Abuela misses you too.”
“And I miss you guys. Especially Abuela’s cooking.”
“Abuela is the best cook,” the teen agreed. “Why are you and Momma mad at each other?”
Alex suppressed a groan. “We’re not exactly mad at each other. At least, I’m not mad at your mom, but she isn’t very happy with me.”
“How come? I’m not a little kid anymore, you can tell me the truth.”
“Not a little kid, eh? Says the girl wearing Hello Kitty socks,” he mocked her. “I know, you’re not a little kid anymore. It’s a fact that greatly depresses me. But it’s pretty complicated between your mom and me.”
Mollie picked at the nail polish on her thumb. “Because you love her?”
Alex’s brow furrowed. “Of course, I love her. She’s your mom.”
Mollie rolled her eyes, unable to hide her exasperation. “No, I mean love her, love her. Like my dad did.”
He was taken aback by Mollie’s perception and bluntness. It was one thing for Jared to call him out on it, Jared had been there from the beginning and until that afternoon, Mollie had never seen he and her mother in the same place.
“Why would you say that?” he deflected but Mollie was too wise for that.
“Because why else would you go to London after my dad died? It’s like something out of a Nicholas Sparks novel. Or Danielle Steele.”
“Who the hell lets you read that crap?” Alex asked with a scowl.
“Zoey gives it to me when she’s through. Anyway, you’re changing the subject again,” she frowned, throwing her older sister under the bus. “Seriously, it’s okay that you’re in love with Momma. I don’t think my dad would mind.”
Alex couldn’t decide if his head was about to explode or if he had just been sucker punched. Perhaps both simultaneously.
Mollie shrugged. “I know my mom loves you, otherwise she wouldn’t be so mad at you for leaving.”
He took a deep breath to steady his voice. “It’s not the same, Mi Bonita. Marina doesn’t love me the way she loved your dad. And that’s okay. Your dad was the bravest person I ever met. He and your mom were perfect together and it’s pretty hard to top perfection.”
“I have a theory,” she whispered. “You’re going to think I’m crazy.”
“I would never think that,” he promised.
“Abuela always says that God has a plan and that things happen for reasons that we might never understand.”
Alex nodded. “I’ve heard that once or twice.”
“What if… God had a plan… what if his plan was for you and Momma to meet and fall in love, only she met my dad and fell for him when she was meant to be with you… and… and that’s why he was killed on September 11th… So you and my mom could be together…”
Alex sat in stunned silence.
“I told you it was crazy,” she murmured.
No, not crazy, a voice in Alex’s head screamed, but exactly the thoughts he had in the days following 9/11, the very thoughts that had propelled him across the Atlantic because of the guilt that was consuming him every time he looked at Marina and Mollie. It had felt like an elephant sitting on his chest and he had only begun to breathe again once he landed in London and began writing.
“Oh, baby, it’s not crazy and I know it must be easier to romanticize your dad’s death, but the reality is that your dad died doing something he dedicated his life to – helping people. He was killed because some insanely evil people thought it was okay to hurt our country. He died a hero. Never in a hundred years could I live up to that.”
“You don’t have to,” Mollie informed him. “Mom and dad were complete opposites in every way. But you and mom… you’re so much alike.”
Alex smirked. “Thanks, I think.”
“I’m not explaining it right. It’s like Momma and Uncle J, they get each other. You’re just like them. And me.”
Before they could continue the conversation, Alex’s mother, Elena entered the room. “Dinner is ready,” she informed them with a warm smile.
“What are we having?” Mollie asked, immediately on her feet.
“Alѐ’s favorite,” Elena beamed.
“Peanut butter and jelly?” Mollie teased.
“Chicken molѐ,” her grandmother replied.
“Ma, you are an angel,” Alex jumped up and kissed her cheek. “Where’s Pop?”
“He has a late class tonight. So, it’s just the three of us.”
“Perfect. Dinner with my favorite ladies.”
“It’s too bad Marina couldn’t join us,” Elena commented, leading her son and granddaughter to the dining room where she had served their meal.
Mollie shot Alex a pointed look as she took her seat across from him.
“You know, I liked you better before you became a teenager,” he muttered under his breath.
“She had plans with Uncle Jared,” Mollie explained, sticking her tongue out at Alex.
“How is Jared?” Elana asked. “I hardly had a chance to talk to him at your birthday.”
“He’s good,” Alex answered, watching as his mother served Mollie.
“And how is Marina?” Elena asked, studying her younger son.
“Good,” he replied. The conversation he’d had with Mollie had thrown him for a loop. It boggled his mind how the fifteen year old’s mind worked. He wondered if she had shared her insights with Marina.
“I love her new hairstyle,” Elena added. “It’s really flattering, but then she’s always been a beautiful girl, don’t you think, Alex?”
“Sure,” he nodded.
“I bet she was surprised to see you.”
“You could say that,” Alex replied.
Marina walked toward Times Square, hoping to lose herself in the crowd. Alejandro Marquez was the last person she had expected to run into on this brisk fall day. While she loved Jared like a brother, sometimes she missed having a female best friend to confide in. She had that once in Jared’s wife Kelly, but ovarian cancer took her from them. Since Kelly’s death, she and Jared had worked hard to fill the void for each other and she knew she could count on Jared whenever she needed him, but the complexities of her relationship with Alex she feared was beyond his level of comprehension.
In the twenty plus years since she had moved to Manhattan, Times Square had changed dramatically but one thing remained constant – the pulsing energy of the constant flow of people. It was one of the many things Alex had turned his back on when he went to London, she realized.
She was pissed at him for that; at the timing of it. Mollie had been almost a month old, and Danny had been gone a little over two weeks. It was selfish of him, heartless even. He was turning his back on everything Danny had lived for: her, Mollie, even the City. Now he was waltzing back in their lives, with a show he wanted her to be in. They would be working together and she had said yes without any real hesitation. Jared questioned her motives and she couldn’t explain them herself. Was she out to punish him? Or return to the ways things had been? Or to start fresh? It was infuriating that she had no clear answer.
“I don’t see why I couldn’t stay over at Abuela’s tonight,” Mollie complained as she and Alex emerged from the Subway a block from the Upper Manhattan high-rise she resided in.
“Because I promised your mom that I would bring you home after dinner. Besides, now that I am home, you and I are going to see so much of each other that you’re going to be sick of me.”
She pouted but didn’t say anything the rest of the walk. At the door of the luxurious high-rise, they were greeted by the official looking doorman.
“Good evening, Miss Marquez,” he greeted them.
“Hi Sebastian,” she replied. “This is my Uncle Alex.”
“Nice to meet you, sir,” Sebastian smiled warmly.
“Is my mom home?”
“Yes, ma’am. She arrived about ten minutes ago.” He ushered them through the door. “Have a good night.”
“You, too,” Alex replied, following Mollie to the elevator, trying not to gawk at the extravagant lobby. He didn’t begrudge Marina the luxurious lifestyle she could afford, it provided a home for Mollie and access to the best schools, but he knew realistically that he could never offer her anything remotely similar. After his parents had immigrated from Puerto Rico to attend college, his father made a comfortable living as a professor at one of the City’s small private colleges and his mother had retired from being a school nurse and spent most of her time volunteering in the community. Comfortable was the key word. They had given their two boys everything they ever needed and taught them that honest work meant more than a fast buck. While he and Danny had taken two different paths, they had supported and encouraged them every step of the way.
Mollie chattered on about school as the elevator rose to the top floor. Swallowing the lump in his throat as well as his pride, he followed her to the door and stood, ignoring all his instincts to bolt as Mollie rang the doorbell.
Marina opened the door immediately, looking calm and strikingly beautiful. “How was dinner?” she asked as Mollie greeted her with a kiss on the cheek, entering the apartment. “How is Abuela?” She offered Alex a cordial nod but he stood rooted to the spot in the hall.
“She made mole!” Mollie announced, shedding her jacket. “It was lit.”
“I should go,” Alex mumbled.
“Say goodnight to Uncle Alѐ,” Marina instructed. “Thank him for dinner.”
“Night, Uncle Alѐ. Thank you for dinner,” Mollie repeated dutifully, rolling her eyes at Alex.
“Te amo,” he replied with a smirk. He turned to Marina. “Thanks for letting me take her. It made Ma’s night. Mine too.”
“So… about the show,” he shifted on the balls of his feet uncomfortably.
His eyes lit up. “Of course! Yes. Where? When?”
“Curtain Call. Eight. The theatre crowd is out by then.”
Alex nodded. “Great. See you then.”