The Billionaire's Embrace Page 29

“Yeah, I know,” I said. Some things never changed.

We went out to where JP had parked his car, a beat-up Cadillac with shiny new rims. I shrugged out of my coat. I’d forgotten how warm it could be in December. JP threw my suitcase in the trunk, and we peeled out of the parking lot.

We headed east on the 10. It was a little after 6, California time, and the sun had set already, turning the desert landscape into a blur of headlights.

I wished it was still light, so that I could see the mountains. One thing I missed about California was being able to see the mountains.

Maybe the only thing.

After a few minutes of awkward silence, I said, “So, what are you up to these days?”

JP’s face settled deeper into its scowl. “The fuck do you think I’m doing? I’m still working at the warehouse, and I’ll probably be working there until I die.”

“You could always leave, you know,” I said quietly.

He laughed, and unpleasant bark of sound. “Leave, my ass. My mom depends on me, you know that? Yours depended on you. But you only cared about yourself.”

I turned my face to the window, flushing with anger and embarrassment. They probably all thought the same thing, all of my relatives—that I had abandoned my filial duty, and left my mother alone and helpless. Never mind the fact that she had told me to leave. Screamed it at me, standing in the back yard, her face still red from where my father had struck her.

Whatever. It wasn’t my problem anymore.

I pulled out my phone and texted Carter. In California. It’s warm here.

Snowing here, he responded. Hope everything’s going okay so far.

Well, JP hadn’t stopped the car and told me to get out, so it was going better than I had expected. I didn’t respond to Carter’s text, though. There was too much history involved, too many years of complicated family dynamics for me to be able to explain to him what was going on.

A few minutes went by in silence. Then I said, “Do you know if my dad’s going to be there?”

JP snorted. “You don’t know?” We had been speaking English, but he switched into Tagalog abruptly, and said, “You don’t even know where your own father is? He left. He’s gone. Six months after you.” He shook his head. “Shameful. You just walked away, and left us all behind. Your mom needed you. And so did your grandma, and now she’s dead, and you never called her, not once.”

I slumped down in my seat. My grandmother, the last time I saw her, told me I was a useless whore, that I would never amount to anything, and that if I treated myself like trash, everyone else would too. All because she had caught me kissing my boyfriend in the front seat of his car after he brought me home from a date. Never mind the fact that kissing was all we ever did. I tried so hard to be good that I never even let him take off my shirt.

My grandmother wouldn’t have wanted me to call her. And so I never did.

But I knew better than to speak ill of the dead.

We drove the rest of the way in silence, broken only by JP muttering angrily at other drivers. The highway was so barren and isolated that there was nothing to see, no landmarks, until he exited and started driving toward my mother’s house.

And then I was overwhelmed by familiar places: the Catholic church, the tire shop, the elementary school, the roads I knew like the back of my hand. I felt tears welling up in my eyes, and bit down hard on my lip to hold them back. It wasn’t that I was glad to be home. It wasn’t home anymore, and I had no happy memories associated with any of these places. But seeing everything so unchanged, as if I had just turned away for a few moments, gave me the disconcerting feeling that my old life was waiting to rise up and engulf me again. That I would never really be able to leave.

We turned onto my mother’s street, and JP slowly rolled to a stop in front of the house. I was born here, in the living room, because my father was too drunk to drive to the hospital, and my mother refused to call an ambulance until it was too late. She liked to point to the stain in the carpet that never quite came out and say, Here’s where my daughter made me suffer.

“Thanks for the ride,” I said.

JP grunted. “Tell your mom I’ll be back later, for the wake.”

I got out of the car and hauled my suitcase from the trunk. The wheels bumped noisily over the uneven sidewalk. The house looked just the way I remembered: the stunted avocado tree, the dog tied to the fence, the yard with a few clumps of grass struggling out of the packed dirt. When I opened the gate, the dog opened one eye and looked at me, but didn’t move. It was a new dog, one I didn’t recognize. I wondered what happened to the old one. She had only been a couple of years old when I left.

I stepped onto the porch.

The front door creaked open.

My mother stepped out, haloed by the lights in the living room.

I swallowed hard. I didn’t know what to say to her, or how. “Hi, mom.”

She looked me up and down. “So. You’re here.” She crossed her arms across her chest. She looked just the same, and despite the distance and the years, all the horrible things we’d said to each other, my crummy childhood, her refusal to leave my father, I wanted to hug her so badly that my arms ached with it.

I wanted her to say, My daughter, how I’ve missed you, and we would hug each other and cry, and everything would be forgiven.

But she just said, “You had better come inside,” and held the door for me to enter.

My grandmother died on Saturday; I had missed the first two days of the wake, but there were three more to go before the funeral. The house was filled with relatives and friends, smoking and playing mah jong, gossiping, eating the food my mother prepared. None of them had seen me in six years, and all of them were intensely curious about what I had been doing.

It was, basically, my worst nightmare.

“Regan, you live in New York?” my aunt asked. “What part? You don’t live in the Bronx, do you? I hear it’s very dangerous there.”

“She wouldn’t live in the Bronx, she’s not that stupid,” my other aunt said. “Tell her you don’t live in the Bronx, Regan.”

“I live in Brooklyn,” I said.

“See, Brooklyn! That’s a good place. With all of those hipsters.” My aunts nodded at each other wisely. “Timo, you know those hipsters?”

My cousin Timo exhaled a cloud of smoke and rolled his eyes. “Ma, you don’t know a thing about hipsters. They don’t exist east of Claremont.”

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