Maybe this is why people kill themselves?
My whole life can be contained in a backpack. It makes me laugh. I have four days before I’m kicked out of this apartment, I have about—
A sharp knock on my window scares the shit out of me. Mateo stares back from the other side, and then he slides the window open and points his finger at me. “You know what?”
“What?” I growl. I’m so annoyed at him for interrupting my thoughts.
“Fuck you. Fuck you, Shannon. You don’t get to fucking wallow in pity and call me a bulldozer.”
“No. I’m not even in, so I’m not getting out. I’m sticking around. How about that? You’re not gonna get rid of me that easy. And you know what else? I paid your fucking rent. Now what are you gonna do?”
“I’ve lived in this neighborhood most of my life. You don’t think I know who owns this building? So you can’t just leave. You’re paid up for six months.”
“What the fuck are you doing?”
“I’m saving you, bitch.”
I almost crack a smile.
“OK?” he says. “I’m fucking saving you whether you want it or not.” He holds up a brown paper bag with a receipt stapled to it. “And I brought lasagna. So try to say no to that. I dare you.”
“No, dammit. No. I’m good for you. I’m good. For. You. And I totally understand what you’re saying. You need space, you need to make your own way. You need all the things I got when I was your age. But you can still do that and be my girlfriend. It’s not a zero-sum game, Shannon. Life isn’t all or nothing, it’s something in between. So here,” he says, holding the lasagna bag out. “I know you’re hungry, so I brought you dinner. You don’t have to come over, you don’t have to let me in, hell, you don’t even have to talk to me. But I’m still here. I’m always gonna be here.” He balances the bag on the window sill. “I’ll just be across the street.”
And then he turns away and walks through my gate, slamming it behind him.
I sit there for a few moments, stunned. But then the smell of lasagna wafts in and my stomach grumbles so loud, and so forcefully, I get up and grab the bag. When I do, I look out onto the patio and see a candle on the little table.
What the fuck?
I take the bag and go out into the living room, staring at the little flickering flame through the slider. What did he do now?
I walk through the door and smile.
It’s set up like an Italian restaurant. Red-checked tablecloth, menu, silverware, plate, and next to the candle is a little mechanical pencil. I sit down, rip the receipt off the bag, and unfold it to reveal a full sheet of paper. Two actually. I hold it near the dim candlelight so I can read it.
It’s a list of fucking trig problems. With a puzzle on the back side that I am supposed to solve. The second sheet is a blank piece of paper that says, Show your work.
“Jesus Christ,” I say. But I say it with a smile.
I work the problems as I eat, and by the time I’m done, I have the message.
I like you, it says. Keep going.
He said that to me back when we first met. It was a way to let me know that what we were doing was real and I shouldn’t be scared.
We’re still real, is what his message really says.
I flip the second piece of paper over. I only used one side to solve the problems, so I make my own code for him to solve. My problems are stupid and easy. Two plus two and three times five kind of stuff. But the problems don’t need to be hard for him to get the message.
I need more than the answer. I need the process.
When I’m done, I walk across the street and find him sitting on his porch, waiting for me. We don’t say a word. I just open the screen door an inch, slip the paper between it and the doorjamb, and then walk back the way I came.
I can hear his chuckle just as I slip through the gate into the apartments that are not mine. And I smile all the way past the pool, out into the alley, back into my own patio, and through my sliding door.
The next morning when I wake up and look out on the patio, the table has been cleared of the Italian restaurant, and there sits another bag and a cup of coffee. I rip the receipt off and open it up.
Another problem. Much harder to solve than yesterday’s.
I look inside the bag. Donuts.
I work as I eat and the message at the end is…
I’ll be back on Tuesday.
He left for Arizona. I’m happy he left. We need to find ourselves right now. Find our places in this world. He worked hard for his PhD and he deserves to move forward. We both deserve to move forward because we passed a milestone in our lives, and now we’re about to start something new.
I hold Olivia in my arms as we sit in the judge’s chambers. She’s so big now. And she’s turning one next week. She looks so much like Jill with her blonde hair and blue eyes, I want to cry sometimes.
“So the test came back,” I say, picking up our conversation. I’ve been coming to see this judge for almost six months. We meet once a week with Olivia in my arms just like this. “Jason’s not the father.”
“I see,” Judge Otero says. “That was smart, Shannon. No one contested it until you thought to ask for paternity.”
“Yeah, well, his parents weren’t getting her. No way. They didn’t do such a great job with him. What makes them think they’d do any better with her?”
Judge Otero smiles. “The past can certainly dictate the future. But not always.”
“I just don’t like them.”
“Me either.” He laughs.
“I’ll be nineteen in a couple months. I think I can handle it now, Judge.” Olivia does not live with me yet. I had to prove myself and she’s been staying with foster parents. But I see her every day. I want to make sure she knows she belongs with me. “I have a good job designing websites. Have you seen the new Alesci’s Anaheim delivery page?”
“I have,” he says. “My wife and I used it last night. I’m impressed, Shannon. You’ve worked hard. You took parenting classes and CPR. You started your own business, got your license and bought a car.”
“Mateo bought the car, Judge. I can’t take credit for that.” Mateo and I have not talked in person since the night he came to my window, but we’ve sent each other hundreds of messages via codes. If he’s in town, we send messages twice a day sometimes.
Judge Otero smiles. “It’s a nice car. I wish I had one just like it.”
The car was the first present Mateo gave me and it’s brand new. Best safety features on the market, was the message in that night’s code.
“Have you talked to Danny?”
I nod. “Yeah, he stayed with me a couple of weekends ago when he came home from school for a visit. We went out and had dinner and stuff.”
“No regrets there?”
“No.” I laugh. We’ve had many, many long talks about Danny. He did go to jail the same night I did, but he was never charged either. “Just a friend. A very good friend.”
“I like him. He’s worked hard to change his life as well. And I’m glad he and his sister got away from that family.”