Love and Other Words – Chapter 4

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Friday, October 11

Fifteen years ago…

The entire Petropoulos family was in their front yard when we pulled up in a moving van two months later. The van was only half-full because Dad and I had both thought at the rental counter that we’d have more to bring with us. But in the end, we’d bought only enough furniture from the consignment store to have somewhere to sleep, eat, and read, and not much else.

Dad called it “furniture kindling.” I didn’t get it.

Maybe I would have if I’d let myself think about it for a few seconds, but the only thought I had during the entire ninety-minute drive was that we were going to a house that Mom had never seen. Yes, she wanted us to do this, but she hadn’t actually picked it out, she hadn’t seen it. There was something so horribly sour about that reality. Dad still drove his rumbling old green Volvo. We still lived in the same house on Rose Street. Every piece of furniture inside had been there when Mom was alive. I had new clothes, but I always felt a little like Mom picked them out through some divine intervention when we shopped, because Dad had a way of bringing me the biggest, baggiest things, and invariably some sympathetic saleswoman would swoop in with an armload of more suitable clothing and a reassurance that, yes, this is what all the girls are wearing now, and, no, don’t worry, Mr. Sorensen.

Climbing from the van, I straightened my shirt over the waistband of my shorts and stared up at the crew now assembling on our gravelly driveway. I spotted Elliot first—the familiar face in the crowd. But around him were three other boys, and two smiling parents.

The vision of the bursting-at-the-seams family there, waiting to help, only magnified the ache clawing its way up my throat from my chest.

The man—so clearly Elliot’s father, with the thick black hair and telltale nose—jogged forward, reaching to shake Dad’s hand. He was shorter than Dad by only a couple of inches, a rarity.

“Nick Petropoulos,” he said, turning to shake my hand next. “You must be Macy.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Call me Nick.”

“Okay, Mr. . . . Nick.” I had never in my life imagined calling a parent by their first name.

With a laugh, he looked back to Dad. “Thought you could use a hand unloading all this.”

Dad smiled and spoke with his trademark simplicity: “That’s nice of you. Thanks.”

“Also thought my boys could use some exercise so they don’t wallop each other all day.” Mr. Nick extended a thick, hairy arm and pointed. “Over there you’ll see my wife, Dina. My boys: Nick Jr., George, Andreas, and Elliot.”

Three strapping guys—and Elliot—stood at the base of our front steps, watching us. I was guessing they were all around fifteen to seventeen, save Elliot, who was so physically different from his brothers that I wasn’t sure how old he was. Their mother, Dina, was formidable—tall and curvy, but with a smile that brought deep, friendly dimples to her cheeks. Other than Elliot—who was the stick-figure version of his father—all of her sons looked just like her. Sleepyeyed, dimpled, tall.

Cute.

Dad’s arm came around my shoulders, pulling me close. I wondered if it was a protective gesture or if he, too, was feeling how listless our tiny family seemed in comparison.

“I didn’t realize you had four sons. I think Macy already met Elliot?” Dad looked down to me for confirmation.

In my peripheral vision, I could see Elliot shifting on his feet in discomfort. I gave him a sly grin. “Yeah,” I said, adding in my best who does this? tone: “He was reading in my closet.”

Mr. Nick waved this away. “The day of the open house, I know, I know. I’ll be honest, that kid loves a book, and that closet was his favorite spot. His buddy Tucker used to come here on the weekends, but he’s gone now.” Looking to Dad, he added, “The family up and moved to Cincinnati. Wine country to Ohio? The shits, right? But don’t worry, Macy. Won’t happen again.” With a smile, he followed Dad’s stoic march up the steps. “We’ve lived right next door the past seventeen years. Been in this house a thousand times.” A stair creaked beneath his work boot, and he toed it with a frown. “That one’s always been a problem.”

Even at my age I saw what this did to Dad’s posture. He was an easygoing metro guy, but Mr. Nick’s casual familiarity with the property immediately pushed some macho rigidity into his spine.

“I can fix that,” Dad said, voice uncharacteristically deep as he leaned on the creaky step. Eager to reassure me that every tiny problem would be corrected, he added quietly, “I’m not wild about the front door, either, but that’s easy enough to replace. And anything else you see, tell me. I want it to be perfect.”

“Dad,” I said, nudging him gently, “it’s already perfect. Okay?”

While the Petropoulos boys wandered down to the moving truck, Dad fumbled with his keys, finding the right one on a ring heavy with keys for other doors, for our other life seventy-three miles away from here.

“I’m not sure what we’ll need for the kitchen,” Dad mumbled to me. “And there’s probably some renovations to come . . .”

He looked at me with an unsure smile and propped the front door open. I was still evaluating the wide porch that wrapped around to the side, hiding some unknown view of the thick trees beyond the side yard. My mind had drifted to goblins and tromping through the woods looking for arrowheads. Maybe a boy would kiss me in those woods someday.

Maybe it would be one of the Petropoulos boys.

My skin flamed with a blush that I hid by ducking my head and letting my hair fall forward. To date, my only crush had been Jason Lee in seventh grade. After having known each other since kindergarten, we’d danced stiffly to one song at the Spring Fling and then awkwardly burst apart, never to speak again. Apparently I was fine on a friend level with nearly everyone, but add in some mild romantic chemistry and I turned into a spastic robot.

We created an efficient line of arms passing boxes, and quickly emptied the truck, leaving the furniture to the bigger bodies. Elliot and I each grabbed a box labeled Macy to carry upstairs. I followed him down the long hallway and into the bright emptiness of my bedroom.

“You can just put that in the corner,” I said. “And thanks.”

He looked over at me, nodding as he set the box down. “Are these books?”

“Yeah.”

With a tiny look toward me to make sure it was okay, Elliot lifted the flap on the box and peered inside. He pulled out the book on top. Pay It Forward.

“You’ve read this?” he asked dubiously.

I nodded and took the beloved book from him and placed it on the empty shelf just inside the closet.

“It’s good,” he said.

Surprised, I looked up at him, asking, “You read it, too?”

He nodded, saying unselfconsciously, “It made me cry.”

Reaching in, he grabbed another book and dragged a finger across the cover. “This one’s good, too.” His large eyes blinked up at me. “You have good taste.”

I stared at him. “You read a lot.”

“Usually a book a day.”

My eyes went wide. “Are you serious?”

He shrugged. “People come to the Russian River on vacation and a lot of times they leave their holiday reads here when they go. The library gets a ton, and I have a deal with Sue down there: I get first crack at the new donations as long as I pick them up on Monday and bring them back on Wednesday.” He nudged his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “One time, she got six new books in from a family that was visiting for the week, and I read them all.”

“You read them all in three days?” I asked. “That’s insane.”

Elliot frowned, narrowing his eyes. “You think I’m lying?”

“I don’t think you’re lying. How old are you?”

“Fourteen, last week.”

“You look younger.” “Thanks,” he said flatly. “I was going for that.” He blew his breath out, puffing his hair off his forehead.

A laugh burst free of my throat. “I didn’t mean it like that.”

“How old are you?” he asked.

“Thirteen. My birthday is March eighteenth.”

He nudged his glasses up. “You’re in eighth grade?”

“Yeah. You?”

Elliot nodded. “Same.” He looked around the empty space, surveying. “What do your parents do? They work in the city?”

I shook my head, chewing my lip. Without realizing it, I had really enjoyed talking to someone who didn’t know that I was motherless, hadn’t seen me broken and raw after I lost her. “My dad owns a company in Berkeley that imports and sells handmade ceramics and art and stuff.” I didn’t add that it all started when he began importing his father’s beautiful pottery and it sold like crazy.

“Cool. What about your—”

“What do your parents do?”

He narrowed his eyes at my outburst but answered anyway. “My mom works part-time in the tasting room at Toad Hollow. My dad is the town dentist . . .”

The town dentist. The one dentist? I guess I hadn’t realized how small Healdsburg was until he said that. In Berkeley, there were three dentists’ offices on my four-block walk to school.

“But he only works three days a week, and you can probably tell he doesn’t like to stay still. He does everything around town,” Elliot said. “Helps at the farmers’ market. Helps with operations at a few wineries.”

“Yeah, wine’s a big deal around here, isn’t it?” I realized as he spoke about it how many wineries we passed on the drive here.

“Wine: it’s what’s for dinner,” Elliot said with a laugh.

And there, right there in that second, it felt like we had something easy.

I hadn’t had easy in three years. I had friends who stopped knowing how to talk to me, or got tired of me being mopey, or were so focused on boys that we no longer had anything in common.

But then he ruined it: “Are your parents divorced?”

I sucked in a breath, oddly offended. “No.”

He tilted his head and watched me, unspeaking. He didn’t need to point out that both times I’d visited this town, I’d come without a mother.

I released my breath what felt like an hour later. “My mom died three years ago.”

This truth reverberated around the room, and I knew my admission irrevocably changed something between us. The simple things I was no longer: his new neighbor, a girl, potentially interesting, also potentially uninteresting. Now I was a girl who had been permanently damaged by life. I was someone to be handled carefully.

His eyes had gone wide behind his thick lenses. “Seriously?”

I nodded.

Did I wish I hadn’t told him? A little. What was the point of a weekend retreat if I couldn’t actually retreat from the one truth that seemed to stall my heartbeat every few minutes?

He looked down at his feet, toyed with a stray thread on his shorts. “I don’t know what I would do.”

“I still don’t know what to do.” He fell quiet. I never knew how to reel a conversation back after the Dead Mother topic. And which was worse: having it with a relative stranger like this, or having it back home with someone who had known me my entire life and no longer knew how to speak to me without false brightness or syrupy sympathy?

“What’s your favorite word?”

Startled, I looked up at him, unsure I’d heard him right. “My favorite word?”

He nodded, slipping his glasses up his nose with a quick, practiced scrunch of his face that made him look angry and then surprised within a single second. “You have seven boxes of books up here. A wild guess tells me you like words.”

I suppose I had never thought about having a favorite word, but now that he asked, I kind of liked the idea. I let my eyes lose focus as I thought.

Ranunculus,” I said after a moment.

“What?”

“Ranunculus. It’s a kind of flower. It’s such a weird word but the flowers are so pretty, I like how unexpected that is.”

They were my Mom’s favorite, I didn’t say.

“That’s a pretty girly answer.”

“Well, I am a girl.” He kept his eyes on his feet but I knew I wasn’t imagining the gleam of interest I’d seen when I said ranunculus. I bet he had expected me to say unicorn or daisy or vampire.

“What about you? What’s your favorite word? I bet it’s tungsten. Or, like, amphibian.

He quirked a smile, answering, “Regurgitate.”

Scrunching my nose, I stared at him. “That is a gross word.”

This made him smile even wider. “I like the hard consonant sounds in it. It kinda sounds like exactly what it means.”

“An onomatopoeia?”

I half expected trumpets to blast revelatory music from an invisible speaker in the wall from the way Elliot stared at me, lips parted and glasses slowly sliding down his nose.

“Yeah,” he said.

“I’m not a complete idiot, you know. You don’t have to look so surprised that I know some big words.”

“I never thought you were an idiot,” he said quietly, looking toward the box and pulling out another book to hand to me.

For a long time after we returned to our slow, inefficient method of unpacking the books, I could feel him looking up and watching me, tiny flashes of stolen glances.

I pretended I didn’t notice.

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