Chuck remained in Tijuana for seven months, living in a rundown one-bedroom shack and working as a busboy at a restaurant. His wages paid for the rent, his food and little else. He spent his free time walking to the Pacific Ocean and sitting along the dunes, dreaming of his return to Emily, Ashley and Britney.
Stephanie bought him a phone and paid for his monthly service so he could interact with the girls every night. He face-timed them to catch up on their studies. He helped Britney finish her college essays. He debated, unsuccessfully, Ashley’s decision to seek a military education. And, he had long chats with Emily about the process of entering the country through perfectly legal channels. Emily, who remained in regular contact with Delando Rojas, actually knew more about the asylum process than Chuck did and served as his secondary legal counsel throughout his waiting period.
Every few weeks, he texted Pedro to check up on him and Mirabella. They lived in the hotel, supported by Mr. Casteneda, who Mirabella now affectionately called Alejandro. Mirabella worked regular hours at the store and covered the front desk for Miguel as he attended the technical institute. Riko Grande’s death triggered a sell-off of the hardware store and liquidation of all its assets for 10% of market value. With Chuck’s 40,000 pesos and a sponsorship investment from Alejandro, Pedro and Mirabella bought the deed to their burned-out property. Pedro, Octavio and Alejandro worked together on off-days to rebuild the home from its ashes. They even added an expansive woodworking studio and showroom for Pedro’s prospective business.
The months passed. Chuck lived a spartan existence and stayed far away from trouble. He couldn’t help feeling pangs of jealousy when Pedro texted him about Mirabella’s dinners with Alejandro, or their trips to the market together, or their free days spent at the beach along the Caribbean coast.
“Is she falling for him?” Chuck texted.
“Sí,” Pedro replied. “He is good and caring to her. She need someone good in her life.”
For Stephanie, the months without Chuck were less harrowing than that first four weeks. She worked at the elementary school as a long-term substitute teacher for one of the staff that left for maternity leave. Her salary kept them afloat. Her parents helped out with a generous college loan. They wrote a contract for her to pay them back, but they all knew they’d never hold her to it.
Chuck’s ability to reach the family by phone took the edge out of his absence and allowed the girls to interact with him every night. They shared stories of their schoolwork, their grades, their activities and sports. Chuck helped Britney finish her essays and consoled Ashley after she broke up with frat boy, Scott, to focus on her high school friends and teammates.
ALIAS Legal tried to help him for the first few months, but had other, more desperate cases to prioritize. Stephanie shopped for lawyers, asking friends and family members for advice as to a good immigration specialist to engage. Emily suggested she reach out to attorney Beckman.
“I don’t know what happened with him,” she said. “I know there was something; some reason why you parted ways with him. I don’t want to know. But Daddy needs the best lawyer we can find. And, that’s Mr. Beckman.”
Senator Sanchez engaged Ed Ylbitzky to write the feature story she originally promised him and allowed him to quote her as praising Chuck for his determination to return to the country following legal protocols. Ed’s article featured an elaborate account of Chuck’s nightmarish experience, told by Stephanie, the doting wife. Pictures of their three sweet all-American teenaged girls graced the top of the article, which hit the AP Newswire, went national and attracted the attention of both the local and network news programs.
With the building momentum on their side, the Senator also won her Freedom Of Information request and received nearly a terabyte of data on a hard drive. Her team, working in conjunction with Rupert, found no evidence of documentation proving the arresting officer in Chuck’s case had asked the requisite questions about concern for his safety. They also found a manifest that proved Chuck was not granted a full 24-hours before being shipped out of the country. And, on those two tenuous grounds, Rupert was able to bring Chuck to the court of appeals in San Antonio to argue his case before a trio of judges, two of which had close personal ties to the Senator.
On the basis that he would have to initiate the process of seeking citizenship, Judge McGiverney started her verdict. The rest of her words sounded like blurred noise as Stephanie could barely process the information. But, when the gavel fell and Chuck’s case was declared expunged, the girls clamored loudly down the aisle to hug their father. They nearly knocked him off his feet right in front of the witness stand. Stephanie hugged Rupert tightly as Chuck embraced his daughters. Then she let go and joined her family in their joyous celebration of Chuck’s freedom.
Chuck and Stephanie tried to make a good-faith run at their marriage. But they just couldn’t make it work. They lasted two years, long enough to see Britney go to UT and Ashley follow-through on her aspiration to attend Texas A&M for a military career. Emily sensed the distance between them from the moment Chuck returned from the courthouse. She tried to help them connect. She made them romantic dinners. She walked with them at the local park. She helped Chuck buy anniversary and Valentine’s Day presents for his wife. And, she tried to promote all of Chuck’s best qualities to her mother.
But she knew the spark had gone. And, as hard as it was for her to accept, she ultimately felt her own glimmer of relief when Chuck finally moved out to his new apartment about a mile down the road.
She knew it would happen. She didn’t know when. But she expected it. When Stephanie finally sat her down and explained that she might like to see Rupert Beckman socially, Emily forced a smile through her disappointment in the way the situation worked out. As much as she had to expend effort to show her support, deep down, she understood that Mr. Beckman was the better companion for her mother at this point in her life. And, as much as she wanted to resent him, even deeper down, she admired and liked him.
In the end, her desire for her mother to find happiness, outweighed her sadness at the divorce of her parents.
Chuck sat at his kitchen table by the door to his apartment. A fraction the size of his four-bedroom house in Pleasanton, the two-bedroom condo still dwarfed the shed he called home in Tijuana for seven months.
He thought of Mirabella and wondered whether she had moved in with Alejandro or if he had moved into her home with her. Maybe they married, he thought. She probably loved him with all her heart by now. As much as he learned to live alone, he couldn’t help wishing he stayed in the breathtakingly beautiful Reynosa, maybe taken his chance with the slim Mexican beauty that treated him so kindly.
Dressed in dark jeans and a stylish paisley button-down shirt, he waited anxiously for Emily’s Sunday afternoon visit. He cherished their long lunches together and their thoughtful discussions about political and social injustice. She also helped him study the basics of American history and government structure for his citizenship exams.
During their time together, Emily vented about her mother’s budding romance with Mr. Beckman. But she ultimately agreed with her father, calling them “right for each other”.
Emily had taken a special pre-college internship in Senator Sanchez’s office. She worked on their computer systems, made copies, filed memos and briefs and occasionally helped write campaign e-mails, brochures, press releases and blogs. While she only worked a few days a week after school, she proved the most adept on the staff at managing the social media presence. With close ties to the university, Senator Sanchez vowed to help Emily reach her goal of attending Georgetown to study Political Science. Emily did her part by continuing to score all A’s in her high school classes, maintaining a steady path toward valedictorian.
The loud knock on his door sent shudders through his body, reminding him of that fateful day several years earlier. Emily, dressed in khaki shorts and a thin white sweater over a grey cotton shirt, greeted him with a tight hug.
“Where are we eating today?” Chuck asked. “And what is this surprise you called me about that caused me to have to dress up so nice?”
“I made a reservation for two at Manny’s,” she said. “They have the most authentic empanada’s in all of Texas and amazing guacamole too.”
Chuck continued to pepper his daughter as she drove him into the center of town by all the fancy restaurants.
“Are we meeting someone?” he asked. “Did you set me up on a blind date or something?”
Lying to Chuck was never a skill Emily exhibited. Sure enough, sitting in the gazebo, in a cute mid-length skirt and soft, fluffy pink sweater was a woman about a dozen years younger than Chuck. Chuck allowed a smile to cross his face at the attractiveness of the date Emily picked out for him.
“I told her you knew about this,” Emily whispered to her father as they crossed the green toward the gazebo. “Don’t blow it.”
“Of course you did,” Chuck laughed.
“Be nice to her,” Emily continued. “Her boyfriend broke up with her a couple months ago. He took a job at a major newspaper in Dallas and just dumped her.”
Chuck’s date crossed the walk to meet them with her hand extended.
“Carlos Dominguez,” Emily proudly introduced her father. “This is the head librarian at my old school, Miss., er, uh.”
“Jennifer Singer,” she said with a smile that reminded Chuck of the Reynosa sunrise and made him feel about as warm. “Great to meet you.”
Chuck remained silent for a brief second. His past seemed to melt in his mind. Emily nodded, said something and stepped away.
“Apparently we have reservations at Manny’s on South Street,” Chuck said. “My clever daughter set us up pretty nicely.”
“Yes, I’ve read about Manny’s,” Jennifer said, flashing a sun-beamed smile. “I’ve wanted to go there for a while. The food looks amazing. I heard they have the best empanadas.”
“So, I’ve heard as well,” Chuck said, placing his arm lightly along the small of her back as they crossed the town green in the glow of the mid-day sun. “I’m glad to hear that you like Mexican.”
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