“Sienna tells me you recently moved back to town,” my mom said to Marlene.
“Yes we did. It’s good to be back home,” she replied, smiling warmly.
“I’m glad. What about you, Joseph, how has school been treating you?” Mom asked, taking a sip of her wine.
“Pretty well actually. My grades are mostly As and Bs,” he answered confidently.
“That’s excellent. What do you do outside of school?”
I grabbed a dish off the counter and began serving the food with my dad alongside me.
“Well, when I’m not studying, I’m just snapping photos of the world around me or spending time with your daughter... and Alex.”
“Remind me to show you my camera,” my dad chimed in.
Joseph nodded as I cringed with a bowl of greens in my hand. I was expecting my mother’s head to fly off at his statement, but it didn’t. Instead, she smiled and moved along in her line of questioning.
“You seem like a bright young man. Have you thought about college?”
“I’ve thought about it. But if I’m being honest, I’m not too keen on the idea.”
I immediately recognized the look on my mom’s face. It was the look that said, “You better have a reasonable explanation or I will tear you a new one.”
“Not too keen?” she asked in disbelief. “What do you plan on doing with your life?”
At that point I could have sworn Marlene had given my mother a death glare, but I didn’t want to acknowledge the growing tension in the room. Instead, I finished bringing the rest of the food to the table and then took my seat on the left side of my father.
“Maybe photography, but I’m using the time I have now to figure everything out.”
“Well,” my mother scoffed. “While you’re figuring things out, Sienna will be at Harvard.”
I was more than confident Marlene was glaring now, but her face slightly softened at the mention of Harvard. “My sister graduated from Harvard,” she said.
“Oh really, what does she do?” my mom asked, annoyance no longer lacing her voice.
“She’s an oncologist, but I’m more interested in Sienna. Honey, what do you see yourself doing? Anything you like to do?” she asked sincerely.
I knew my mom wanted me to go to Harvard, but I never knew why I’d ever want to go there personally. What did I want to do? I love to write, so I guessed I’d start there.
“Maybe creative writing if I had to choose right this second.”
“Well, you do need to choose. This is your last year in high school, and you have very little time before you set off into the real world,” my mom pushed.
Neither I nor Marlene acknowledged my mom’s comment. The other two men at the table just laughed, engrossed in a conversation of their own. Typical.
Her hazel eyes lit up with interest. “Do you like to write?”
“Oh, I love it,” I told her.
“You and me both, Sweetheart. I work for a cleaning business, but I blog in my free time. I’m not sure if you’ve heard of it, but I write for ‘Not So Average.’’”
“Not So Average?!” my mom shouted from across the table. And that was the first time she genuinely smiled tonight.
My dad and David moved off to the counter after they finished their meal to talk about the upcoming baseball game, which may sound odd, but thrilled me. They got on so well with each other and surprisingly, I could say the same about my mom and Marlene. Three glasses of wine later that is. They were sitting at the dining room table with their heads tilted back in laughter.
My dad soon called Joseph over to talk to him, and I used the alone time to eat. I was too nervous to do anything before. The acid in my stomach began eating away at my insides and it was not a fun feeling. Now that things were running smoothly, I could relax and enjoy the delicious meal my mother prepared. I took a seat on the far end of the dining room table and admired the sight before me.
Joseph and my dad shared a laugh or three. It wasn’t long before the two were looking over my dad’s camera. For a second I forgot that my dad minored in photography. Much like Joseph, he loved capturing the beauty of the moment in things around him.
One day we were out at the park and I watched as he tried to get the perfect shot of a bird perched on a low hanging branch. I told him to just snap the photo and he looked back at me as if I were sprouting a second head. He then went on to tell me: “Mija, photography isn’t as simple as clicking a button on your iPhone. It’s about skill. You have to be able to carefully balance ISO, HDR, aperture and exposure. It’s also about shutters, angles and lighting.”
Which I knew nothing about. But the fact that my father and he shared photography in common made me incredibly happy. Tonight couldn’t have gone any better. By the time I finished my third helping of food, Joseph was walking over to me with quite the grin on his face. I wiped my face with a napkin and greeted him.
“Hey. Your dad is kinda awesome.”
“Oh, I know,” I said, glancing at the man himself.
“Well, did you know he has a Nikon D850?? It’s literally the best DSLR, or in layman’s terms, digital single-lense reflex camera around right now,” Joseph said, placing his palms on the table. He leaned forward with excitement. “The speed and resolution is like top tier. It-it’s perfect. Don’t even get me started on its megapixel sensor, it —”
This was the first time Joseph had ever gotten so in depth when talking about cameras. Hearing him speak so fluidly and excitedly about this Nikon my father owned made my heart flutter. He looked so happy with his wide eyes and expression of a small child at Christmas time. I could have listened to him talk about each intricate detail of this camera all night, even if I didn’t understand a lot of it.
“I knew he had a Nikon. But I didn’t know nearly as much about it as I do now,” I told him.
“Well, I’m glad you learned a little something during Nikon 101, Miss Martinez. I’d hate to have ranted in vain,” he said, shaking his head in mock disappointment.
I chuckled, taking a sip of my water. This guy was the definition of charming. There was nothing I disliked about him; if anything, the more I got to know him the more intriguing he became. The more likable and even more of a person I wanted to be around.
“Anyway, how are you? I couldn’t help but notice the deafening silence over here,” he commented.
“With good food, my mouth will be too occupied chomping down to talk about anything. But what about you? Are you having a good time?” I asked him.
“Yeah, I am. A really good time. I can tell it might take a while for your mom to come around, but I’m not worried about it. I’m a very determined man,” he said, squaring his shoulders.
“Oh? Well, you and my dad have a few things in common then.” He chuckled in response. “Speaking of, what’d you guys talk about?”
“This and that.”
“Hm. Nothing in particular?”
“Nope!” he said, slapping the table.
“It seems to me like I’m not gonna get anything out of you.” I stood from the table, looking up at him with crossed arms.
“That’s correct. Besides, a little mystery isn’t so bad.”
Before I could reply, my dad swooped in. “How are you, Princess?” he asked, pecking my forehead.
“I’m good, Pa. What’s up?” I asked, wrapping one arm around his torso.
“You two can excuse yourselves if you’d like,” he told Joseph and I.
“Yes. Go have a night.”
“You’re the best.”
I placed a sweet kiss on my dad’s cheek before waving to Marlene, David, and my mom. They all gave me happy smiles in return. Joseph followed me from the kitchen and out the front door into the daring night.
“Ahhhh, I can finally breathe,” I announced to no one in particular as I sat on the top step of my porch.
Joseph took a seat next to me and did what I knew he’d been itching to do all night. I watched as he brought a hand to his head and waved it back and forth. He was now sitting much more relaxed, hair mussed and legs outstretched. It took him no effort to look good.
“I almost started sweating during the whole college thing,” he said. “Honestly, I never planned on going.”
“Is ‘I don’t want to’ a fair answer?”
I exhaled a sharp breath. “Yeah, more than fair. And that’s okay. You don’t necessarily need a degree to be successful.”
“My parents never really pushed the idea on me. I did that all on my own. They said they’ll support me in whatever I wanna do, but I don’t even know what that is yet... and I’ve always felt the need to know, to act fast before I fall behind everyone else.”
Hearing this, I turned to Joseph, giving him my undivided attention. He was confident when it came to most things, so seeing him so anxious about his life after high school worried me.
“If it helps, I don’t actually know what I want to do either. Back inside, I was just trying to keep my mom quiet.” I sighed, rubbing my hands together. “But what I’ll tell you honestly is that you shouldn’t worry about falling behind anyone. Their goals aren’t yours, so don’t try to reach them. And there are lots of people who don’t start college fresh out of high school. You have plenty of time to decide what path you wanna take.”
When Joseph finally looked at me, his face was unreadable, but I knew a few things must’ve been running through his mind with the way his hand never stopped fidgeting.
“Thanks, Mariposa. I can’t say I ever thought about it that way,” he said, a ghost of a smile on his lips.
“You’re welcome... and I’m sorry about my mom being so relentless. I’m just glad she and Marlene eventually found common ground.”
“Yeah, for sure. Hopefully, it’s only up from there. And hey, I’m proud of you for not letting your mom run over you tonight. I could tell she was pushing you.”
“Thank you, she always does,” I whispered the last part to myself.
“Speaking of moms, I’m sure mine just sent me a text.” Joseph’s phone dinged and he pulled it from his pocket. “Yup. She says the wine is great that she’s made plans with your mom for brunch next week. Guess that’ll give em a chance to start over.” He laughed reading the message on his phone.
“Brunch is the ultimate mom bonding date. What about the news on the dad front?” I asked, beaming.
“Solid,” he affirmed.
I stared down at my feet that were digging into the cement below them, avoiding Joseph’s face when I uttered the next phrase. “Maybe you should come around more often.”
“Sounds to me like someone is getting attached.”
I felt my heart sink six feet into my stomach. God, that was embarrassing. But I enjoyed his company more than a lot of things these days.
“You’re right. I mean, we already see each other every day in school,” I muttered, dropping my head.
He scooted closer to me, lowering his head to peek at me through the curtain of hair that now covered my face.
“Hey, hey, I was just teasing you. I really enjoy being around you and spending time with you... but instead of conveying how I feel how a normal person would, I say stupid things.”
“It’s fine. You don’t have to lie to make me feel better.”
“I would never lie to you. About anything, okay?” Joseph moved to the step in front of me and kneeled down to meet my eye level. “Listen. We have the night, right? Allow me to rectify my mistake and take you somewhere fun.”
Just hearing that he enjoyed spending time with me was enough to make my smile reappear. But I tried to play it down. With Joseph, I didn’t have any regrets so far, especially since the night at the cliff. I’d be a fool to pass up another night with him.
“... where will we go?” I asked, brushing the hair from my face as I sat up straight. His lips quirked up and the butterflies began a frenzy in the pit of my stomach. The effect his smile had on me was dangerous.
“A snazzy little lounge not too far from here. There’s music, fantastic food, and a great atmosphere.”
I giggled at him. “You sound like a Yelp review.”
“Welp, that’s where I read the review for this place, so let’s go!” he cheered, standing to his full height of about six feet. I used my dad as a reference, who was about 6′3″, and myself, five-foot-nine.
I shook my head. “God, you are so corny.”
“And you like it, seen as you haven’t rejected me yet.”
Before we got into the car, I told Joseph that I needed to run inside. I quickly and carefully hurried up the stairs to grab my clutch. There was no way I was letting him pay for another full meal of mine.
I let out a tiny squeak of excitement that only I could hear, enjoying the wind in my hair as we passed street signs. Our evening destination was indeed a snazzy, yet modern lounge. There were warm lights hung up high on the ash gray walls that gave the place a youthful, yet sophisticated feel. The aroma of fruity drinks combined with salty french fries filled my nose and I sighed happily. Yelp really came through for us.
I admired the bodies swaying on the dance floor as Joseph led the way to a long polished cedar bar. We sat and spent a few minutes looking over the menus until an exotic-looking guy around his mid twenties came over to greet us.
His fern-colored eyes formed the shapes of crescent moons when he smiled. He had long black hair that covered his forehead and the light of the bar made his brown skin sparkle. He was no Joseph, but nonetheless he was an attractive man.
“I’m Sean, and welcome to the Tavern. I’ll be waiting on you tonight. What can I start you off with?” he asked, attention solely on me.
If I’m not mistaken, when I lifted my eyes from the menu, I saw him peering down the length of my body, stopping at the asymmetrical slit on the dress clinging tightly to my flesh. A chill of uneasiness ran down my body.
Maybe I was reading the situation wrong. Maybe he wasn’t staring at me, but some girl behind me. Whatever the case, I didn’t like the feeling that washed over me when I caught the predatory glint in his eyes. In that moment, the man became a lot less attractive.
“I’ll take an iced tea and a large order of fries,” Joseph said.
“And for you, Miss?”
“Uh, can I have the virgin strawberry daiquiri?” I read off the menu pretending as if I were looking for another item just so I wouldn’t have to look directly at him.
“You sure can, beautiful.” And with a wink, he walked off to prepare our drinks.
Joseph craned his neck toward me. “I think our waiter was just flirting with you.”
I scoffed, dismissing his notion with a shake of my head. “No way was he flirting. I think it’s required of most staff to be polite to their customers.”
“He called you beautiful and winked at you. Don’t think that stuff’s in the employee handbook,” he said, scrunching up his nose. If it weren’t for the tinge of playfulness in his voice, I’d say Sean annoyed him.
Rolling my eyes, I ignored his statement and rerouted the conversation. “This place is super poppin.”
Joseph’s cheeks rose high as a sputtering laugh overtook him. The sound produced the same effect on me as his smile; it had bursts of joy ping-ponging in my stomach. Danger. “Oh no, did you just say super poppin?"
“I sure did,” I replied.
He shook his head, smiling. “Well I am proud of myself and I’m glad you’re enjoying yourself.”
“All thanks to you. I really can’t wait to try those fries though. It smells amazing in here.”
“I’m with you on that one.”
A moment later, Sean returned with Joseph’s Iced tea. “Be right back with the daiquiri.” He held his gaze much longer than he needed to, but I physically shook it off and turned my focus back to the guy that mattered.
“An arcade would make this place so much better,” Joseph commented randomly.
“Realistically, I don’t think an arcade would fit in a lounge like this. It’s more of an... arcade kind of thing,” I said, fighting a grin.
“What about Dave and Buster’s?” he asked.
“Dave and Buster’s isn’t a lounge. It’s a casual restaurant in which it’s arcade and games fit perfectly,” I said, with a sure nod.
“Why can’t this be Dave and Buster’s?” he asked with a frown.
“Because it’s not,” I said, playfully flicking his forehead. His lips drooped even more, and I couldn’t help but laugh at his childlike display. “Hm. Where’s the nearest Dave and Buster’s? Maybe we can —”
I stopped mid-sentence when I caught sight of my drink finally arriving. It stood tall on a silver tray skillfully balanced in our waiter’s hand. My mouth watered at the sight. It looked deliciously beautiful and I was excited to try it.
“Here’s the strawberry daiquiri for the lady... who I bet tastes just as sweet herself.” He licked his lips and I recoiled in disgust, mentally cursing myself for being so wide-eyed. He was flirting with me earlier, but this time around he was much more suggestive.
Joseph refused to tolerate it.