“Mami! Pa! Come down, there’s a couple of people I want you to see!”
Joseph deposited his backpack by the door and stepped out of his shoes. Alex and I followed suit and waited for the arrival of his parents. Leaning in, Joseph whispered a few words of encouragement as if sensing my nerves.
“My mom and dad are super friendly, no te preocupes.” (Don’t worry.)
That’s when I saw a beautiful woman glide down the long spiraling wooden staircase. Joseph’s mother. He inherited her brilliant eyes that widened when she caught sight of Alex and me. Her dark brown hair, which was done into a side braid, flew as she ran over and pulled Alex into a hug.
“Hi Marlene!” Alex exclaimed, returning the hug with vigor. “David, it’s good to see you too.”
I pivoted my head in the direction of the tall man that had followed behind Marlene on the stairs. His dark hair was slicked back neatly and he was dressed in black jeans and a casual grey button-down. Joseph’s father.
“Now, who is this?” David asked his son while looking at me.
“Yes. Don’t be rude, Emmanuel. Introduce us.”
Joseph rubbed the back of his neck before turning to me. “I’m sorry, this is Sienna.”
I extended my hand for a shake, but instead I was pulled into a very welcoming hug.
“Oh!” I yelped in surprise.
“It’s so nice to meet you, Sienna,” Joseph’s mother sang.
“Hi... it’s a pleasure Mr. and Mrs. —”
I discreetly nudged Joseph with my hip trying to get his attention. He never told me his last name and I started to panic. Hell, I didn’t think I’d be meeting anyone’s parents today. Thankfully he caught my gaze. In a hushed whisper, told me it was Vasquez.
“Excuse me, Mr. and Mrs. Vasquez.”
“Please, you can call me Marlene,” Joseph’s mother told me with a reassuring smile.
“So, how long have you known Emmanuel?”
“Mami, por favor...” (Mom, please.) Joseph groaned.
She laughed briefly. “I’m so used to calling him by his middle name.”
“I think that’s adorable,” I said, grinning at Joseph before turning my attention back to his mother.
“But we actually met today. We’re in the same English class.”
“Que bueno!” (How nice!) she said excitedly, to her husband. “I’m glad he’s already made a friend, and such a pretty one she is!”
“Right. Talk about me as if I’m not standing just a few feet away,” Joseph said.
“Cálmate. (Calm down.) We’re just happy to see that you aren’t closing yourself off, especially after —”
“We don’t have to go there,” he interjected.
Marlene made a motion of sealing her lips and throwing away an imaginary key before her bright smile reappeared on her rosy lips. I wondered what that was about.
“If it’s alright, we’re gonna head upstairs now,” Joseph said. “Before my mom smothers us both,” he whispered the last part to me.
“Come on, Emmanuel. She isn’t so bad,” I whispered back.
“It was lovely meeting you both.”
Joseph was already halfway up the stairs and I quickly followed behind, but he suddenly stopped, looking down below where Alex hadn’t spoken a peep since the introduction.
Reaching into the vase at the top of the staircase, he plucked a pink tulip from the water and hurled it in Alex’s direction. It hit her square in the forehead.
“Hey!! I almost dropped my phone!!”
“Emmanuel! No toques mis flores!!!” (Emmanuel! Don’t touch my flowers!!!)
Alex and Marlene both shouted at Joseph.
“I’m sorry, Ma,” he apologized in the dearest of voices to his mother, before doing a 180 on Alex.
“It serves you right for paying more attention to your phone than the people around you, let’s go!”
When he turned around to face me I gave him an incredulous look. “Seriously? You threw a flower at her??”
He shrugged nonchalantly. “It was the closest thing in my reach.”
“That’s not the point, Joseph.”
“Then tell me Sienna... why do you have such a feisty look on your face?”
“Olvídalo,” (Forget it.) I said, rolling my eyes.
“Let’s head up then,” he said with a mocking grin.
Although Alex had been behind Joseph and me on the stairs, she was the first in his room and made herself at home on his bed with a huge flop. She did this almost every time she came over my house, so I couldn’t say I was surprised.
What did surprise me though, was entering Joseph’s room myself. I was shocked. Not that I had a preconceived opinion about what a teenage boy’s room looked like, which I totally did. But it was mainly because Joseph was dressed from head to toe in black, while his room was the color of an unclouded sky, a deep cerulean blue and all around, were clusters of photos.
Screaming and popping off of the walls were postcards detailed with vibrant sunsets, while the rest of the hangings were made up of maps, newspaper clippings and tons more photos of what looked like popular tourist attractions. Photographer. Maybe this is one of the many layers Alex told me he had.
One photo that caught my eye in particular was a candid shot of him standing in front of the one and only gorgeous Eiffel Tower with his arm draped around an equally gorgeous girl. They looked so happy.
“As always, Lex has made herself comfy,” Joseph said in mock annoyance, bringing me back from the land of the lost.
“It’s something you get used to, haha.”
“I’d tell you to sit on the edge of the bed, but you may get karate kicked off, so you can settle over in my desk chair if you’d like,” he said, nodding across the room.
“Yeah, sure, thank you.”
I took one last look at Alex on the bed before seating myself at the desk.
“No problem. I’ll be right back, okay?”
Alex had quickly fallen asleep, meaning I couldn’t talk to her, so I made myself useful and went over my paper while Joseph ran out. Writing was the easy part. I had finished that within a couple hours at home, but I only had about three days until I needed to present to the class and I had no idea how I’d do it.
“I see you’ve started without me,”
Joseph reappeared, pulling up a chair beside me at his desk. I didn’t even realize he’d come back already.
“Just giving everything a look over, although I’m sure it’s perfect. Well, not perfect, but I’ve been writing for a while so I know a thing or two about constructing a good paper,” I told him with a confident shrug.
“You know, in grade five I actually wrote my first- I’m sorry... I’m rambling.”
“Don’t be. I see you’re pretty passionate about writing and I like that you aren’t afraid to talk about it.”
“Yeah. I mean, I’ve been writing since I was able to string words together and make a sentence on my own.”
I chuckled to myself remembering how eager I’d be to get home from school everyday in 5th grade and write in my glittery notebook. Little creative stories were my favorite. As I got older, writing became more of an outlet for my emotions. Whether I was happy, sad, or angry that would be expressed in a poem or entry in my journal.
“That’s awesome. It makes me even more excited to read your paper. Bet it’s one hell of a story.”
I sat anxiously tapping my foot as Joseph took his time going over my work.
“So, what do you think?”
“Well, there’s no doubt in my mind that you’ll get an A. Your paper is great, and it’s got a real personal touch. It honestly feels like I know you a little better.”
I knew he was just being nice, but hearing him speak about my writing like that made me feel really good.
“Thank you, Joseph. That really means a lot to me,” I said, dipping my head, hoping my cheeks weren’t turning rosy.
“All we have to do now is shake you loose of those nerves,” he said, assertively clapping his hands together.
“How do you suppose we do that?”
Joseph scooted a bit closer and gave me a pensive look as if he were analyzing my every tick. “Well, you seem tense.”
I instantly straightened my back.
“How about you do the opposite of that,” he said, pointing out my posture. “Just close your eyes and let your shoulders fall.”
I did as he told me and closed my eyes, letting them adjust to the darkness.
“Breathe in slowly. Then breathe out...”
His voice was low and gentle and had a rasp to it. I could have listened to him instructing me through breathing exercises all day.
“And open. Better?” he asked, holding a thumbs up.
“See, the key is to just relax. Don’t think too much about the presentation or the grade you might get on it. Just talk. Talk to me.”
“Okay,” I said, letting out a breath. Setting my paper back on the desk, I turned to Joseph and began delivering my presentation.
“Books have always intrigued me. To me, one of the greatest adventures is being able to dive into the story of someone else’s life, and the best part is that you can never be too sure of what to expect.”
Joseph raised his hand as if we were in a classroom, and I stopped.
“Can I say something?”
“Of course, anything you think will help.”
“Okay, well, I could barely hear what you were saying and it’s a shame because what you’ve written is good. The class won’t know that because you’re whispering.”
“I’m not even surprised you said that. Once I had to repeat my order to the cashier at McDonald’s three times.”
He chuckled. “Wow, that’s both sad and funny.”
“Yeah, I know,” I said, tucking a lock of hair behind my ear.
“Oh, and one more thing. Make sure you pause when you need to, ’cause right now you sound a bit too rehearsed.”
“Breathe, project, and pause. Got it.”
I ran through the beginning of my presentation a few more times. Apparently it was enough for Joseph to be able to mouth my words as I spoke them.
“The sixth time is definitely a charm, Sienna,” he said, smiling to himself.
I silently cheered.
“You seem more confident than you were at the start, which you should be!”
“All thanks to you, Mr. Vasquez.” Our hands met in an enthusiastic high-five. “So... how would you say American Literature has impacted your life?”
Joseph looked at me, a smirk growing slowly on his face. “Well, what I wrote in my paper is that books allow me to get away from the madness of the real world. Sometimes they inspire me to create my own.”
My eyebrows shot up in surprise. “You write?”
“Nah, just a lot of daydreaming.”
We shared a small laugh to ourselves as we tidied up his desk.
“But I’ll admit, the real world hasn’t been so bad as of late.”
The way he looked at me made me wonder what he meant exactly, but we had just met after all. I didn’t want to read too much into his words. Overthinking never did me any good. Maybe being at Ridgeway and reuniting with Alex was a nice change for him.
“On another note, I can’t believe Alex has slept this entire time.”
I shrugged. “Eh, probably used all of her energy scrolling through Instagram.”
“Tragic.” I followed Joseph’s eyes that traveled over to the bed where Alex lay a mess, limbs sprawled about.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if that were the real reason she passed out. But what I am surprised at is how long I’ve managed to go without food. Are you hungry at all?”
The look of genuine concern on his face was the purest thing I’d ever witnessed. I couldn’t help but smile.
“I could definitely eat,” I replied.
“Alright, let’s go empty the kitchen.”
Joseph and I made ourselves a couple of sandwiches. I don’t know if it was the hunger, but a sandwich never tasted so good. There was a hefty pile of salami, provolone cheese, and crispy Portuguese bread sitting in my stomach. I let out a satisfied sigh and tossed my napkin. When I looked over at Joseph, he’d already been staring at me.
“What? D-do I have mayo on my face?” My hands flew to my mouth and wiped frantically.
“No, no, you just eat more than I expected.”
“I don’t really know how to take that,” I said, cocking my head to the side.
“I don’t mean to offend you in any way. I’m saying I’m just glad you enjoy your food and aren’t afraid to eat in front of me.”
I gave him a quizzical look. “Who’d be afraid of eating in front of other people?”
“You’d be surprised,” Joseph said, crossing his arms over his chest.
“Well, maybe I’m just comfortable around you,” I said, tipping my head up at him.
“Are you really?” he asked, seemingly shocked by my reply.
“Yeah, I guess I am. Which is surprising for me, considering I’m embarrassingly shy if you hadn’t noticed.”
“You think it’s embarrassing, but I think it’s sorta cute.”
I scoffed. “A major difference it must be from the blonde and brassy little things that come your way, yeah?”
What the hell was I saying? I didn’t know anything about him or the kind of girls he might’ve been interested in... and it’s not like I cared about the latter.
“Are you stereotyping me?” He clutched his heart, feigning hurt.
I shrugged. “Ehh.”
“I thought you were a sweet girl.”
I rolled my eyes. “I am sweet and I’ve tried opening up, but it’s hard sometimes.”
“Hm. Sounds like a challenge,” he said, shoving his hands into the pockets of his jeans.
“Seems to me that you need a little courage.”
“I have courage.”
Hands still in his pockets, he walked toward me. “When I look at you, yo veo una mariposa (I see a butterfly) but she’s currently still trapped in her chrysalis.”
His eyes quickly scanned the length of my body and suddenly my camisole and jeans felt all too thin.
I knit my brows. “Okay?”
“Which means I’m going to bust you out of it!”
“I think the lack of food in your system is making you loopy,” I said, lightly jabbing the side of his head with my index finger. I then stepped back, placing my hands on the counter behind me.
“I’ve had plenty to eat.”
“Oh yeah? And how much did you have in between the time you were staring me down?”
Where my sudden boldness came from, I don’t know. He looked at me in disbelief, but quickly recomposed his cool exterior.
“What can I say? You look much more appetizing than a pile of cold cuts.”
I should have known he’d have a quick witted comeback. With a flick of my wrist I waved him off and speed-walked out of the kitchen, not stopping until I reached his bedroom. I didn’t have to be present to see the self-righteous grin that was etched on his face.
In Joseph’s room, Alex was still passed out, but I heard my phone going off. I sped over to the desk to find fourteen missed calls and thirty six messages from my mother. The most recent messages, frightening.