The sun dipped beneath the lower Manhattan cityscape, casting a spray of rose into sunlight peering between two brick buildings. That was the location of an asphalt public basketball court, between these brick structures with a smattering of graffiti on the corner of one and "Uptown Funk" streaming out the window of the other. A couple pigeons perched on the chain link fence to watch several teens pass and shoot a basketball.
"Pass it!" Alondra shouted with her arms raised. She caught the basketball and dribbled it between her tactical boots. Her long black waves curled at the ends. Some was tangled in one of her gold hoop earrings. She blew a strand out of her mouth and shot the ball. It swished through the net.
"Sweet!" Max leaned down to slap her butt. She pivoted around and punched his arm.
"Are you kidding me?" she snapped.
He grimaced and rubbed the sore area. He was small, with his hair in short dark spikes. "Come on," he implored as he spread his arms open. "You could do worse than this."
"You," she pointed at him, "are like my little brother. That makes it creepy."
"And your cologne reeks, by the way," Danielle Palazzo added as she dribbled the ball in place.
"That's not what your mama said," he rammed his shoulder into hers, knocking the fedora from her fiery hair, and dribbled the ball across the court.
"That was a foul!" Danielle cried after him.
"Full contact, remember?" Alondra smiled and side-skipped across the court as Max shot the ball. It swished through the net. Jordan Gewirtz leapt to catch it and swung it with one arm across the court.
She yelped and dodged the ball as it came toward her, but recovered and started to dribble it before Alondra and Max crossed the court. She picked it back up and shot it toward the hoop. It bounced twice on the rim before dropping to the ground.
"We win!" Alondra punched the air with both fists and gave Max a double high five as he skipped by, scattering a flock of pigeons. "Good game. But I gotta get home and do an essay for tomorrow."
"Yeah, same," Jordan ran a hand over his textured black curls. "Same time tomorrow?"
"Sure," answered Alondra.
"Yup," Max said.
"All right," Danielle agreed. "But we should leave earlier. My mom's already gonna be mad."
By this time, the sun lowered enough to cast shadows around them, and the periwinkle skies were touched with pink.
Alondra picked up her red backpack and slung it over one shoulder. She waved to her companions and started down the street. Car horns blared and fire engine sirens wailed down the street. Blackbirds skipped down the sidewalk beside her. She spun around, threw up a hand, and waved as a cab approached. The driver swerved aside. She opened the door and climbed inside with her backpack.
The cab veered back onto the street between cars. Alondra reached into the smallest pocket of her backpack and picked out a foil square. She unwrapped it and popped the square of fruit gum into her mouth. It soothed her to chew it, and she loved the scent it released.
Streetlights flickered on as the sky dimmed. Alondra stared out the window, leaning her elbow on the sill and her chin on her palm. People bustled up and down the streets, in and out of apartments, dining outside restaurants on patios, and walking their dogs. Some piled black plastic bags in trash cans.
"You usually out this late by yourself?" the cab driver asked.
"Yeah, pretty often."
A teenage boy shot past them on a skateboard. Alondra rolled her eyes when she saw that it was Max. She pulled a book out of her backpack and opened it, but the evening was too dim. She shoved it back and pulled the zipper to close it. The cab driver steered right to go west, and she furrowed her brow.
"Excuse me. Why—?"
"Road work. We're gonna take the Brooklyn Bridge. No extra charge."
The Brooklyn Bridge sparkled with lights when the cab entered it with a stream of other vehicles. The dimpled East River shimmered with their turquoise glow.
"Easy place to get lost in a sea of faces."
"But I won't," Alondra assured him. "So, where you from?"
"India, originally. But I have been living and working in Manhattan about twenty years. Amazing city. My wife and I met when she worked in the Twin Towers, and I would drive her to work. Thank God she was home on that day when our twins were born…"
Alondra eased back in her seat and listened to his story, staring out the window at the brick structures and traffic and people.
Eventually, when they had traveled a long stretch of 278, Alondra had to interrupt him:
"Excuse me. Take a left up here."
"Sure thing," he steered when she directed. She quickly gave her address so he could conclude his story: "Both the twins do very well in school. My boy does well with the sports, and my girl does well with the grades. But both are well rounded individuals. This is the street?"
She looked out the window. "Yup. That brick place right up there."
She pointed straight ahead and to the right. He steered to the edge of the street.
"Thanks so much," she pulled several bills out of her pocket and placed them in his open hand. "See you around sometime."
She swung her backpack over her shoulder and slammed the door. Her building was a tall red brick structure with about five steps up to the door and a wrought iron rail. She trotted up the stairs and reached into her pocket for her keys. She unlocked the door and pushed it open.
To her surprise, the room was lit. The main room had reclaimed chestnut wood floors and alternating exposed brick walls and buttermilk painted drywall. There was a sapphire blue couch to the right ahead of a flat screen television on a stand. To the left was a round table surrounded by antique wooden chairs. Around the corner was the kitchen. Straight ahead was a sort of square hall that led to two bedrooms and a bathroom. Downstairs in a basement area were the laundry utilities.
A muscular sandy blond man emerged into the hall out of his bedroom and stopped short. "What are you doing here?"
Alondra scowled when she closed the door behind her. "Hello to you, too, Stephen. Monica stayed home sick from school, so I couldn't spend the night. Is Mom home?"
Stephen ran his hands over his hair. A couple of scratches lined his arms to the elbow. "She went out to run some errands. Should be back soon."
"All right. What's up with your arms?"
He looked down at the scratches. "I tried to pet that stupid cat of yours."
"Told you she hates that," Alondra crossed the living area to the hall and opened the door to her right. She dropped her backpack to one side and reached out to pet the long haired tortoiseshell cat seated on her crimson bedding. "Hi, Lorelei."
She pulled a couple of textbooks out of her backpack, retrieved her laptop from her desk, and reclined on her bed. She had a two page essay to write, and she could easily nail it within the hour.
When she was done, she checked the time. Her mother had not arrived, and Stephen was no cook. She craned her head toward the door and hollered, "Yo, Stephen! I'm ordering a pizza!"
No answer. She set her studies aside and made her way to the door.
"Stephen," she called. He appeared at once in the hall from his room.
"What?" he demanded.
"I'm ordering a pizza. What do you want? Pepperoni? Or sausage?"
"Yeah, sure. Pepperoni."
"All right," she retreated back to her room to make the call.
When the doorbell buzzed, she eagerly trotted to the door with the delivery man's payment in hand, shouting, "Pizza's here!"
She opened the door and exchanged the money for the pizza with a "thanks" and made her way to the kitchen table with the box. Stephen came out of the hall in his tee shirt and pajama pants. He reached into the cabinet for a plate and dropped two slices onto it.
"So how's your day?" Alondra asked as she reached for two slices of her own. She opened the fridge and picked out a Pepsi."
"Good. I'm worried about Mom."
"She's fine. She should be home soon."
Alondra carried her plate to the table and drew back a chair to sit. "Where did she go, anyway?"
"To pick up some milk, bread, essentials."
She chewed and swallowed with a curious scowl. It has been a while. She looked over at her stepfather. "Did you stay home today?"
He nodded. "Called in sick. Headache."
The conversation ended as both ate their pizza. When Stephen rose to set his plate in the sink, Alondra pulled her phone out of her pocket to send a text message to her mom: 'Home soon?' She then shoved the phone back into her pocket as Stephen shuffled back to the room he shared with his wife and ate the rest of her meal in silence.
She checked the clock. She had been home over an hour and a half. Her mother was a relatively fast shopper. That is, at least, when it came to practical needs such as groceries and not clothes or something fun. And she rarely didn't respond to a text message.
There was something uneasy in the pit of Alondra's stomach. This was unusual for her mother. Perhaps her car broke down. Maybe she got mugged and her phone was stolen. It could be that everything was fine, but in case it wasn't, better to find out sooner than later.
"Stephen," she called as she stood up with her empty plate. She carried it to the counter and set it beside the sink. Then she ventured into the hall. "Stephen?"
She could hear him moving around the room. He emerged into the hall about a minute later.
"Which store did Mom go to?"
"I don't know. Why?"
"Because I want to go over there and check on her. She usually goes to that market on the corner or the Trader Joe's on Court Street. We should drive over and make sure she didn't get stuck."
Stephen crossed his arms and sighed. "Tell ya what. If she is still gone in two hours, we'll go."
"Deal," Alondra opened the door to her room and disappeared.
During the agreed upon two hours, she could hear the other bedroom door open and her stepdad creep down the hall. She could her him at the entrance to their apartment as he opened the door and closed it behind him.
She rolled onto her side and smiled when Lorelei touched her cold wet nose to hers. Sirens wailed and red and blue lights flashed around her room. Horns blared and a man shouted at someone else. It was rather cool in her room, so she heaped the covers over her shoulder.
The door opened and closed again. She almost started to wonder if he went out to search for her mother on his own until that point. She squinted at her alarm clock. She had fifteen more minutes to wait until they would go out and look together.
When the time came, she threw back the covers and swung her legs over the edge of her bed. She shoved her feet into a pair of flip flops nearby and opened her door to the illuminated hall and living area. Stephen was at the kitchen sink washing dishes.
"What were you doing?" she asked as she meandered around the hall corner into the kitchen.
"Couldn't sleep," he answered as he scrubbed a sponge against a plate.
"But where'd you go?" she pressed.
He gestured vaguely to the trash can. "Forgot to take the trash out."
He seemed gone awhile. She dragged a chair away from the table and sat down. "Well?"
"Well, what?" he asked brusquely.
"Well, you agreed we could look for Mom after two hours."
"Right, I forgot," Stephen rinsed the plate and set it in the drying rack. How could he have forgotten their deal already? He rinsed and dried his hands, then came to the table. He pointed his damp index finger on a note. "Check that out. I saw it under the table. Must have blown off when we set down the pizza boxes."
Alondra pulled the note closer. Her mother certainly wrote it, judging by the handwriting. It read:
I cannot do this anymore. You have made our marriage unbearable. You suffocated me. I am leaving as soon as my paycheck comes in the mail. I hate that it has come to this, but I have no other option. Please, get yourself straightened out so you can find happiness in the future.
Alondra could hear her own heartbeat. Her vision swam. Her blood ran cold.
"No," she muttered as she read. "No way."
"Sorry," Stephen said drily as he resumed doing the dishes.
Alondra searched her recent memories. Lisa always confided in her about how Stephen would get
irritated by her returning home late after work, even when it was because she stopped at the store. He was critical about the meals she made. Alondra could hear arguments in their room about money while she did homework in the evenings.
The kicker was when he lost his temper about some man at the restaurant who dropped a pickup line that Lisa did not reject.
"He gave me a compliment," she assured Stephen. "It's not like I was going to drop everything and run away with him. He said something nice and I thanked him. That was all."
"You could have told him you were married, but you didn't!" Stephen screamed back at her.
Alondra was used to the arguments. She knew their marriage wasn't the prime example of what a relationship should be. Lisa mentioned to her that she would like to leave, and promised to give her a warning at least two days in advance so she could pack up what she owned.
"She would not leave me," Alondra murmured before she could stop the words.
"But she did," Stephen answered. "Sorry, but that is her writing."
It was. That was her handwriting.
"Get back to sleep," Stephen startled her. "You have school tomorrow."
Who cared about school? Alondra picked up the note and stormed down the hall to her room and slammed the door. She opened the drawer on her bedside table and dropped it in and slammed it closed. She threw herself across her bed, and Lorelei leapt down in case her person could land on her.
There were two options: either her mother abandoned her, or someone did something bad to her. Her mother definitely wrote that note, but she promised Alondra that she would give her notice before leaving so she could pack her things. Could she have snapped and just left? There was nothing Alondra could think of that would have caused such a reaction.
She stared at her ceiling with tears dripping down her temples until sunlight sprayed across the room.