One week. That’s all that was left of my youth, and the only thought on my mind as I opened the window of my room to breathe in the fresh morning air was my desire to capitalize on my last week of freedom. The warmth of the sun on my face brought a smile to it as I surveyed the stretch of yard that separated our house from the neighboring one. My smile disappeared suddenly when I spied Alex sniffing the neck of his scantily clad girlfriend next door by his shiny black car. Alright, fine, her look wasn’t all that terrible. She matched a yellow tank with a pair of tiny denim shorts. It was kind of cute, actually, with a red plaid shirt tied around her waist and white chucks on her feet.
I spent two solid months spying on them canoodling, so I was used to the sight at that point. Besides, it wasn’t so out of Alex’s character to bring pretty girls in and out of his home. Well, his parents’ home, anyway. Ever since his voice deepened, his track and cross country training started to shape a sturdier form on his height, he learned the objective of hair gel, and his face began to sprout hair to match the brown on his head, he’s been quite the attraction for girls and boys alike. I thought he was mostly irritating for recognizing that fact and using it to his advantage.
That might’ve been the cause of our distance, actually, besides the fact that he left for college. I always seemed to be trailing after him, a year younger, finishing my senior year with a 3.9 GPA next to his 4.0, and a year later, set to attend the same school as him. None of it was done purposely, it was just some warped trend I couldn’t seem to escape.
To be honest, though, I wasn’t sure why he chose that particular college when he decided journalism would be his area of study. The school is most known for its med program, the reason why I chose to pledge the next several years of my life to it. If anything, he was the one at fault for turning me into a shadow.
“Reagan! Reeeeaa!” came the cry of one 15-year-old brother, due to be dramatic in a few seconds time. “It’s been 84 years.”
I tore my eyes away from Alex and his girlfriend, giggling at each other, and made my way downstairs.
“Yes?” I answered Nathaniel once I stepped into the kitchen to join him and our middle school sister, Ana, eating breakfast at the counter.
“Do you see it?” he asked me.
“The grey in my hair, waiting for you,” he finished. I responded with a side eye. “Grandpa’s been calling you. He actually does have greys from waiting for you.”
I wanted to follow Nathaniel’s dramatics with something clever, but that one was probably true.
“What were you doing, anyways?” he continued.
“Probably spying on Alex and his girlfriend,” answered Ana.
I turned to glare at her.
“Could you not be a part of Nathaniel’s theatrics, please?
“Am I right or am I right?” she replied.
I cleared my throat, reaching for a grape from one of her bowls, “You are correct,” I answered, popping the blueberry into my mouth.
“Yeah, she’s pretty hot,” Nathaniel chimed in. “I stare too.” Ana and I both turned to eye him. “What?” he said. “True story. Why do you think Alex is with some girl who can’t tell what kind of Asian we are?”
“Our last name is pretty standard,” I defended Alex’s girlfriend.
“She doesn’t know our last name,” he challenged me back, “but apparently she knows Japanese and starts talking to all elderly Asian men, like Grandpa, in the one Asian language she knows.”
“Please don’t be that person who gets easily offended by the ignorance of others,” I countered.
“Yeah,” followed Ana, “you don’t see us going all ape when you fail to yield to the standards of the human race, alien.”
Nathaniel glowered at Ana as I went in for a high five and left the two to banter.
Doing life with Nathaniel and Ana had always come easy to me. We grew up isolated from both sides of the family, and all we ever had was us. When we moved into our house, I was 4, Nathaniel 2, and Ana had just been born. With Dad a successful surgeon, Mom spent a good portion of her life raising us and attending to my grandparents, her in-laws. I watched as she loved my grandmother through an ugly battle with Alzheimer’s, and once again when she helped my grandfather mourn the passing of his beloved. We learned the ways of our native culture through Mom and that of the American one through Dad, who had adopted the American way long ago. The scent of doctor on Dad was inescapable. He operated, pun intended, much the same at home as he did at work. What helped to ground him through the years, surprisingly, was the pastor from next door he befriended.
Pastor Mike Everett and his warm, beautiful wife, Camila, became good friends with my parents, and their five-year-old son and I became inseparable.
“Lay!” Grandpa exclaimed when I joined him in the family room. “Lay” was his pronunciation of “Rea.” Replacing R sounds with L sounds tended to happen with Asians who struggled with the unfamiliarity of the English language. Grandpa used to call me by my given name, the one he and Grandma gifted me, but one day, he transitioned over to Lay and never went back.
Not in English, he asked, “Where have you been?”
Though responding in Grandpa’s native tongue was always a stretch for me, I welcomed the practice, anyways. “Uhm,” I started, but didn’t feel like answering, “Just spying on Alex and his gf,” so I opted for, “I was just getting ready upstairs.”
“Are you sure you weren’t peering out your window at Alex and his girlfriend?” he asked.
Grandpa was as bad as Ana, as bad as Nathaniel.
“Please, Grandpa,” I responded, “what could that heathen do to attract my attention at this point in life? He was just being all hehehe with his girlfriend outside my window.”
“Sure,” Grandpa responded, unconvinced. “Tell him I miss him and that he should come over sometime.”
Grandpa and Alex always had this incredibly amusing relationship. Though the two of them could never communicate in each other’s languages, they understood each other, anyways.
“Well, considering I haven’t talked to him since the first half of this year, I don’t think that’s going to happen anytime soon, Grandpa,” I informed him.
“Fine,” he said. “Go water my garden.”
I laughed, and left the room to make for the backyard. Grandpa’s garden was about as important to him as Grandma and Mom. Cucumbers, tomatoes, and cilantro were not options for the house, they were the only choice. Ever since the beginning of time, I was tasked the special responsibility of watering his prized vegetation. As I sprayed the stretch of garden in the backyard next to the open wired fence, I wondered how any of it was going to survive with Nathaniel and Ana tending to it.
“I probably won’t see you again,” I said to the garden, shaking my head. “A week, that’s all you have at the hands of Nathaniel. Two, at the hands of Ana.” I stopped watering. “One more week with me, so I’ll do what I can.”
I finished my speech and left the backyard to retrieve the trash and recycling bins from the driveway. As I neared them, the screen door of the neighbors house creaked opened, and I found myself diving behind the two bins for cover. Squatting beside them, I positioned myself to peek through the gap between the brown and green bins at the people next door.
Alex and his girlfriend hugged his parents goodbye, and all I could make out was the gentle smile on Camila’s face. Alex’s mother maintained her youth as well as mine did. Her silky brown hair remained long and flowing, and the sharp but elegant features on her face complimented the hourglass figure of her body, snuggled in a darling summer dress. Alex borrowed many of his mother’s features, but he inherited the height of his father, who stood at a solid 6’2”. The greatest contrast between father and son was Alex’s brown hair next to his father’s dusty blonde curls that were starting to grey. They made for a beautiful family.
My eyes shifted to Alex’s girlfriend in her miniature shorts, who looked completely out of place next to the Everett’s. What wasn’t abnormal was the fact that a preacher’s son was in deep rebellion against everything taught him growing up. I laughed at the thought. As much as Alex tried to portray himself as some godlike creature above the crowd, he was right in it. Life is the choices we make, and Alex was always sure to make known to the world his.
Just as I thought my legs were going to give out on me, Alex and his girlfriend finally made their way to his car. They stored the last of their belongings into it and climbed in after, disappearing down the street moments later. I strained myself for a few seconds longer, waiting for Alex’s parents to close their front door behind them, and finally stood, stretching myself out like I usually do before a run, when feeling returned to my legs. When I turned around, I met the judgmental eyes of Nathaniel, Ana, and Grandpa.
Nathaniel shook his head disapprovingly while Ana blinked at me. Grandpa just stared.
“One more of week of this,” I smiled at them, grabbing for the bins. “Soak it up, family.”
I tried to heed my own advice, but I stood no chance against a week that moved all too swiftly, and before I knew it, I was standing in the driveway with Mom and Dad, Nathaniel, Ana, and Grandpa, saying my farewells. I warned Ana weeks before that she would need to soldier up for the moment of our parting, but as expected, she failed miserably. When my embrace reached her at the end of the line, she started to shudder.
“Calm down, weirdo,” I told her, tears stinging at my own eyes. “I’ll only be a few hours away.”
“What,” she cried, “do I,” she couldn’t control herself, “do,” she paused once more, “about,” and again, “the alien?”
I laughed with Mom and Dad, and turned to look at Nathaniel.
He gasped dramatically.
“Excuse me,” he countered. “What do I do about some emotional little girl? What happens when it’s your time of the month, you’re all moody and in your feelings, and Rea isn’t here to be a buffer for your abuse towards me?” Nathaniel jumped to hug me. “Don’t go!” he cried.
I chuckled and shook the both of them off of me.
“Love each other,” I told them. “And take care of Grandpa’s garden.”
And with that, I was off, watching their figures grow smaller in the rear view mirror of my car as I made for the university that I would call home for the next four years of my life, and then some. I passed through trees and beaches for hours before the campus came into view, a little past noon. It was everything I remembered from when Mom and I visited at the beginning of the year; grand and bustling with life.
I was a later arrival than most. I could tell many students had already situated themselves into housing and campus life, and I was only joining them to catch up. Though it unnerved me some, I didn’t regret the time I spent at home with my family, especially when they were the ones I would be apart from for the next four months.
To get me through the sometimes tumultuous teenage years, Mom used to always say, “Just wait until you make it to college. It’s an even playing field. You’ll find that everyone is their own person, including you.” I was ready to test that theory. So far, Mom’s theory felt right. The energy of the diverse students I passed, their faces, gleaming a contagious joy I was unfamiliar with but starting to radiate in my own smile, gave me hope for what the upcoming school year would look like—
“Umph.” I was in such wonderment observing the liveliness of campus life, I forgot to pay attention to where I was walking. “Sorr—” I started to apologize, but when I saw that it was the chest of Alex I had run into, I cleared my throat and straightened my posture.
“What are you doing here?” he asked me curtly.
“I go here.” I answered him casually.
“Since I submitted an app and received an acceptance letter informing me I could?”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Why didn’t you ask me?”
“You looked pretty occupied jumping behind trash cans trying to avoid me all summer.”
My mouth found itself open in pause at his acknowledgment of my crazy summer antics. Have you ever been caught red handed and the red somehow transferred itself onto your cheeks seeping its color deep into them to expose the depths of your embarrassment? That was me.
“You look like a dweeb,” he said, yanking at the straps of my backpack. “Fresh meat. If you’re not careful, you might not survive here, Rea.”
“Worry about yourself,” I shrugged his hands off my backpack. “I have every intention of dodging whatever perilous obstacles stand in my way.” I looked him up and down contemptuously.
He scoffed lightly, but didn’t offer a counter.
“Have a great semester,” I said to him before walking around him.
There are few people in the world whose wits match your own. Oftentimes, they’re your closest friends or your greatest enemies. I couldn’t figure out what Alex was to me, but at least he couldn’t figure out what I was to him either.
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